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Business Advice and a Q&A with W. Brett Wilson

Business Advice and a Q&A with W. Brett Wilson

Former “dragon” on Dragons’ Den, celebrated entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson pens a regular column in The Financial Post. What follows are Brett’s answers–from his recent column–to some of the questions he’s most frequently asked,  along with some questions Speakers’ Spotlight wanted to ask him, too:

Questions from Brett’s audiences and readers:

What’s my best business advice?

-Study marketing, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The incredible relevance of these courses merits mention. You cannot over-study these life enhancing courses at any stage in your career.

-While “good enough” usually isn’t good enough to always win, don’t be debilitated by the pursuit of perfection. “Perfect enough” will achieve acceptable success in almost every situation.

-Facilitate sharing and buy-in through frequent internal team meetings, covering everything relevant to your business  — awareness leads to engagement.

-Be organized — you can’t plan the future without paying attention to detail. From business plans and financial statements to regulatory filings — you cannot steer your ship without focusing on keeping the paperwork current.

-Create your definition of success and set your life priorities to achieve it. Passion without priorities is wasted.

What are my best Dragons’ Den deals?

-Hillberg & Berk was my first and one of the best. Rachel Mielke is focused, honest, creative, and driven — a great partner — and the deal is generating healthy financial returns.

-One of the best pitches ever, FROGBOX founder Doug Burgoyne wanted funds to expand his “plastic-instead-of-cardboard” moving-box company. With more than 20 franchises in the system, all is unfolding as it should.

-After telling Kevin O’Leary to “pound sand,” Bryan McCrea of 3Twenty Solutions Inc. convinced me that shipping containers could be readily, and profitably, re-purposed as remote housing camps. Sales are growing rapidly, markets are expanding, and profits are coming.  This might be the home-run deal of all deals from the Den.

Barb Stegemann of 7Virtues wanted capital and mentorship, choosing me as her sole partner after due diligence. The business, bringing essential oils for blending perfumes from war-torn regions of the world, is about empowering local suppliers to produce the oils (rather than contraband crops) needed for her unique “blended in Canada” perfumes. An exclusive distribution deal with The Bay was the launching platform.  Air Canada is now a key seller, too.

What were my worst investments?

-I paid $99,500 for a small home in northeast Calgary in May 1981. After the much-maligned National Energy Plan came into effect a year later, and in spite of untold hours and $20,000 in renovations, the upgraded home sold for less than $70,000 four years later. It was a great learning experience but a tough investment.

-A partner and I invested almost $3-million getting our first restaurant “perfect for downtown Calgary.” There were innumerable challenges with menu and management, which meant missing budget continuously. We wound this entity up within five years, with value in the tax losses and little more. I am invested in the next restaurant to go into the same space, and that — knock on wood — appears to be a home run.

-I was a co-founder of Merit Energy Company at pennies per share in the late ’90s. Rapid underfunded growth and management missteps took down this high-flying energy company, which once traded at $7 a share. Regrettably, Merit’s final days were resolved via lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement.

What are my favorite investments?

-As one of four co-founders of FirstEnergy Capital Corp. back in 1993, we started with just $2-million of equity capital. The business generated significant cash flow and billions in deal flow in the following 15 years.

-When PennWest Petroleum was reorganized in 1994, my original cost base was less than 20¢ a share; the stock has since traded in the mid-$20s and in spite of recent market trading — has been a great long-term hold.

-A partner and I took control of Meota Resources when it was worth less than $1-million. Ten years later, we sold the company for more than $300-million, but not before attracting a top-notch management team, growing the asset base, and issuing equity to the market.

-When Pacalta Resources was reorganized, my investment was at $1.25 a share. The company was sold in a spirited bidding war for $13.25 a share less than four years later — and the stock of the acquiring company more than tripled in the ensuing decade — another great long-term hold.

-After learning to trade electricity in the potentially lucrative Alberta power market, a partner and I bought a major interest in the H.R. Milner Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Grand Cache, Alta. A year later we rolled it into publicly traded Maxim Power in exchange for equity shares. We discovered that the coal-mining assets on lands that came with the power plant — once fully developed — will be worth considerably more than the entire company as it stands today.

-I have made a significant investment in farmland in Saskatchewan and real estate assets in Alberta and British Columbia. As these properties begin to bear fruit, they appear to be wise choices.

-As you can see the range of investments as to size and industry is large but the common element has been choosing the right partners.  When things go sideways — and they often do — it is the partnership that is tested the most.

Questions from Speakers’ Spotlight:

What inspired you to want to be a speaker?

I have always enjoyed the “microphone,” starting with running all sorts of events in the world of student politics.

Any advice for aspiring speakers?

I like to think I am simply answering questions that the audience is thinking.

What do you like to leave audiences with?

My talks cover a lot of ground―I always hope that one or two comments or stories will resonate with members of the audience for a long time to come.

How do you prepare before a talk? Any special rituals? A good luck talisman? 

I am always nervous before a talk―but nervous excited―not nervous scared.  No rituals whatsoever.

Any funny or embarrassing situations you found yourself in as a speaker?

I was once sharing the stage with President George Bush when I asked about the lack of leadership in America during the debt crisis of 2008. He started to answer―and then said “Wait a minute, I was the leader of America then,” with a laugh. The crowd roared―and I was given a chance to ask the question I MEANT to ask―about the lack of leadership in Corporate America during the debt crisis.

Is there a charitable cause that you feel passionate about? Why? 

I have supported hundreds of causes over the years.  I am very partial to supporting the causes of prostate cancer, eating disorders, and our military families.

If you had to choose a new career, what would it be?

I would love to be a concert promoter on a global scale―big acts, unusual venues―and solving the scalper issue  to get tickets at fair prices to all.

Desert island album?

Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell.

Best subject in school?

All science related courses.

Last book you read?

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Celebrity crush?

Charlize Theron gets the top three spots.

What is it like traveling so much? How do you relax? How do you stay healthy? 

I travel about half my life:  family, friends, work, whatever.  I am very comfortable getting around most major airports in North America (and quite a few elsewhere), so traveling isn’t stressful for me.  I try to enjoy a short (15 to 20 minutes) workout every day.

Is there another question you would like to answer that isn’t listed above? 

Yes! It’s “Do you really collect antique horse drawn carriages?  How many?”

Yes―and close to 150.