By Carol Crenna
Calgary’s W. Brett Wilson, former panelist on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, is a highly successful entrepreneur and Chairman at Canoe Financial LP, and runs his Prairie Merchant Corporation that is focused on energy, real estate, sports and entertainment investments.
He has shared podiums with Bill Clinton, both Bush’s and Donald Trump. Called a “capitalist with a heart,” he’s given away, and mobilized others to give, tens of millions of dollars.
He’s shaved his head, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, built homes in Mexico, hosted annual celebrity events at his own home, and organized a joint 50th birthday party (raising over $3 million) for worthy causes.
Then there’s the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence and the Wilson Centre for Domestic Abuse Studies. But Brett Wilson has also overcome devastating personal challenges. Here, he talks with Carol Crenna about his life.
CAROL: Did you always have such ambition and passion?
BRETT WILSON: My passion developed over time. As I began accomplishing more, I realized I had the capability to accomplish even more than I was already doing. But the early drive was to be successful based on the measures that I now make fun of — money and power.
CAROL: You admit to still being driven.
BRETT WILSON: If there is such a thing as an AA type personality, I would qualify at times. I “retired” at age 50, and I’ve never been busier. But I’m evolving.
Now much of my time is spent pursuing my personal interests – my children, friends, passions, and having fun. I manage to fit in business opportunities and investment in real estate, energy, and oil and gas; I haven’t abandoned that world but have a different set of priorities.
CAROL: You climbed Kilimanjaro twice. Are you fit?
BRETT WILSON: I climbed Kilimanjaro in 2002, and when I got back I told my friends that I would never do that again. Then my three children asked if I would go back to climb with them and I said, of course I would. We went in July 2010, so I trained for that and for a biathlon with my daughter that June.
I’m reasonably fit. Last month was fabulous for fitness; this month is terrible, since I’m traveling most of the month. I travel with my running and swimming gear; as a former competitive swimmer, I love swimming.
CAROL: You openly regret your early parenting.
BRETT WILSON: I chose work over parenting for many years. It wasn’t until I separated from my wife that I recognized the gap in my life, and really became a parent.
My ex-wife observes that she went from being a “single mother” (while married) to having her kids half-time when divorced. Before, weeks would go by when I would be in town (in Calgary), but I wouldn’t see my family because I’d be living at the office, up early and out before they woke and home after they went to sleep.
The business was growing and needed attention, but it came at a cost.
CAROL: You admitted yourself to a centre for therapy?
BRETT WILSON: I attended The Meadows, a well-known addiction and trauma treatment centre in Arizona, to deal with issues surrounding work addiction. There I realized that the cost it had on my relationships wasn’t worth it.
I knew changing my priorities wasn’t going to be easy, and if changes were to be sustainable, they would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
My wife felt that type of change wouldn’t be enough to sustain us, so our marriage ended. I began evolving, recognizing that without my physical, emotional, and intellectual health, I was of no use to anyone including myself.
CAROL: How have you evolved so far?
BRETT WILSON: I consciously try to improve myself through training, personal development programs, and working with a coach for life planning.
If the top golfers in the world still need three coaches (a putting, swing, and drive coach) it must mean that using a coach is okay. First, you need the awareness of problems, and then you need to take the time to do something about them.
CAROL: As an investor, how have you invested in yourself?
BRETT WILSON: I pay attention to what I eat. Though I eat out a lot, we have a full-time office chef to ensure that my entire team eats well. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the more food is processed the less healthy it is.
Eating organic or vegetarian isn’t as much the issue as the fact that the closer food is to nature the more it has what man needs; though man has been around for a long time, processing – and illnesses (like obesity) related to it – have been around for a short time.
CAROL: Why did you decide to go public with your cancer story?
BRETT WILSON: I couldn’t disappear from the workforce to have treatments without telling others. I wasn’t embarrassed by it, and spoke about it publicly because, particularly with prostate cancer, awareness is the key to early detection.
Over the years, I have spoken to many patients about my experience and still receive feedback about an internet video that discusses my journey.
CAROL: Did you use treatments other than conventional ones?
BRETT WILSON: I worked with a healer, a naturopathic doctor, and an acupuncturist and was very open to complementary modalities. I feel that western medicine is fairly closed minded to alternative therapies, yet those practising alternative therapies are fairly open to all forms of treatment.
Within the medical system I became very frustrated: two professional groups – one supporting surgery and the other radiation therapy – were arguing, both convinced that if I didn’t use their treatment methodology, I was going to die.
CAROL: What advice do you give others?
BRETT WILSON:Do your homework. Dr. Peter Scardino’s Prostate Book: The Complete Guide to Overcoming Prostate Cancer is a well written, balanced point of view. Find the treatment that suits you. The earlier you catch it the more options you have, but in my (advanced) case I felt that I didn’t have a choice in my options.
I chose radiation therapy. But no one should have to worry that they’ve chosen badly.
CAROL: How did having cancer affect you?
BRETT WILSON: You take a closer look at your own mortality. After living through cancer, it’s a rare person who wouldn’t come to the conclusion that there is more to life than the life you were leading. This, like a major injury or death in the family, becomes a wakeup call.
CAROL: You have given millions to nonprofits. How did you become interested in philanthropy?
BRETT WILSON: Twenty years ago my wife and I began giving 1 percent of our pre-tax income to charity, and, appreciating how good it felt, realized that we could afford to increase that. Over time we became more involved and it became more interesting.
A pet peeve is the concept of “corporate social responsibility”: if you feel that it’s a responsibility, it means that you’re getting it wrong. Anything you do out of responsibility carries with it a sense of obligation. If you look at it as an opportunity rather than obligation, you will also look at the outcome differently.
CAROL: How is it an opportunity?
BRETT WILSON: By realizing the influence that directing your wealth has on your client relationships and your staff’s good will. FirstEnergy supported over 250 charities — a lot for a relatively small organization. The reason we chose breadth over depth – giving less money to many rather than more to a few – was all about marketing.
We were extraordinarily proactive in supporting charities that our clients and community leaders were involved with, which became vital for networking and connections. Using unique ways to make our contributions known to them became a branding opportunity. It’s a matter of being a little more creative at distributing funds.
CAROL: Why are you single?
BRETT WILSON: It’s the pace I keep, and the amount of travelling I do. My priorities right now are to make the most of my time, and spend time with my three children. But I would I like to have a partner to wander beaches with in my twilight years.
CAROL: What’s the most romantic thing that you have ever done?
BRETT WILSON: I rented an entire ballroom and had dinner catered for two. (He won’t confirm or deny it was with former girlfriend Sarah McLachlan.)
CAROL: As a marketing expert, how would you market health to create change?
BRETT WILSON: A lot of change occurs in this world with awareness. It’s a matter of raising the profile of the results of living a healthier life, keeping it at the front of everyone’s consciousness. Then maybe a health scare wouldn’t be needed, like it was for me, to make people change.
CAROL: Why were you on Dragon’s Den?
BRETT WILSON: I’ve been doing for many years what Dragon’s Den does – investing in small companies that may turn into large companies, or early-stage investing – so the show is a logical extension.
It provided a national platform to celebrate entrepreneurship. And the profile it developed for me was extraordinary.
CAROL: Why did you buy your hundred year old home (a four-level brick mansion on a treed hillside overlooking the city) in Calgary?
BRETT WILSON: For me, this house was a trip home. On Sunday evenings when I was a child, the kids would have a bath, get into our pyjamas, jump into our family Volkswagen, go for a drive from North Battleford to Battleford, Saskatchewan, and pass by Grandpa’s house.
When I moved to Calgary, I used to drive by this house in awe because it’s a sister to the one my great grandfather (a senator) built in Battleford in 1908.
CAROL: You have a large collection of Saskatchewan artists’ work created from 1900 to 1960, particularly Ernest Lindner and Joe Fafard.
BRETT WILSON: Saskatchewan art means far more within the Canadian historical context than most people realize, including the Regina Five abstract painters and landscape artist James Henderson, who worked with the Group of Seven.
I have approximately 30 Lindner landscapes in my home and a prized sculpture by Joe Fafard, a self-portrait.
CAROL: I also like your life-sized, colourful art-cows, like the one staring in the window…
BRETT WILSON: It’s one of nine that graze on the veranda and balconies. I purchased them at Calgary’s Udderly Art fundraising auctions to support various charities.
CAROL: You like your downtime. Right now your bedroom is packed with camping gear?
BRETT WILSON: I am packing for myself and children in preparation for traveling. We have trekked up Mount Kilimanjaro, took a trip to the Middle East, gone on a Safari in Africa. When I’m here and my kids are home, my time is organized around the kids.
CAROL: Your bedroom has a stately, old-fashioned feel (with four poster bed and original fireplace) … except for the master bathroom.
BRETT WILSON: Grandma (Dorthea) McCoullough died in my bedroom, but she died a happy woman, and the energy here is wonderful. The house and the family know that I came to take care of it.
The master bathroom’s mahogany brown stone tile covers floors, walls, and even the door. I tiled the inside of the door so that when I’m in the soaker tub, the door disappears into the walls when closed, and you get a spa-like setting that’s very private.
CAROL: At 54, what are your future plans?
BRETT WILSON: I hope to have another 46 years to go; the last 10 will be in a reclining chair watching home movies of the previous 90. I’m currently working on two books.
One, with the working title Doing What’s Right, is about redefining the ethics of success — not defining it by the size of your wallet, car or office, but by the size of the smile: happiness as the highest priority. The other measures aren’t irrelevant, but if they’re the only ones, your life might be lacking.
The other book will be about philanthropy.
Originally written by Carol Crenna, with parts featured in VISTA Magazine, March 2010, Canada Wide Media’s Alberta Home Magazine, March 2010, and Home & Mortgage Magazine March 2011, and MORE Magazine, September 2011.