So when did your entrepreneurial spirit first rise up, you know, that spark that gets flamed into an inferno? Do you remember when that was?
It’s interesting…because I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur until I started my first business. I viewed myself almost as the antithesis of an entrepreneur. I guess it was a lack of confidence. I saw risks greater than what they really were.
I had done many things, whether it was hiring a bus to shuttle students from campus to downtown Saskatoon and back (making hundreds of dollars at a time when minimum wage was $1.75) but I never thought I was “entrepreneurial”. I was just getting the job done. There’s a history of small steps, baby steps down the entrepreneurial road, to the point that I finally had the confidence to take on my own business.
It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of perceived risk, because this edition is focusing on the theme of risk. When you looked at owning your own business, you associated it with great risk, and yet most entrepreneurs, when they look back, never felt like they were taking a risk at the time.
Yeah. There’s a misperception that entrepreneurs are risk takers.
People think that entrepreneurs risk for the thrill and the pleasure – just like someone in Vegas rolls the dice to get that adrenaline rush. The reality, in my mind, is that entrepreneurs are not risk takers.
They view risk differently. They measure, calculate, and evaluate risk differently so they have a greater capacity for it.
I started my first business on the basis of a conversation in an airplane when the guy next to me – a current client – said, “The firm you’re with,” (it was a small shop), “Does it have what it takes? The entrepreneur running it – your boss, does he have what it takes to build the business into a full-service investment bank?” And I paused. And in that pause, the guy said, “You don’t need to answer that. I just want you to know that if you ever went out on your own, I would hire you.”
“Where’d that come from?” was kind of my first reaction, but over the next few weeks, that comment, “If you went out on your own, I would hire you” became the basis of starting my own business. So it was only six months after that conversation that I got into the marketplace with my own business, and two-and-a-half years later he hired me. So in reality, I couldn’t rely on the comment, but for me, it symbolized risk-mitigation.
Friends would say, “Someone on an airplane said they would hire you and you started a business because of that?”
Well, what that meant in my mind was that if he would hire me, surely someone else would hire me – he can’t be the only one! So to the person who sees the glass as half-full, they think, “How could you extrapolate that from that conversation?” To me, it was like, how could I not extrapolate that? So I didn’t take risk. I did do the obvious – I started my own business.
So it’s not as surface as your first employer saying, “You’re not management material”, and then an existing client riding on a plane offering, “You know, I’d hire you if you started your own business”; it’s much deeper than that.
It’s much, much deeper than that. (Laughter) And you’re right, I was told, “You’re not going to make management track here.” And I was upset, I was rabid! I had no desire to be a technically focused engineer for the rest of my life but I had just been told by a psychologist that I wasn’t qualified to be management. Now what? I thought, “This isn’t good!” So I took the opportunity to go back and get my business degree. It took a while to realize that they were so right – I was not cut out to be management…
(Interrupting) At that time.
Well, ever – in that kind of organization; big, bureaucratic, monolithic, highly structured, highly hierarchical, very policy driven, “If you’re at this level in the organization, this is how big your desk and chair are”. I have a completely different perspective.
So looking back a little bit, one of the preconceived notions I love to dispel for readers is that entrepreneurs go into business because they want to make a lot of money. It is most certainly the outcome for someone driven by passion, but it’s never the original goal. Originally, what drove you? A passion for achievement, the desire to leave a legacy…?
I was interested in running my own business at some point, but it wasn’t about the legacy, it wasn’t about the wealth. In fact, when I started my own business, it was about paying the bills, you know? I started my own business because I had bills to pay. It wasn’t about ego. Now, I wanted to control my own destiny, but in the meantime, I had bills to pay.
I didn’t have a dream that this business would be big and huge, I just wanted to make a bit of money to cover off what, then, were the fairly simple needs of my mortgage, a couple of young kids, and my lifestyle. …I got a little bit carried away. (Laughter)
(Laughter) I see that!
How do you define success? I know in your Top 10 Event speech, you were talking about, at one time, working ten or twelve hours a day, so how did you define success at that time? In being that absent from your family, what were you driven by?
Well, two things: One, a ten to twelve hour day was a really short one back then – they were typically much longer, and two, I had the unique advantage of a failing marriage. The more time I spent at the office the worse my marriage was, but the worse my marriage was, the more time I would spend at the office. And the office consumed me.
I loved the work. I mean, I discovered fairly quickly that I knew how to make money and so, while I didn’t start the business to make money, that certainly pulled me in as we started making more – often in a week , more than I’d ever made in a year. And this was a regular occurrence. When we started trading more, investing our money in stocks, all of a sudden, there was a multiplier affect. The question becomes, how much is enough?
There’s this great line by Aristotle Onassis; he was with Jackie Kennedy and she asked, “How much is enough?” He pulled out his cigar and he said, “More”. It took until 1999 for me to stop believing that perhaps that wasn’t the greatest answer in the world.
Now I believe it’s pathetic. It’s sad, it’s disturbing. It’s the basis of a very unhappy person who can never be satisfied.
There’s a great “three bucket” model of wealth management that I live my life by. The first bucket is your lifestyle, the second bucket is reserved for lifestyle protection, and the third is there for adventure.
The first bucket includes your family, your children, your cars, travels, planes, trains, art collections – whatever it is your lifestyle requires. The second bucket is there to protect your assets so the lifestyle you’ve determined is appropriate for you and your family is never compromised. And, arguably, everything that’s not in the first or second bucket is redundant. –It’s surplus, it’s for adventure…however you want to describe it (I happen to call it the adventure bucket). I live in the adventure bucket – I have a large adventure bucket and I can do whatever I want because frankly, if I lose it, it doesn’t matter, because my lifestyle and my lifestyle protection, are both taken care of.
And once you start thinking about your assets in that way… assets that won’t be coming with you when you die, everything remains in perspective. The assets will go to one of two places: to your children (a metaphor for your family and friends) or charity (a metaphor for community and others). Those are the only two places they can go; you can’t take them with you. (Although you could probably get a million, a million-and-a-half in bills in there with you, but don’t, don’t, don’t get cremated!) (Laughter)
The “adventure bucket” could arguably be allocated directly to charity. In my situation, every hour I work is for charity, because the other buckets take care of my lifestyle and my family. So every waking hour, everything I do (unless I’m enjoying the moment with family and friends) is really about charity.
And what I think makes you unique in terms of the charity piece is that it’s really easy to write a cheque – it’s one of the easiest things to do, but it seems as though you invest your time – which I imagine is your greatest asset! Do you do that because it adds great value for you to be a part of the process, is that the piece that you enjoy?
I was doing charity events to raise our brand (shamelessly). It’s okay to do stuff for charity where you get the reward for the brand and, as FirstEnergy progressed, we started doing charity events for the sole purpose of engaging our clients, building our brand, building relationships. And then they got bigger and better as I applied creativity. Some of our events did better than we could have ever imagined. Some of these things were considered, are still considered, by those who attended some of the best parties they ever went to. My goal was to make them memorable and then our donors’ cash would flow in. We raised a lot of money. My garden party and some of my military events are the finest charity galas ever run. I enjoy doing those things and my work in the charity world is awareness-raising, fundraising comes afterwards. If people like a cause, they’ll follow along. And I don’t do awareness-raising without an ask, there’s always an ask…
So we’re somewhat shameless about it, but we’re also subtle; I think we’re appropriate about it. It’s a bit of a juggle but I love juggling! I’m not very good at focusing on one thing, but give me thirty and I’ll keep all the balls reasonably juggled in the air. The odd one will drop but, with thirty in the air, that’s okay. And that’s how these events start to come together…you’re right, I’m willing to commit the time and resources necessary to make a significant difference.
I realize that you define success differently now, but I wonder how you celebrate it; I think that usually says a lot about a person. How do you celebrate your success now – however you define that?
When the market collapsed, we took a ton of money out. Did I know the market was going to collapse? No, but I liked the way the stocks were trading. We liquidated one portfolio and poof, just like that, we eliminated our debt! When the cheque came in, one of my partners said, “It finally came in!” I typed back, “Yahoo!” and that was it. There wasn’t any more celebration beyond that; we never discussed it any further.
Right! And that’s why I’m thinking the celebration comes from the other buckets…
(Interrupting) Let me tell you, a great success was when I managed to get all three of my kids in one place for the first time in two years. That’s success!
Right! In that new definition….
(Interrupting) Look at what we pulled off the other night when we both spoke at the Top 10 Event here in Toronto! We know that we inspired people…
Absolutely! There were tears – at various times! And we knew it was much more than polite applause!
That, was moved applause!
It was deeply felt. And so, participating in things like that…
Have you come to terms with your absence as a father? I wonder if you’ve forgiven yourself. I mean, what kind of head space are you in about the past? I think, in terms of readers, I’m always trying to pass on the message that you’re only promised today…
Well it was twelve years ago that I got divorced and I went for 50/50 custody of my kids. Which meant I was going from roughly 90/10 or 95/5 to 50/50 – rather a dramatic shift. And then having to schedule everything and buying a new house…there was a whole lot of turmoil in my life at the time.
Today, my kids are building their own lives. My son and I just came back from travelling for three weeks through Southeast Asia. I’ve been to Tortola four times this year. Let me describe that travel schedule because it will give you insight into how I make the time. Twice, I’ve gone for just two days – a weekend. Others question why I would ever spend the time and money for such a short trip. Well, on the airplane down, I work, on the airplane back I work, and for the two days I’m there (most of the time), we have three dinners. If my daughter is working, or out with friends, then she goes after I have dinner with her but that’s ok – it’s just like being home in Calgary, I’m fine with it!
Caribbean, Calgary…all the same! (Laughter)
So I get time with them. It’s really a matter of choice. I won’t speak in a place where I don’t have my children or other family to visit or business to conduct – its about being efficient with my travel time.
When you think about your kids, what’s one of the greatest lessons that they’ve taught you?
Humility is probably the biggest thing because, you know, some of the biggest business successes in the world are irrelevant – completely irrelevant to the child!
It’s who you are, not what you do.
Kids don’t want quality time, they want quantity time; they just want to be around you. And in fact, I learned to do my “homework”, as I called it, in the same room as my kids. We would spread out our laptops and computers and all work in the same room. Instead of all spreading to different places, I made sure that (for a while) only one room had a computer outlet with a hub in it; I could have put in wireless so that we could all spread out, but I put in a hub so that we would all have to connect to one computer. It was an opportunity to bring everybody into one spot to work. They just wanted time.
You know, I often say that quality time is when the television is turned off.
I understand you were diagnosed with prostate cancer one hour after your divorce was finalized.
I’m wondering what you make of that? About the timing of it…
I’ve given talks where I’ve reflected on the highs in my life and the lows in my life and it’s interesting they’re very often, back-to-back. And a lot of times – like for example, with the birth of each of my kids, significant positive things happened during that time. My daughter was born as I started my investment banking career, she was born the last week of school, where exams and interviews, everything really, lined up. My second daughter was born just as the market crashed in 1987. I convinced my ex (my wife at the time) that, “now is the time”! We took out a second mortgage on the house and I instantly made significant coin, trading in the market. That became the stepping stone – the seed capital for the next round (if you will) of my life. And then my son was born the summer that I started my next business. So often, significant events come in pairs in my life!
I had one chapter properly closed, in terms of the divorce, and I began another! Yes, it was truly less than an hour after the divorce was finalized and the doctor called and said, “I wish I had more time, I’d meet with you in person, but I don’t, so I’m just going to tell you, you have cancer, and a very bad case of it and you need to do this, and this, and this…”
Wow! How often we forget how our lives can change in a moment…
We both spoke at the Top 10 Event and the organizer of the event casually mentioned that you were going to be at the after party, pen in hand, ready to write start-up capital cheques. I laughed, the audience laughed, but I thought afterward, “Is this something that, as you end up at different events or with people, you always feel like you’re being pitched to? Is this part of your life now?”
(Laughter) It’s a part of my life… You know, as I was crossing to my hotel last night, one of those four door jeeps came by and the windows were all rolling down and I thought, “Is a drive-by shooting about to occur?” And these guys just hollered (heads out), “We love your show buddy!”
There was no pitch. So the pitch angle’s a joke. 99.9% of people who approach me publicly don’t try to pitch to me. They’ll say, “Is there any opportunity to get together?” My answer is a polite (I hope) and firm (for sure), “No”.
So they just drop it. Most people are very respectful. They might step up, so they come inside my private space (in restaurants or whatever), but they’re respectful in the context of… you know, I get handed a lot of cards, “Here’s a card, if you’re interested, call me.”
And you draw a boundary and then it’s fine.
Yeah. Now, having said that, emails, letters, Facebook, the stuff that comes in unsolicited is really disappointing because we get some “hard-luck” stories, we get people sending non-disclosure agreements saying “Best Deal Ever”, and then they start phoning wondering why I haven’t signed their non-disclosure agreement. My assistants have had to deal will some very abusive mail content, but to me directly, people are very respectful.
Good! I was thinking of you at the after party, lined up with people wanting to pitch! (Laughter)
Well, you know what? If it turns into a pitch party, then I just leave quickly. And that’s how I judge how long to stay. I stayed longer because people really were just chit-chatting, asking for autographs, saying hello…
(Interrupting) And, to thank you – a lot of gratitude!
Yeah! We all were getting the same feedback; I was no different than anyone else. And so I didn’t mind the humour embedded in, you know, “Brett’s bringing his cheque book”…(Laughter)
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’ve given away nearly as much as you’ve made, have you observed a connection with this to the flow of money? –The giving and getting?
No. But I have noticed that when I take my eye off the ball, I don’t make money.
So it’s about single-minded focus and attention!
You know, I’m in the adventure bucket, which means the work I do is ultimately for charity. So, if I lose money, then I’m losing money that other people get. I can’t over-sweat it. I’m doing not a bad job of giving it away.
Right! (Laugher) How are “Prairie Ethics” different from those across Canada as a whole? Or do you think they are?
I think every region has its own sort of sense of pride. In the prairies, there are some long nights and cold winters and people (the settlers in the West) learned to work together, that a meal came at the end of a hard day’s work, and that a handshake had meaning. So it was new. There was a whole concept of cowboy ethics; doing what’s right. Making a promise and keeping it.
(Whispered with a smile) It sounds simple but it’s actually hard to do in the real world.
What have you loved most about filming your new show, “Risky Business”?
Well the concept of reality resonates for me. I was frustrated during my time on “Dragons’ Den” because we weren’t celebrating the follow up. You know? It seemed all we were doing was this snippy, biffy, faux-business commentary where we were refusing people because they didn’t knowtheir numbers. Well, we would be-little people sometimes (in my mind) without purpose, you know?
It’s not just being tough, it’s theatrical rudeness. And gratuitous rudeness doesn’t really define my world.
So with “Risky Business” we have a show where we’re getting people who are taking risk with their money. We present them with a couple of investment opportunities and we get a couple of people who are going to work their asses off to make those investments work out as well as they can. –Why? Because they’re on national television!! So we’re seeing people engage in a way that we hadn’t expected. It’s real all the way through! Some of the feedback we’ve had from people coming through the show already includes: “Best experience I’ve ever had!” “Wowed me to no end!” “Changed my life, opened my eyes…”
Amazing! Sounds like you’re really enjoying it! –What brings you the joy?
The greatest joy? I think, two things, and they’re completely different. One is time with family, finding those precious moments – I had ten years where I had almost nothing in terms of time for family. And the second is inspiring people through charity events or talks that I give.
My last question: If there was one truth that you think could fundamentally change the world forever, what would it be?
Gross National Happiness.
A new definition…(Laughing)
No, actually. The government of Bhutan, where I was just trekking, has implemented a measure, instead of Gross National Product, they measure Gross National Happiness. It’s anchored in Buddism with a focus of life being about achieving happiness. If you’re happy, so many things will line up, if you’re unhappy, then you’ve got work to do. We need to challenge the typical North American, western civilization’s perceptions of what success is.
I came out of a stint in an addiction treatment program in fall of ’99. I had checked in without any particular chemical additions – no alcohol addiction, no drug addiction, but I viewed work addiction as an issue. I thought, “What else is wrapped around this?” “Let’s peel it back.” There were three things I took away.
One is that happiness is a choice, two is it’s a very difficult choice to make, and three, that the journey of your life starts with the next step.
So I get that it’s going to be tough – I understand that, but it is a choice. I can tell you that when you use that line, you get people who are like, “There’s no way I can be happy!”
Well, then they’ll never be! (Laughter) If they can’t even get their head around the concept of it, they’re absolutely right!
Anyway, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for affording the time!
No, thank you for hustling way out here.