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W. Brett Wilson: Homegrown entrepreneur

Everybody Has a Story
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Brett Wilson with his dad Bill. Both were at a Chamber of Top event recently where Brett talked about his hopes for success with a program called Planet Youth.

W. Brett Wilson, homegrown entrepreneur, was in the Battlefords last week for a number of speaking engagements. By far the largest was at the Civic Centre Monday where several hundred people, including more than 180 North West College students, gathered for a graduation ceremony.

Wilson was the keynote speaker at the graduation, and shared with the students his take on entrepreneurship and philanthropy. They are two things that are not separate in Wilson’s world.

He has been known to say, “In my world, giving and getting definitely go together, but philanthropic giving can be more rewarding than you might expect.”

In his address to the NWC grads, Wilson told tales of his Dragons’ Den days and laid out the three things he calls essences of empowerment that are important to everyone, not just entrepreneurs, if they want to achieve success. It’s all about planting seeds, he said.

In the audience was his father, one of Wilson’s two main mentors and role models. (The other is the late Senator Herb Sparrow).

His dad told the News-Optimist afterwards, his son’s address was “interesting for sure.”

He said, “I hadn’t heard him speak for a couple of years now.”

Brett Wilson grew up in North Battleford with two sisters, Shauna, who is still in North Battleford, and Shelley, who is now in Lloydminster. His dad was a car salesman and his mom, Doreen, was a social worker. They were both involved in the community.

Their son says, “As a kid, I had no idea they were community-minded. I just thought it was what every parent did, whether it was cooking and bake sales or driving the swim club or coaching the football team. My parents were active in everything, so there was a huge influence there and, again, it’s planting seeds.”

Wilson says it wasn’t until he had matured, had children and a career that he started to look at the obligation to give back.

“And I struggled,” he admits. “It was then that I developed the thought that charitable work and community work is really an opportunity. Once I saw it that way, I saw life differently.”

He now supports numerous charities and has donated enough money and “encouragement” to the Battlefords that in 2007 a day was set aside to celebrate his efforts, Brett Wilson Day.

It was “one of the most moving and humbling experiences of my life,” he has said. 

His dad says, “He’s done well. I’m proud of him, no question about that.”

Bill Wilson points out he and his son were both born in the same hospital, in North Battleford, and the family’s roots are deep in the area’s history and the history of entrepreneurship in Canada. His uncle, by his aunt’s marriage, was one of the Piggot brothers of Piggot Construction, a famous Canadian company that built Battleford Town Hall, and his grandfather was Senator Benjamin Prince, a famous Battleford entrepreneur.

Bill says of his son, “We were hopeful he would do well, which he did. He had a few brains in his head,” to which Brett quips, “All from the gene pool.”

Bill, whose first wife passed away in 1987, remarried and moved to Christopher Lake in 1990, and is now widowed again. But, he says he gets to Calgary, where Brett lives, periodically.

On this occasion, they were in the Battlefords together and on the agenda was a trip to the Battleford cemetery, where the Prince family is buried.

The Prince graves, among others, have been relocated to a new area of the cemetery due to instability of the slope that runs from the edge of the cemetery down to the North Saskatchewan River Valley. 

In 2015, the Town of Battleford began work on the relocation project, which included moving 73 graves from at risk locations to other plots in the cemetery. Work on phase two of the project recommenced this spring.

Bill says he visited the cemetery last fall, then returned to Christopher Lake. The Town of Battleford has made a point to be in touch as much as possible with any family with connections to the graves that are being moved, and Bill says they have telephoned him a number of times since his visit, “which is good,” he says.

It was only a few years ago that he first became aware of the settling, he says.

Brett looks back on his father’s grandfather as the “original diversified investor,” as he describes Prince in his book, Redefining Success, Still Making Mistakes. He writes that he has a strong psychological attachment to his great-grandfather and has sought to follow his lead.

In his book, he writes of how his great-grandfather came west from St. Gregoire, Que. in the late 1800s and eventually settled in Battleford. He built the first sawmill there and, later, the first flour mill. He also opened a department store and was an active farmer and innovative rancher who was one of the first in the west to breed and raise cattle expressly for shipping to European markets in the early 1900s.

His great-grandfather was also a highly regarded political leader who represented the Battleford region in the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories. He served as the mayor of Battleford and was appointed in 1909 by Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier to the Senate, where he served until his death in 1920.

Brett Wilson writes in his book that understanding the history of Saskatchewan and his family’s role in developing the province was a great source of encouragement to him as an aspiring entrepreneur. He knew it was in his blood to pursue the same dream.

He pursued that dream vigorously, making mistakes, as he writes in his book, but also finding success, enough so that he retired from active business with the investment bank at the age of 50.

He told the graduates of North West College last week, “I spend about a third of my time in Calgary, the rest of the time I own a piece of the Nashville Predators hockey team, I have interests in sports over in England, I’ve got assets and real estate ranging from Vancouver all the way to Ottawa and Montreal, and I’ve also made a very significant investment a number of years ago in Saskatchewan farm land, one of the best investments imaginable.”

Wilson also speaks to students across the country on entrepreneurship and philanthropy as a result, he says, of his exposure on Dragons’ Den.

“I’ve had my own career quite separate from Dragons’ Den,” he said during his address last week. “In fact, in many ways Dragons’ Den is a small part of who I am, but it’s a very big part of the personality, and certainly my profile gives me a platform to come to literally tens and tens of thousands of students across the country, and I have the privilege of speaking on campuses and colleges across the country.”

On Dragons’ Den, Wilson made 60 deals, and closed 30 of them. His two most successful deals were based in Saskatchewan.

“In fact,” he said, “six of the 10 deals that are still alive were from Saskatchewan.”

The most successful deal was the first one he did on the show. He invested $200,000 in Rachel Mielke’s Regina jewelry business Hillberg & Berk, becoming one-third owner of a business that is now making millions.

Wilson was known as the “kind dragon,” and he outlined his introduction to the Dragons’ Den journey to his audience.

When he retired from active business with the investment bank, he started looking after his own investments, and he’d only been on his own for about a month when he got an email. A friend and business partner was the original female dragon, Jennifer Wood of Saskatoon, so he watched the show.

“My first thought was this is stupid. The comments are derogatory, there’re abusive, they are irrelevant, they make no sense at all. I watched one episode because my friend was on it and then walked away from the show.”

Later, his friend Wood was replaced by another, Arlene Dickenson.

“I thought let’s give it a try, maybe things are different. Unfortunately not. The show had no credibility for me, because, once again, same theatrical rudeness, same faux or pretend business commentary, the rudeness, it was all about making good television, but not much of it for me was about doing a deal. Not much of it was about business.”

Then he got an email asking if he would like to be the next dragon. He found he would.

“I wanted to get on the show because I had a background of actually getting deals done and the purpose of being on the show was to show people deals could be done.”

He went to Toronto to try out for the show.

“At the end of the day, there were two of us, and they toasted us both. But, of the two, they said I was better and they took me aside and said ... you’re not mean enough to be a dragon.”

He responded, “If television requires me to be a prick on this TV show, I’m not interested anyway. It’s not my nature, it’s not the way I go about doing business.”

Two months later he received another phone call from Dragons’ Den saying, “We’re still interested in you if you are still interested in us. But it’s down to you and one other person. Send us an email explaining why you should be a dragon.”

So he wrote up his list. Point number four stated, “It takes a combination of balls, brains and a wallet to do deals, and you appear to be somewhere short of all three on the show at this time.”

It resonated, he said.

“What it said to CBC was, ‘look, if you want someone to come on this show for the purpose of getting some real deals done, let me know, otherwise don’t bother me.’”

It got him on the show. And for three seasons he began out dealing everybody else.

“To put numbers to it, because it’s very public, in the 30 deals I did I invested $4.5 million. The other dragons, as best we can tell, have invested a few hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

Wilson said, “As a dragon, my intention was to make a portfolio of investments, celebrate the individual entrepreneurs, give them a shot at getting something done.”

It was about planting seeds.

“In my mind, one of the things that Dragons’ Den did beautifully was plant seeds.”

And that’s what Wilson has always tried to do.