Brett Wilson: The Man, The Philanthropist, The Host of Risky Business

In Business, Feature Story on July 25, 2011 at 11:15 am

Entrepreneurs aren’t risk takers; they are just people who view risk differently.

​​​​​​​​​Donna Messer sat down with Brett Wilson, the Chairman of Canoe Financial, to hear his perspective on philanthophy and to discuss his new show called Risky Business.

By Donna Messer

W. Brett Wilson is the Chairman of Canoe Financial, a privately owned investment management firm with over 1.5 billion in assets.  The company is focused on providing investors with unique opportunities to profit from Canada’s increasing prominence on the global stage.  Brett is also Chairman of Prairie Merchant Corporation; a private merchant bank focused on business opportunities in the energy, agriculture, real estate, sports and entertainment industries.  In 1993 he founded FirstEnergy Capital Corp. an industry leader; participating in projects worth over 250 billion. For the past 3 years, Brett has been the lead “deal-maker” on CBC’s award winning show ‘The Dragons’ Den’.

In Brett Wilson’s view, charitable giving programs are an investment, not an expense. He sees them as investments with long term value. In his opinion, entrepreneurs should have philanthropy as part of their marketing strategy.

Our interview with Brett was supposed to be a 15 minute phone interview. It turned into almost an hour of getting to know a truly gracious and giving entrepreneur.  This article is all about the importance of social responsibility – regardless of the size of your business. When I asked Brett what Canadian students should be taught in school, he said, ”Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy.”

Brett began the interview with the words, “If you put value on your staff, on a team that is so proud of what they’ve done in the community, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.  I can’t tell you how many times people from FirstEnergy have said, ‘We were so proud to work for FirstEnergy.’  It didn’t seem to matter how long they worked there, or why they left; while they were there, they always spoke about the social conscience of FirstEnergy. “

Brett was one of ten partners in FirstEnergy, and while most of the time he was there providing leadership; he had amazing support from his partners who were 100% behind the charitable giving program they put in place.

When FirstEnergy began, the partners set policy and practice, and one of the key things they had on their working agenda was a corporate and social commitment. What they decided to do was take 2.5% of the pre-tax profit, and allocate those dollars to charity. They all agreed that this would be their marketing budget.

They would get asked to support plenty of causes at FirstEnergy, so they had to go breadth over depth. In the 15 years he was with the company they never once turned down a client request for funds. From the beginning, they were using their charitable giving program to establish their brand, to associate their name with certain causes and to put money in a sprinkled fashion across the board. They were a team of 30 people supporting over 250 charities.

Question:  If you were speaking to companies who already donate to causes, is there something that you could say to them that says, “This is what we did; it’s a template and it works.”  Is there a way to sit down with your team and come up with an actual game plan where everyone agrees?

Answer:  When we first started, we looked at the arts organizations, political organizations and health causes. The word community was the catchall. What we needed to do was support every major arts organization in Calgary, at a level equal to where our major competitors were already positioning themselves. We highlighted the names of the competitors and tried to match at the highest level possible, always unsolicited in every single cause. There were about 10 of them. We stirred the pot.

In September of 1993, we started sending cheques out. We had no revenue. We started sending out charity cheques before we generated any profit. This was about establishing our brand against our competitors.

We looked at politics and our practice has always been ‘supporting everyone but the Communists. We would support to some degree every request that came in, provincial or federal; not always to the degree they wanted, but it didn’t matter.  We looked at our budget and made our own judgement.

We went to the health organization and realized we had 150 health organizations – we recognized that being proactive in health would be destructive to our business plan because we didn’t have the time to be hands-on in that area. So we decided to be reactive; reactive to clients and reactive to staff.

We went into communities and started helping women in shelters.  We helped causes like Churchill Daycare, where they look after single mothers who are going back to school; we sent a cheque to them. A woman phoned and was crying. She said “We’ve never heard of you, who are you, why did you send us money?” I told her that one of my staff saw a story on her in a local newspaper and so we sent them money. That sort of thing was goodwill that had nothing to do with our business community. She sent a letter that I read at Christmas to the staff and some of them were crying; I still get emotional remembering that letter. It was pretty powerful.

I call it ‘goodwill building’ in the charitable community by being proactive in the community, reactive in health, and reluctantly accepting the need to be there for politics and very proactive in the arts community.

Question:  It sounds like you and FirstEnergy really made an impact on the charitable community. Did you do anything else that might be helpful to readers still working on their charitable giving?

Answer:  We looked at the board of every charity we sent money to.  And in 1993, when FirstEnergy was unknown, we sent cheques to the board of every charity we identified. We would send the cheque to the president. The president would get the money, and copies of the letter would go to the VP of business development or fundraising. We would also copy everyone on the board. It was our belief that these were community leaders, clients, competitors and wives of a community leader. We covered all the bases we could.

Question:  What was the result of your actions?

Answer:  We built goodwill in a larger community very quickly. You can’t offend someone by copying them on a letter about a cheque to their charity. They are on the board or actively involved. The probability is that you’re going to impress them.

At the end of the year, organizations get a list of 300 – 500 people who donated.  We wanted to be memorable, the one that came across someone’s desk first.

We tried to be the first to respond. When we would do our charity cheques every week, we had a process – my assistant would have a one page written on specific organizations. We took the information she gave us seriously.  She would do the leg work, but the decision making was done by me with full accountability and support from my partners.

Question:  What happened if there was a dispute between partners?

Answer:  If I turned down a charity, I had to tell my partners why. They had the right individually to say no, if they still wanted to give. We never questioned each other. If one partner said, ‘I want to support it’ – we all did.

Question:  Do you have an example of social responsibility with a fundraiser where you’ve used collaboration and partnerships?

Answer:  You can go to the website: www.operationwesternfront.ca. You will see what is called “the finest gala ever done in Vancouver.” Three months ago we raised a million and half dollars for military families. Talk about collaboration! I met Shannon Tweed and Gene Simmons through twitter, and invited them to the event as surprise guests.  I had the Prime Minister’s wife helping to auction off items and I had the Premier of BC show up.

Here’s what we did: We served a black tie pricing dinner to people dressed in camouflage, it was $15,000 dollars for the table. We asked everyone to dress in the colors of the military. So no blue or red, just shades of tan, beige, green and khaki; those were the colors. If someone wanted to wear a cocktail dress, that was the guide for the colors. It was a blast; people went to military surplus stores for their outfits.

Bell Canada bought a table, and they made custom bow ties in camouflaged for their clients. They were one of the key sponsors. The participation was incredible.

We had people sitting mess hall style in rows and when they got up for the buffet service, they picked up a plate that had indents and they had their food placed on those indents! That was how people were fed, on these trays, just like at a military base.

It hasn’t taken Brett Wilson very long to get back into the spotlight after announcing his split with the popular television show Dragons’ Den earlier this year.

Question:  Brett you’re known for your ability to adapt quickly and stay on top of whatever venture suits your fancy. We understand that you are in the process of a launching a new adventure; can you tell us a little about it?

Answer:  It’s called Risky Business and it’s a format show based on a UK show called Beat the Bank. We’ve modified it for a Canadian audience. My role is host, coach and investor for this show.

Question:  Sounds interesting, can you give us more details?

Answer:  Every show will have a new couple coming to the table with between $10,000 and $20,000 to invest which will be the bulk of their savings.  It’s a high-risk investment for them, so there will be plenty of drama. They will be introduced to two investment opportunities, and they will be obligated to take one of them and I will take the other.

I’ll walk them through the kind of risk they are taking, along with what opportunities they might have.  I’ll negotiate the deals to improve the game, but at the end of the day we will both invest. The investment will be based on a short-term 30 day turnaround return on our investment.

Question:  How is this show different from Dragons’ Den?

Answer:  This show is completely different. The people who come on this show must commit to making an investment. Dragons don’t have to commit. The people are coming on the show to make an investment and they will make an investment. The people coming to be invested in will get funding. One investment will be done by the couple and one will be done by me.

Question:  Aside from return on investment, what is it as an investor that you’re looking for when receiving a pitch?

Answer:  I don’t believe that entrepreneurs are risk takers; they are just people who view risk differently. My role on the show is to talk about risk, to analyze it and become comfortable with it. High risk to one person is just the ordinary nature of trade to another. Part of the excitement will be to see how people come to grips with perceived higher-risk opportunities. Leaving money in the bank right now is a one per cent a year investment and that’s not very good business.

Question:  What do you see as the single biggest obstacle that inhibits aspiring entrepreneurs in this country? What are possible solutions?

Answer:  The biggest obstacle is confidence. With confidence, risk goes down. Entrepreneurship and marketing is all part of what I call the perception of risk. That’s what is exciting about a show like Risky Business. There will be people screaming at the television, “Don’t do it!” or to pick door one or door two. It could have a feel like a Price Is Right kind of thing where it is exciting, but it’s also all within a $10,000 or $20,000 range.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching Risky Business when it airs in the fall. Brett Wilson is an amazing man; he’s smart, caring and willing to share his insight on philanthropy and investing with Canadians everywhere.  Brett is at https://www.facebook.com/WBrettWilsonFan. Risky Business airs on September 12th. Check out more information on his new show at http://riskybusiness.tv/index.php/home.

Brett’s Top Ten Business Tips

1. Follow your passion, no matter what the critics say.

2. Understand marketing.

3. Keep learning.

4. Have a clear set of priorities.

5. Diversify yourself.

6. Think outside the job market.

7. Innovation and entrepreneurship are important in every industry.

9. Learn from failure.

10. Balance passion with priorities


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