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Wilson reflects on career in business world

Brett Wilson had already enjoyed a successful career in the business world, particularly in the energy sector, before he became a panellist on the CBC television series Dragon’s Den in 2008.
Brett Wilson
Canadian entrepreneur Brett Wilson discussed his career in the business world during the Power Dodge Estevan Bruins Celebrity Dinner on May 3.

Brett Wilson had already enjoyed a successful career in the business world, particularly in the energy sector, before he became a panellist on the CBC television series Dragon’s Den in 2008.

Not only did Wilson’s national profile soar thanks to the show, but the series became more popular thanks to the deals he struck during his three seasons on the program.

Wilson was the guest speaker for the Power Dodge Estevan Bruins Celebrity Dinner on May 3 at Affinity Place. He discussed his thoughts on business and recapped some of his Dragon’s Den experiences for a crowd of nearly 400 people.

Wilson opened his speech by discussing how growing up in North Battleford affected his life. His father was a used car salesman who coached various sports teams, while his mother was a social worker who dealt with cases of domestic abuse, rape and incest on her job.

“My parents were consummate, community-minded citizens,” said Wilson. “My dad worked out of town, but he would drive home for the evenings just to coach, and then go back out to wherever it was he was working.”

His mother was involved with the swimming club, even though she couldn’t swim, and was an innovative, creative and community-minded person.

“My parents were role models extraordinaire,” said Wilson. “Unfortunately when I was a kid, I didn’t respect that role model. I just took it for granted. I didn’t really appreciate just how much my parents cared, first about family and second about their community.”

It wasn’t until he was well into a business career that he appreciated how much his parents gave.

He also praised a book, Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street can Learn from the Code of the West by James Owen, which Wilson called the most powerful business books he has read. In particular he became very emotional when he read about the Code of the West, because it represents so many values he came to know in small town Saskatchewan.

The code includes living each day with courage, taking pride in work, finishing what you start, doing what has to be done, being tough but fair, keeping promises, riding through the brand, talking less while saying more, and remembering that some things aren’t for sale.

“Many of these need no comment because they stand alone as I read them,” said Wilson.

Wilson believes he has been associated with a lot of business people who shared those same values.

After leaving North Battleford, Wilson went to the University of Saskatchewan to study civil engineering, and then went to work in the oilfields of western Canada. He noted that among the areas he worked in was Bromhead to gain experience.

Wilson co-founded an investment banking advisory firm, Wilson Mackie & Co., in 1991, and in 1993, he co-founded FirstEnergy Capital Corp. He said it was the first company in the country to provide investment-banking services to global participants in the energy sector.

In 2008, he tried out to be a panellist on Dragon’s Den, but they had more than 60 candidates. He was on a safari in Africa with his daughter when he was asked to tell them why he should be a Dragon.

“I wrote them a list of the top 10 reasons to pick me,” said Wilson.

The No. 4 reason on the list was the difference-maker, he said. He believes it took a combination of confidence, brains and the wallet to do deals, and the show appeared to be short of all three at the time.

He said he was trying to tell them that if they wanted to make the show a theatrical production, they should go with someone else. But if they wanted someone to make deals, he should be on the program.

Wilson noted that the Dragons typically see an explosion in popularity for their businesses thanks to appearing on the show.  

“I didn’t have a single business or service that I was trying to sell on the show. I had nothing,” said Wilson. “I had no reason from a brand point of view.”

The first deal he made was also the one he regards as possibly his best: the Hillberg and Berk jewelry company in Regina.

The request was for $200,000 for a third of the business, even though sales were at $65,000. Wilson struck a deal with them. The business grew to $600,000 in revenues the first year, but then it plateaued. Then Wilson gave them more money to expand their product lines. 

The company has now exceeded $3 million in profit, is continuing to grow, and has turned Regina into a hotbed for jewelry manufacturing.

Another Saskatchewan business he invested in, 320 Modular out of Saskatoon, has been another success story, he said. They take shipping containers and repurpose them into living quarters for remote mining camps and other job sites.

In the three seasons he was on the show, Wilson said he did a total of 60 deals. About half of them were completed, while the others fell through during the due diligence stage. Out of the 30 deals closed, 25 were different than the ones reached on the den.

“I made changes to get the deals actually done, so what we shook hands on wasn’t always going to work out,” said Wilson.

He wound up investing $4.5 million in Dragon’s Den deals.

But he also became frustrated when he heard Dragons ask for at least half of the business. And he wanted to see the Dragons focus more on giving advice to the entrepreneurs, rather than criticizing them because it made for good television.  

Wilson also used his speech to reflect on some of his personal struggles and his two battles with cancer. He has described himself as a graduate of cancer rather than a survivor.

And he told the crowd that in an ironic sense, the first bout with the disease in 2001 likely saved his life, because it caused him to rethink his priorities.

He finished his speech by touching on the value of corporate philanthropy for businesses. He recapped one of his own experiences, when a matching campaign he was a part of helped raise money for the new hospital in North Battleford.

Wilson encouraged the audience to take their support for charity seriously, and reminded them that if someone from out-of-town can support causes in their community, then they should be able to back the causes in their backyard.