May 23, 2014 by Speakers' Spotlight
W. Brett Wilson is Friends with Ricky Gervais and Likes to Sit with Derby Fans
With a penchant for investing in people rather than projects, Former CBC TV “Dragon”, celebrated entrepreneur, and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson is proof that it’s possible to succeed in business without losing your principles. His stories about success, loss, and finding balance leave his audiences inspired to achieve even the loftiest of goals. Brett was recently profiled in the UK’s Daily Mail:
The man who owns a quarter of Derby County is talking at length about his plans for a comedy tour with Ricky Gervais, why he turned down the BBC’s request to appear on Dragons’ Den and the technicoloured poncho he wears while sitting with fans at matches.
He is responding to the suggestion that he may be something of a maverick.
‘It was actually the original working name of my book,’ says Canadian businessman W Brett Wilson.
‘The whole thought of being a maverick is trying to do things differently from the way they were done before.’
That extends to his dress code, which is usually on the casual side. ‘Early on at Derby, on one trip to Old Trafford, the pressure was put on me to smarten up so we went into a store near the stadium to buy a tie. Since then I’ve been a little less concerned. I throw on the jumper and have some fun.’
Wilson (the W stands for William) is a well-known figure in his homeland for his television appearances and charity work and he may be about to earn fame in England, with Derby one win away from the Barclays Premier League.
He will be at Wembley on Saturday and is promising to bring the pink-blue-red hoodie as he divides 90 minutes or more between fellow owners in the directors’ box and friends and fans in the stands.
‘I come over to one or two matches a year and I’ve always worn that sweater,’ he says. ‘I bought it for $22 in a market in rural Ecuador when I was backpacking a few years ago with my daughter. It is distinguishing.’ That was his attire while sitting next to a 92-year-old supporter during the 4-1 victory over Brighton which booked a play-off final place for Steve McClaren’s side. ‘He had been coming since he was eight,’ says Wilson, 56. ‘It’s staggering we would have that kind of fan. He was sharp and lucid and gave me very specific advice.’
Wilson, said by Forbes to be worth $1.5billion, is one of a clutch of investors from north America who bought Derby for around £50million in January 2008.
His shareholding stands at 25 per cent, a similar level to Tom Ricketts, who also owns the Chicago Cubs, and slightly more than Jeff Mallett, a Yahoo! founder with shares in the San Francisco Giants.
Together they leave the running of the club to chief executive Sam Rush. Wilson, who made his fortune in investment banking, remembers when the group took over with Paul Jewell at the helm and the team ‘getting kicked unceremoniously out of the Premier League with the worst record ever’.
He admits to making mistakes as the club struggled in the Championship — leading to supporters staging a protest over a perceived lack of investment. But he insists the error was in wasting money on the wrong players. ‘As a group we’ve invested over $100m,’ explains Wilson. ‘We ended up writing cheques that were triple our original investment to keep the team floating. Over the years we did nothing but buy high and sell low with the players.
‘The number of mistakes we made was almost universal. Sometimes people have thrown mud at the wall, accusing the American owners of not caring. I smile and say, “I’m Canadian”. And I care.’
Nigel Clough’s sacking led to McClaren’s arrival last September and his impact has Derby entering a match worth more than £120m in television money alone.
‘It wasn’t until a few days ago that I saw the numbers and went, “What?”’ admits Wilson. ‘I had no idea. It was double what I was expecting. It’s probably the richest game in sport in the world. It certainly doesn’t happen in the NFL, the NHL, the NBA. There is never so much on one game.’
Queens Park Rangers provide the opposition. Derby’s £7.1m losses are within the league’s Financial Fair Play regulations but QPR face a fine of around £50m if they gain promotion after losing £65.4m last season.
‘We’re out-walleted in payroll but the Football League has proven that money doesn’t necessarily buy you wins,’ says Wilson. ‘We think FFP is right for the league, the fans, the players, we think it’s good long-term, so we adhere to it. Others that haven’t should be willing to pay the price.’
His colourful character as much as his business acumen led to a three-season stint on Canada’s version of Dragons’ Den and he was offered a job by the Beeb. ‘But they wanted me to spend four or five days in Manchester at a week’s notice. My life is so booked up, dropping everything didn’t work.’
There was, however, a filmed date with Canadian TV personality Mary Zilba, from Real Housewives of Vancouver — ‘we built a wonderful friendship’ — and time as an ice hockey referee at university. His love for the sport has led to his ownership of NHL team Nashville Predators but football is his focus at Wembley.
However, the creator of loved British comedy The Office will not be there. ‘Ricky can’t make it,’ says Wilson. ‘I was presenting an award at an industry event and we met back stage. He and I have talked about the possibility of doing television together.’
‘It involved going out on the road and doing stand-up comedy. I would introduce him for 15 minutes and he would do an hour-and-a-half. He was shameless, he said: “You choking right in front of me? Nothing could be more fun”.’
Derby’s players cannot countenance choking on Saturday.