Brett Wilson is an interesting guy. Probably not a description he is used to, but that was the first thing that came to mind when looking for one. Just why is he so interesting? Well, first it’s the apparent contradictions: wears mismatched socks-on purpose, knows the latest fashion news-enough to get upset about it (the Olsen twins $39,000 back pack), has 5 houses but mostly flies commercial, supports many charities-but only once in most cases, is happy to sign 200 autographs-but shies away from the camera at Shannon Tweed’s and Gene Simmons’ wedding. Then there is the whole change of life philosophy which he has adopted after a near death fight with cancer and consequent reactions-more on that later.
Complex or not, he is indisputably successful. Long established in Calgary’s oil and gas investment field, Wilson is known for co-founding FirstEnergy Capital and for his philanthropy, he’s currently the chairman of Canoe Financial and his own Prairie Merchant Corporation, as well as part-owner of several sports teams, including the Derby County Football Club and a minor league baseball team. He has also been appointed to the Order Of Canada earlier this summer.
Yet to the public, he is best known for being a panelist/investor on the CBC TV show Dragons’ Den. Brett Wilson credits the show ,where he invested in 30 businesses and from which he famously departed last February as a good stepping stone to helping him build his brand. He is currently the host of a new reality show called Risky Business running on Slice.
When we met up with him last week our top question was:
How does a man of modest background from Saskatchewan and an engineer by profession make it this big?
Brett Wilson: “Engineers are the backbone of this country and especially Calgary. Everything in this province is built by engineers. The people I met then and subsequently in my MBA school went on to form my nucleus work network and are some of the most successful businessmen in the country. I’m also talking about guys like Bruce Chernoff, Jim Davidson, John Brussa (the creator of income trusts) … we worked together and became successful. With FirstEnergy, I worked almost nonstop from early morning to late night for 20 years.”
Real Style: And you paid the price..
Brett Wilson: “Yes, it cost me my marriage, almost my kids and also my health…”
In 2001 the day his papers came through on his divorce he received a phone call telling him that he had prostate cancer. That started a multi-year battle for survival and getting well. In a poignant and open talk he gave to prostate cancer patients in 2007, Wilson describes many harrowing experiences and procedures he underwent to become cancer free. In the first few years after diagnosis he left no stone unturned in seeking out the best treatment and he did beat the illness. But life is never that easy. In 2006 as a result of the cancer treatments he experienced a series of reactions including kidney stone attack and serious bladder infections, all this landed him in the hospital’s emergency ward another 8 times.
Call this a wakeup call of the sort one hopes to never get, nevertheless it changed Wilson’s life.
Brett Wilson: “I’m convinced that stress could kill you. After going through all that, I knew that I had to drastically change my life. Less is more. I told my staff that I had to simplify my life and focus on what was most important to me: my three kids and my health. I also realized that philanthropy – giving back, was what I really wanted to focus on in terms of day to day. I contribute to many charities in the hope that this will inspire others to give . Also I really don’t believe in amassing wealth just for yourself or ‘to leave to the kids’. I was disappointed when Bill Gates and Warren Buffett said that they will only give away half their money. I think it should have been more than that.”
Real Style: So you plan to give away all your money?
Brett Wilson: “Well yes. You have to figure out what your kids or whoever you want to leave your money to will possibly need (not want!) … put that aside and the rest you should give away.”
Real Style: On another note. You have been linked romantically to Sarah McLachlan and to the actress Lisa Ray. Are you still?
Brett Wilson: “No. I’m happily single but remain good friends with both women. I travelled to India last year with Lisa, it was an incredible experience. I travel a lot nowadays … I’m easily on a 100 planes a year.”
Real Style: Why so much travel and where do you go?
Brett Wilson: “This summer I travelled all over South East Asia – from Thailand to Bhutan to India. I have been all over Africa where I climbed Kilimanjaro ( twice). Often I travel for business and pleasure and to see my kids where ever they are. I enjoy the travel … wouldn’t do it otherwise.”
The desire to keep chatting, was foreshortened by our own time pressure to get on a plane…for which Wilson with his travel expertise taught us a number of shortcuts. Interesting guy indeed and something tells us that he is just getting started.