Calgary-based entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson is, by most traditional measures, very successful. A recent inductee into the Order of Canada, Wilson was co-founder of FirstEnergy Capital Corp., one of Canada’s most significant investment banking firms co-founded in 1993 in Calgary, AB. In 2007, on his 50th birthday, he left the firm in great shape—having participated in hundreds of financing and M&A projects now worth over $250 billion. Following his tenure as chairman and managing director, he stepped back from active duty in FirstEnergy.
His exit from FirstEnergy signifies Wilson’s completion of the second stage of entrepreneurship.
In my coaching practice, I’ve discovered that entrepreneurs evolve through three stages of growth to build a lasting legacy. The first stage of business is the startup. Startup is about survival: getting a footing in the world and then generating consistent cash flow. From there it can become a growth business worth something.
Entrepreneurs succeed at the second stage when they exit from management of a growing business with either substantial residual income, an IPO, a merger or acquisition or the sale of the business to staff, partners or family members. For many entrepreneurs, this is the crowning achievement of a life of commitment and innovation. For others, it’s only the start of a different kind of contribution.
A third stage enterprise is a legacy business. Few entrepreneurs succeed at growing a business; fewer still become icons and leave behind something of lasting value. The point of a legacy business is not to create cash flow or create wealth, although it may do very well at both of these. In Maslow-like thinking, it’s not about survival and it’s not about success. Or as Steve Jobs (perhaps the most accomplished third-stage entrepreneur) put it, “to make a dent in the universe.” It’s about significance.
Wilson is working on his third stage. Despite being a paragon of entrepreneurial success by many definitions—he has the money and the fame—he will tell you that he’s working on something much more significant than that.
At the peak of his second stage success, two significant events occurred that put him on the third-stage path.
First was his near death experience with prostate cancer at the age of 43. As a “cancer graduate,” as he likes to call it, he became a passionate advocate about its prevention, detection and transformative effect on the people it touches.
Second was a moment of anger towards his younger daughter when she told a caller he wasn’t home. Wilson was indeed at home, and the caller was from an auction house offering him a bid on a painting he desperately wanted. When he found out what happened, he was livid, and raged at his daughter about why she said he wasn’t home. She told him, “Because you never are.” This moment ripped at his heart, he says. Today, he says, he doesn’t miss the painting, but he sure enjoys the relationship he has re-created with his daughter.
These events led Wilson to develop a philosophy of redefining success: to look past fame and fortune towards focusing on his authentic priorities: health, family, friendships, learning, career and community—in that order. For Wilson, a new definition of success is not financial but relates to creating the time he needs to focus on these priorities.
As a former panelist on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Wilson is obviously well known as a television personality, but he is also very active in many charities and interesting business pursuits that involve supporting entrepreneurs looking to make a difference in the world. He is blending these various dimensions into being what he calls an entrepreneurial philanthropist.
Entrepreneurship and philanthropy are the yin and yang of Wilson’s third stage life. He wants to encourage successful entrepreneurs to contribute more of their resources to philanthropic causes, be it time, money or talents. Many people see philanthropy as an obligation and, ironically, they contribute less when they think this way. Wilson, instead views philanthropy as an opportunity. As more and more successful first and second stage entrepreneurs follow his lead, they will see tremendous opportunity in moving from a life of getting into a life of giving. That’s success redefined.
Is the hubris of his past life gone? He’d be the first to admit that it has not entirely; but that’s only the residue to be expected with a large second stage success. Developing a sense of the third stage is perhaps one of the best things a second stage entrepreneur can do to make a successful exit from that stage.
This column was originally published by Canadian Capital.
Keith Hanna’s experience as a coach spans over 15 years and includes helping entrepreneurs and growing companies identify and implement the changes needed to take their success to the next level. He is a partner in StepUp, a Calgary-based executive coaching firm.
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