Brett Wilson has established himself as one of Canada's leading entrepreneurs, thanks to his success in Canada's energy sector and his three seasons on the CBC television series Dragon's Den.
But before he was a well-known businessman, he was growing up in North Battleford, where he was developing many of the traits that he has carried into the business world. Like so many small-town Saskatchewan residents, he was also discovering a passion for hockey.
Wilson was the guest speaker at the annual Power Dodge Estevan Bruins Celebrity Dinner Wednesday night at Affinity Place. Wilson shared stories from the business world, Dragon's Den and the NHL for a crowd of about 400 people.
Wilson said his intent with his speech was to challenge thinking.
Among the topics he covered were his time in North Battleford, and how it shaped his outlook on business and life.
“Prairie values mean a lot to me,” Wilson said in an interview with Lifestyles. “I grew up in a family where my mother was a social worker and my dad sold used cars. I'm a capitalist with a heart. I actually saw all parts of a small-town community. My dad coached every sport he could. My mom supported every program her kids were in.”
Wilson has enjoyed considerable success as an entrepreneur, first with the Wilson Mackie investment banking advisory firm, and then with FirstEnergy Capital Corp., which supplies investment-banking services to global participants in the energy sector. Wilson told the audience the firm was the first of its kind in Canada.
But his national profile rose in 2009, when he became a panellist for the third season of the CBC television series Dragon’s Den. Before he arrived on the show, there were few deals between the aspiring entrepreneurs and the “Dragon” investors. But Wilson made 60 deals in his three seasons on the show, and the program reached its peak in popularity during his time.
He admits that he became frustrated with the show in his final season, because he saw so many good things disappear in the interest of good television.
“Nobody celebrates the show more than I do in terms of raising what I call the spirit of entrepreneurship in our country, and I’m very proud of that,” Wilson said.
Some deals fell apart during the due diligence phase after the deal was reached, but many did not. The Hillberg & Berk jewelry company, for example, has grown in popularity in recent years, and Wilson said that might be the No. 1 deal he made. The second-best deal, meanwhile, might be with Saskatoon-based 3twenty Modular, which takes shipping containers and repurposes them in various fashions.
One of his former co-panellists, Arlene Dickenson, has announced she will be returning for next season after a two-year absence. Her return leaves the show with six “Dragons” to hear the pitches from the entrepreneurs.
“Obviously, they wanted to bring in the sage advice … and she brings that experience,” said Wilson.
Wilson has fought cancer twice, and calls himself a cancer graduate rather than a survivor. He believes the first fight with cancer in 2001 might have, ironically, saved his life, because it caused him to re-examine his priorities. Prior to 2001, he believes he was working himself to death.
Wilson was never able to play hockey or other sports in Estevan while growing up in North Battleford. He always loved playing hockey, but learned at an early age his stick-handling abilities were lacking.
"So I migrated to refereeing," said Wilson. "I could skate with any of them, but I loved breaking up fights. So refereeing became the essence of my hockey career."
A few years ago, Wilson became a part-owner of the NHL’s Nashville Predators, who are enjoying their best season in franchise history. The Predators swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs, and as of Lifestyles press time, the Predators had a 3-1 series lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series against the St. Louis Blues. They’re within a game of reaching the conference final for the first time.
Wilson recalled a few weeks ago when Nashville general manager David Poile said the Predators have the best defence in the NHL. When goaltender Pekka Rinne is on his game, and the third and fourth line forwards are chipping in with offence, Wilson said they can beat anyone.
“Did we expect to sweep Chicago? No. The odds makers wouldn’t even create betting odds on that. That didn’t exist. Nobody expected that,” Wilson said. But we owned them. And they’re a very good team.”
The sweep of the Hawks is likely the proudest moment in franchise history, he said.
Wilson points to the progress of the maturation of players like Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and the leadership of Mike Fisher, as reasons for the Predators success.
“He (Fisher) is in the middle of every scrum,” said Wilson. “His playoff win percentage is extraordinary. He even brought his wife (country music star Carrie Underwood) to sing some songs. This guy can do everything.”
Wilson finished by drawing on his experiences with corporate philanthropy. He encouraged people to be serious about the charitable causes they support; after all, if someone from outside of the city can support a cause in their community, then they should, too.
The dinner is the largest fundraiser of the year for the Bruins. A live auction with a dozen items raised more than $35,000 for the club. Wilson brought an autographed PK Subban Nashville Predators jersey that raised $3,750. A concrete driveway resurfacing package from F&L Concrete was the top-selling item, as it fetched $6,000.
There was also an 18-item silent auction that generated thousands of dollars for the club.
Next week’s edition of the Estevan Mercury will have more on the banquet.