Balls, brains, and a wallet

Catherine Lopes with Brett Wilson, one of Canada’s top entrepreneurs. Catherine Lopes/Photos

Brett Wilson, Canada’s top entrepreneur, philanthropist, and deal-making “dragon” on CBC’s The Dragon’s Den, strolled into Toronto’s First Canadian Place presentation room wearing jeans, a blazer, and a poppy.


“Sorry for the informality; I don’t like wearing ties,” Wilson joked as he showed his audience a rare photo of him styling a Harry Rosen suit and tie. Larry Rosen, co-owner of Harry Rosen, approached Wilson with the opportunity to be featured in the Harry Rosen catalogue and talk about his battle with cancer. As per Wilson’s request, instead of paying him for the photo shoot, Harry Rosen made a charitable donation to the Calgary Prostate Cancer Foundation.


Wilson was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan and attended the University of Saskatchewan, where he earned his BS in civil engineering and was the first to receive an MBA in entrepreneurship at the University of Calgary. He then worked as an investment banker at Scotia Capital, where he gained the knowledge and experience to co-found Wilson Mackie & Co., an investment banking advisory firm. In 1993, he co-founded FirstEnergy Capital Corp., a stock brokerage firm for the global energy sector, and in 2010 he became the chairman of Canoe Financial, an investment firm with over $2 billion in assets.


“It takes balls, brains, and a wallet—and you seem to not have any on the show,” Wilson told producers when they interviewed him to appear on the hit business show The Dragon’s Den.


“I had no interest in Dragons Den, and only watched one episode of the series when I heard a friend was going to appear on it,” Wilson said.


When Wilson was finally hired by CBC, he was told that his only fault on camera was that he wasn’t mean enough to the people pitching their business ideas.


“I’ll be tough when I need to be tough, but if you want me to be a prick then I want no part of this,” Wilson said about dealing with new businesses. He also spoke about how the other dragons, including Kevin O’Leary, criticized his eagerness to pounce on the presented deals.


“I bet on people who think will be winners,” said Wilson, who named several of his great investments that have become successful and proven profitable. To date, Wilson has invested over $3 million in 31 business deals from the Gemini Award-winning show.


Wilson became quiet, looked up at his peers, and confessed his personal method of selecting businesses. For Wilson, the personal struggles and journey of the owner play a lot into his investment decisions.


After leaving his post at The Dragon’s Den, Wilson premiered his own personal investment show, titled Risky Business on Slice TV.


Wilson says he owes his business drive and outlook on life to his battle with prostate cancer a number of years ago.


“I don’t like being called a cancer survivor. Instead, I think of my journey as graduating from cancer with a bachelor’s. I don’t want my master’s,” he joked. Although cancer held him back from his business career, it opened him up to philanthropy. His charity and fundraising efforts are in the millions of dollars. Wilson also has an extensive list of philanthropic initiatives, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in support of Alzheimer’s and sponsoring the Canadian Olympic swimming team. In 2007, he established the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence. Here students are able to specialize in entrepreneurship and earn internships.


“I believe we can use philanthropy to study business; it’s a brand rub,” he said.

For Wilson, philanthropy and business go hand in hand, and he owes it to cancer for making him the businessman he is today.  “I think cancer was a pivotal point in my life,” he summed up. “Cancer allowed me to say ‘fuck you’ to anyone in my way to success.”


When asked to give advice for students who are looking to enter the business world, Wilson recommended making marketing a priority.


“I believe every student should take a marketing course, and I need to see more people study entrepreneurship,” he said. According to Wilson, a well-rounded curriculum in entrepreneurship is essential. He added that the little things count: “For example, if I receive a résumé by email, I’m going to print it out on my black and white printer, but if you hand-deliver your résumé on good paper and in colour, I’m going to notice you.”


Wilson also spoke about his personal struggles in the stressful business environment and how they affected his family life.


“I ended up on a bad place a number of years ago and suffered from work addiction. I had to be admitted to a treatment facility,” he confessed. Wilson was admitted to The Meadows, a treatment facility in Arizona, for work addiction, and was released six months later. Coming out of the rehabilitation, Wilson knew he had to reset his priorities.


“If you don’t have health than you don’t have anything,” he says. “You need priorities, like family, and you need to have a passion for these priorities. I gave up 10 to 15 years of family to get everything I’ve ever wanted. It’s pretty fucked up.”