Brett Wilson: Finding Balance

One of Canada’s top investment bankers, a co-founder of FirstEnergy Capital Corp., and currently chairman of Canoe Financial and Prairie Merchant Corporation, Brett Wilson wears many titles and hats: philanthropist, television star and, more recently, author. The things that matter most to him these days, however, have less to do with the world of high finance, and have everything to do with family, health and friends.

A life-changing period in his 40s, facing a failing marriage and failing health, was enough to show him that there was more to life than working long hours, seven days a week. Redefining his personal definitions of success, he decided that if he was going to be able to con- sider himself successful, it was not going to be defined by his bank account, since the ones who were most important to him, his children, didn’t define success that way. He would need to rewrite his definition of success to put a focus on health, family and friends.

“It is very important once it is too late, and that’s when most of us discover this,” says Wilson, who was as personable, candid and polite during our interview as he was when assessing entrepreneurial pitches during his three seasons on CBC’s hit show Dragons’ Den. “I had the good fortune of finding out half-way down the path. I was in my early 40s, and realized, thanks to a failed marriage and a failing relationship with my children, that I wasn’t doing things that were completely in line with who I wanted to be.”

Changing the behaviours that are generally rewarded in the workforce, like working long hours and setting aside personal needs in pursuit of the next deal, is not easy though, and not everyone is ready, able or willing to take the type of steps that Wilson took to refocus his life.

“In the book I push people to think about their definition of success. If your definition of success is purely financial, then just stay at the office; if your definition of success involves your relationship as a father and friend, then think hard about whether you are advancing your own definition of success by sitting at the office working for yet another five minutes, because every business will absorb every minute that you have available for it.”

Deal making on Dragons’ Den

In the three seasons that Brett Wilson was a panelist on the CBC’s hit show Dragons’ Den, not only was he the most prolific deal maker on the panel, he set the record across all versions of the show for the number of deals struck.

“I had a lot of fun doing it,” says Wilson, who left the show after managing to navigate some 31 deals with entrepreneurs from across the country. “A handshake on that show, to me, meant that we would try to get a deal closed. I think some of the other Dragons, on our series and on other series around the world, would take a handshake as, ‘We did a deal on TV, but I don’t really care what happens from here, but if everything works out just right, I might do a deal with you,’” he says. “I didn’t treat it that way. I took it very seriously, and I made a lot of investments.”

Through those deals, he estimates that he has committed around $4.5 million, a figure that would likely result in a loss if he cashed in the investments today, “but let me have five years to keep working that portfolio and I think I will have a doubling of my investments,” he says.

Good hiring starts with a strategy

“When we were first getting going, like most small businesses, sometimes you hire the first person who is willing to work with you,” recalls Brett Wilson, who admits that the hiring process should be more comprehensive than that, and is proud of how little turnover his company Prairie Merchant has had over the years. “At seven or eight people, our president and I sat down and said, ‘What do we need to round out this team?’ We started then to be more strategic in how we added more people.”

For Wilson, bringing the right professional credentials to the table is a must in a potential hire, but that’s just a base upon which other skills much be layered. He looks for personality in terms of honesty and integrity, and an upbeat perspective on life. “Chemistry is pretty important. You don’t want someone who is going to be disruptive to the flow of the organization,” he says. “I don’t just look at the transcript. In fact, the transcript might be one of the last things that I look at. I am far more interested in the street smarts that these people have picked up since they’ve graduated.”

Starts, stops and fits

While he’s better known for his life in the financial world, Brett Wilson graduated from university as a civil engineer, and spent time working on projects in Canada’s north as an engineer with Esso. “I had a passion for science. I had no particular affinity for business at that time, so science and engineering took me,” he explains. “When I discovered the MBA, where you can combine an engineering degree – or any degree, really – with further education in business, it was really just a question of when, not if, I would do both degrees.”

Of course, the path to that road was not without a few difficult turns. “When I was working at Esso, I took their management aptitude test,” says Wilson. “What they basically said was ‘You are cut out to be a technical specialist with us, we are happy to have you, but you are going to be a technical specialist and that’s the size of the rung of the ladder that you’ll climb.’” Shortly thereafter, he took an opportunity to do an MBA, and he’s never looked back. “I started to focus on, and find my passion for, early-stage businesses and the application of entrepreneurial business skills.”

By Adam Freill