W. Brett Wilson is best known for his three year stint on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, but learning what led to that part of his brilliant career formed the keynote lunch at Day Two’s Profit x Design Conference. Not only has he green lit numerous startups that have gone on to enjoy sweet success, but his University of Saskatchewan alumnus legacy lives on at W. Brett Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence.
For nearly an hour, Wilson opened up to conference attendees, waxing poetic on edited portions of the Dragons’ Den, what drives innovation, and how taking risks can lead to great things in this world. He counts luminaries such as Richard Branson amongst his collection of good friends and can tell a tale or two about Stephen Harper. There’s not much he hasn’t accomplished over the years, having made his mark in the oil sands industry.
Widely recognized for his business and philanthropic acumen, Wilson is an entertaining and thoughtful speaker, who doesn’t like to rush through his topics. Admittedly, I haven’t watched more than a couple of Dragons’ Den episodes, then again, he wasn’t a big fan of the show either when asked to audition for it.
Wilson is proud of his Saskatchewan roots. He was actively involved in the business side of student politics at university, as well as in college engineering. He started at Imperial Oil Company out of school, working as a drilling engineer. No longer content with making holes in the ground, he wanted to be part of the oil and gas business, not just the industry of drilling.
He moved on to work with a big investment bank. In 1993, he partnered with a few others, starting a brokerage firm called First Energy. As he recalls, the landscape was prone to success if you hustled. With 2 million in capital, the brokerage firm sold 20 percent of its holdings to a big European bank after 15 years, having done 1.5 billion in revenue, and over 250 billion worth in merger and acquisition. In 15 years, First Energy managed 1,000 deals, shocking when compared to the 24 deals he made in the five years he was employed at the bank.
First Energy held 20% of the market share back in 1993. By 2000, that number had jumped to 80%, squeezing the large dealers down to 4 or 5% each. Eventually the entire Canadian investment business model was shut down, creating turmoil that in turn created opportunity. He retired from First Energy on his 50th birthday.
At this time, his life started to change. Managing his financial portfolio was one thing, but things turned more interesting when he got a call to audition for Dragons’ Den. Wilson went on to describe his experience on the show, from thinking he’d actually been asked to be the next Dragon, to realizing that he’d been asked to audition first!
Wilson pointed to Frogbox (Wilson sits on the advisory board) as a brilliant example of a pitch (and successful business). Out of 30 deals Wilson’s done, four or five are dead, and he’s still following about 15. Within that number, three or four can easily pay for the entire portfolio he’s put together.
The remainder of the keynote went on to describe entrepreneurial success stories, the importance of teaching marketing and entrepreneurship in our educational system, and ways that indigenous populations can benefit from entrepreneurship in their communities.
He even entertained a pitch or two sprinkled in with the Q&A session following his talk, checking his watch to make sure that we wouldn’t miss our afternoon workshops!