Toronto Star CBC Dragons interviews – Kevin O’Leary, Arlene Dickinson, Jim Treliving, Robert Herjavec, Brett Wilson

Reporters from Toronto Star have done a series of extremely well written and insightful interviews (not your usually fluffy and all positive interviews) with the five CBC Dragons: Kevin O’Leary, Arlene Dickinson, Jim Treliving, Robert Herjavec, Brett Wilson.

I greatly enjoy all of these interviews. And wish I could be as good in conducting some of my own interviews with people.

Note: The included excerpts (in the order they were published in TorStar) are meant to give us sides of the dragons that we don’t usually see on the TV shows.

* Kevin O’Leary: Canada’s unrepentant Dragon – O’Leary is breathing fire (and building his personal brand) on CBC TV’s business reality show Dragons’ Den. Here is an excerpt,

What made Kevin O’Leary rich was the moment he calls the “massive liquidity event,” that is the sale of LCI to toymaker Mattel Inc. for $4.2 billion (U.S.). O’Leary wasn’t the company’s largest shareholder, not by a long shot.

According to 1998 securities filings, Thomas H. Lee Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm, held nine million shares. The Tribune Co. was next up with five million. Bain Capital had 3.4 million. O’Leary, the company’s president, had just over a million shares. O’Leary says he had more than that.

Within months of the deal, announced in December 1998, Mattel issued warnings of unexpected losses at LCI. In late October, 1999, the toymaker announced that the Learning Company division incurred an after-tax loss of about $105 million in the third quarter as opposed to what had been a projected profit of $50 million.

As much as O’Leary proclaimed that he would never work for anyone again after the gum-on-the-floor debacle, he was, at the time of the disastrous Mattel numbers, an employee of that company. As part of the merger, O’Leary signed a three-year employment agreement that included a base salary of $650,000, 1.7 million stock options to be converted to Mattel shares and a reporting line to Jill Barad, the first woman to ascend to the CEO’s chair at Barbie Inc. O’Leary calls Barad “the best marketer I ever met.”

O’Leary didn’t make the three years. In November, a month after the earnings release, he was fired. “She just whacked me,” O’Leary says of Barad, who followed O’Leary out the door three months later.

[…] You sense that it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the televised exposure of Kevin O’Leary. He’s unquestionably pleased and somewhat surprised by the brand-building power of TV. It’ll come in handy. Two years ago, O’Leary launched the O’Leary Funds, which today has 10 investment funds, run out of Toronto.

O’Leary is chairman – he does not manage the funds himself. Assets under administration: $860 million. The company’s branding line: “Get paid while you wait.” Investment philosophy: never buy a security that doesn’t have yield. (O’Leary’s mother had one hard rule about money: never touch the principal.) End game: take it public. Target market: you.

“I have a very simple objective in life,” says O’Leary, relaxing now into his second glass of Tignanello. “I want to go to bed richer than when I woke up. It’s that simple.”

* Arlene Dickinson: The Den’s storytelling Dragon – Her life of struggle and success gives her special empathy for women and children. Here is an excerpt,

“It’s not about the money for me, it is about being successful,” Dickinson says of her growing profile during a break taping the CBC’s Steven and Chris show. In a segment where she talks about negotiating price, she points to her green flower ring that her daughter got for $6. The original price was $10.

The cheap ring is a homey touch that draws the audience to her. In spite of the designer clothes, Dickinson comes across as warm and friendly. The ring was no accident. Preparing for the show the night before, she picked out the prop.

In another segment about knowing your net worth, she once again keeps the examples everyday and accessible to the audience of students and middle-aged women. She warns them that people are often unaware they owe more than they own. The audience groans in recognition.

That happened to her 20 years ago in Calgary when a customer went under, stiffing Venture and leaving her with a $90,000 printer’s bill.

“There was nothing left to mortgage,” so Dickinson went to the printer and arranged to pay their bill month by month. It took six months but taught her a valuable lesson. “The people were kind. We continued to work together. It felt good that we didn’t walk away from the debt.”

[…] She’s particularly interested in Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative and spent three hours with him in Vancouver discussing the non-profit agency, which wants to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers. Because it involves children, it is a natural fit for her, she says.

“All I ever wanted to be was a wife and mother. If I hadn’t got divorced, that’s what I would be today.”

[…] But she has no intention of getting rid of that Cruella De Vil streak – her trademark that prompts daily questions about its origin. Her hair started going grey when she was in her 30s and Dickinson decided to go with it. It’s the rest of her hair that is now dyed.

The one part of Dickinson’s narrative that seems false, is real.

* Jim Treliving: The loving Dragon – He treats budding entrepreneurs with respect because he was once one of them. Here is an excerpt,

“You say, ‘Oh, I’ll go for a beer tonight, I’ll go down to the lounge,’ and the next thing you know you’re talking to a quiet sweetheart that’s the same as you are –that’s why I can’t get mad at Tiger. I’m sorry. I – you know, if you’re put in that position that you’re a god – he didn’t want that, but he got it.

“And I think it’s the same thing with us. I don’t think my marriage would survive with the amount of travel I do.”

[…] “Celebrity status changes your whole life,” he says. “Absolutely changes it.”

If you find it odd to hear Treliving empathize with the world’s most notorious adulterer, you probably have watched the CBC show through which Canada learned his name. On a panel with made-for-TV personalities like Kevin O’Leary, who rarely offers a suggestion when a put-down will do, Treliving casts a dignified presence.

“He’s kind of like the chairman of the board to us,” says executive producer Tracie Tighe. “He’s the voice of experience.” Even the entrepreneurs seeking money that he has rejected describe him as kind and respectful – The Nice Dragon, The Quiet Dragon. Says Christine Poirier, who pitched Momzelle nursing apparel: “He just seemed like a grandfather type of guy.”

[…] In 1983, he and accountant George Melville bought the 44-restaurant Boston Pizza chain, which they have since grown to 340 locations in Canada and 55 in the U.S. and Mexico, for $3.5 million in borrowed money.

“I’ve said to everyone on the show: treat these guys with respect, because they’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, and what we may take as a joke, or fun, these guys have lived it for four or five years,” Treliving says. “I’ve been there. I’ve been through that. I didn’t have $3.5 million to buy the company. So I know what it’s like to pitch for some money. And it’s not easy.”

Yet the reality television version of Treliving is, in some ways, distant from reality.

“I watch him in the show, and I’m going, jeez, I’m not sure if I follow that, if that’s really the Jim I know,” says Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, a friend since Treliving worked at his first restaurant in Penticton, B.C. The Treliving that his friends know, for example, is a gregarious people person: a talker, a storyteller, an Alpha Male toucher with a penchant for unexpected backslaps (of men) and hugs (of both men and women), an interpreter of personalities and intentions.

[…] As a self-made man who got his windfall around the age more precocious entrepreneurs tend to call it quits, he is an oddity akin to a 33-year-old NHL rookie.

“I think the neat thing with Jim is that it happened a little bit later in life, in his 60s. It didn’t happen when he was 30 and messed him up,” says Boston Pizza president and COO Mark Pacinda. “He is who he is. Coming into a bit of money wasn’t really going to change him.”

[…] He also enjoys being recognized in public. It is good for the ego, he acknowledges, even though he says he takes the attention with a “grain of salt.” And he sounds almost giddy when he talks about the bigger names he has recently met. Over the course of three hours, he mentions, among others, Sarah McLachlan, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sidney Crosby and Texas billionaires T. Boone Pickens and Jerry Jones – seeming less the obnoxious name-dropper than disbelieving lottery winner.

“I think he’s just proud of the fact that he’s able to rub shoulders with those type of people. Proud of it, but doesn’t flaunt it,” says Longman. Peter Coors, the beer scion, took Treliving to play golf at America’s most exclusive club, Augusta National: “As a kid growing up,” Treliving says, “I never thought I’d get to go to Augusta, Georgia, let alone to Augusta.”

Treliving holds up eight fingers in front of his face. They represent productive decades. He closes six fingers. “These are gone for me,” he says. He folds another so that it is almost closed. “This one’s just about gone.” He wags the remaining upright finger. “So I’m at about this right now.” Ten good years left. If he’s lucky.

* Robert Herjavec: The nice Dragon – Millionaire businessman says he’s more builder than hands-off investor — and drawn to mentoring. Here is an excerpt,

Saying he paid $10 million cash for the mansion is what got a National Post writer up there for a tour in August 2000. At that price, it was one of the most expensive homes ever sold in Canada at the time. Herjavec, the Post story said, had a personal net worth of $100 million, a portion of which came from the sale of his company, Brak Systems, to AT&T Canada that March.

Numerous later stories refer to the fact that Herjavec earned $100 million for the sale of Brak alone. It’s an error he doesn’t correct, and in fact repeats, saying he sold Brak for “a reported $100 million.” Which is technically correct. It has been reported that way.

“Is $100 million accurate?” he’s asked. “It’s a long time ago. I don’t want to comment on it.”

According to AT&T Canada’s annual report for 2000, Brak Systems was acquired for $30.2 million cash that year. Toronto property records show Herjavec paid $7.5 million for his mansion.

Herjavec is sticking with $10 million. His lengthy explanation boils down to this: Someone else had walked away from a $2.5 million deposit on the house, and when Herjavec was told the house was $10 million, he told the seller: “You have a $2.5 million deposit from someone who’s not going to close, so I’ll give you $7.5 million.”

* Brett Wilson: The Dragon with a heart – Entrepreneur pushed the reset button on life when phenomenal success in business cost him his health, marriage and family

“Not all those who wander are lost,” says Brett Wilson, quoting J.R.R. Tolkien and setting the pace for an examination of Dragon No. 5 that’s one part business, three parts psychoanalysis.

It’s the kind of quote that telegraphs to the interviewer that this is not the moment to talk about oil and gas futures or investment banking deals or ROI. The citation is a daring, ask-me-anything come-on, quite in keeping with Wilson’s on-air persona as the dragon with a heart on Dragons’ Den, the guy who can fall for the tear-streaked emotional collapse of hopeful entrepreneurs seeking a farthing or two for their fragile business start-ups. The rich dragon – possibly the richest – who likes to say yes. The dragon who in a recent Facebook posting wrote: “Always kiss her like it’s the first time, and the last time.”

Why would he post that? “Someone may have been reading it,” he says, tossing yet another emotional breadcrumb in the interviewer’s path.

Of course, you will want to know who that “someone” is. But that comes later.

[…] “There is nothing that oilmen hate more than dialling 416 or 212 and asking for help,” Wilson continues. “It’s such an arrogant perspective.” One memory: he’s working for MYW out of Calgary. His assistant pops her head in the door. “Toronto is on the phone,” she says. “Tell them Calgary’s in the washroom,” he replies.

So FirstEnergy was established in 1993 as an investment dealer catering exclusively to the energy sector. “We could have been called Only Energy,” says Wilson of the company’s focus. He became fabulously wealthy.

We could talk about the money. Or we could talk about the price he paid in making it. “I got absorbed into that work-money, work-money cycle, deal, deal, deal at McLeod,” he says. “Then when I started my own business, each hour I wasn’t working was an expensive hour.”

His marriage started to teeter. “The worse my marriage was the more time I spent at the office. The more time I spent at the office, the worse my marriage was.”

[…] Today he appears interested in sharpening his elbows. “Each year I get tougher and ruder but not to the people coming on the show. Just to the other dragons.” When he calls Kevin O’Leary a “moronic outlier of capitalism,” he says he intends it in a friendly, spirited way.

The other dragons need him. Wilson is by far the largest deal doer. “He doesn’t think enough deals are done. He told me that,” says Keith Harradence, who had dinner with Wilson shortly after he accepted the dragon role. Wilson has done more than 15 deals since he signed on, committing between $3.5 million and $4 million in capital.

Then there’s the issue of equity. “If you look at some of the advertising you’d think it was the Kevin O’Leary and friends show,” Wilson says. He took up the point with the CBC. “I just said, that stops. No more. It’s Brett and Kevin and Robert and Jim and Arlene. Equal billing.”

[…] Is he happy in love? On a side table in the living room there’s a framed pen and ink etching of a fire-breathing dragon. “That’s a McLachlan,” he says, meaning the singer Sarah, who signed the artwork with love to Brett on his 50th birthday.

“We spend time together,” he says when asked if they are still dating. “Anyone who saw us at the Olympics would know that we spend time together.”

Read into that what you will. There is more interesting territory to explore, deeper crevices. Wilson is in the process of writing, with a ghostwriter, the first of what he sees as a number of books. He’s grappling with how candid he will be. He knows he can be an inspiration to others. He asks that we go off the record. Brett Wilson is still thinking about how much he wants the world to know.

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One Response to Toronto Star CBC Dragons interviews – Kevin O’Leary, Arlene Dickinson, Jim Treliving, Robert Herjavec, Brett Wilson

  1. Stefan J says:

    I worked for Jim years back… he’s a cool guy!

    You know, Kevin is such a badass on the show….I love it!… i have so many business ideas, and i think if i could pick anyone to invest in them, i’d pick Kevin!

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