Opinion: Jim Treliving and the art of the deal

Jim Treliving was just a young lad, growing up beneath the big sky of the Canadian Prairies, when he got his first lesson in business. It wouldn’t be his last.

“My dad’s nickname was ‘the banker,'” he grins, recalling growing up in a small town in Manitoba. A self-employed barber with a couple of employees, his father had set himself up nicely: he owned his own building, had a loyal clientele and a decent cash flow.

And like anyone with a good head for business, the elder Treliving soon put all that incoming scratch to work.

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“He did financing on the side with farmers in the area – small loans, we’re talking $200 or $500 loans – to get them through until the next grain cheque,” he recalls. IOUs were collected on scraps of paper, he reflects. And people always paid back.

But what stuck with Mr. Treliving the most from back then wasn’t his father’s raw entrepreneurialism, though that aspect of his dad’s personality was, indeed, a huge inspiration. Rather, he says it was more a sense of fairness in business that’s been his mantra ever since.

In the Treliving household, it seems, as much homage was paid to karma as to cash. “I’ll never forget telling my dad, ‘I’ve just done my first deal, and I squeezed every nickel out of the guy,'” he says. “And he immediately said, ‘That’s not going to be a good deal for you.’

“He told me the best kind of deal is where both parties are winners,” Mr. Treliving continues, “and that’s stuck with me from day one.”

Sound advice – and not a bad lesson to bring to this February’s Ottawa Business Summit, where the once RCMP officer turned Dragons’ Den star and Boston Pizza magnate will deliver a keynote speech outlining his life in business. He’ll also be the star “Dragon” in OBJ‘s annual Pitch the Dragons venture funding contest at the summit.

That’s not to say Mr. Treliving has always been of the Bay Street persuasion, however. Growing up in a hard-nosed Prairie town, he got to know several members of the local RCMP detachment, he explains. His respect grew for them so much he joined the force at 19 years old.

“It was a childhood dream – all my life I wanted to be a Mountie,” says the chairman and owner of Boston Pizza International, which has operations in three countries and does around $1 billion in annual sales. “And the disciplines the RCMP brought to me did a lot for my career in business.”

But it was after discovering an Edmonton restaurant called the “Boston Pizza and Spaghetti House” that Mr. Treliving’s business career began. He bought his first franchise in Penticton, B.C. in 1968, at age 28, and along with partner George Melville established 16 more franchises throughout the province.

In 1983, they bought the rest of the company.

And in 1998 – after one failed attempt in Toronto a year or so earlier – they plunked down their first eastern Canadian franchise right here in Ottawa. “It was our first move to that part of the world,” he acknowledges, adding they came here first based on the city’s relative stability and the mania of the city’s tech boom at the time.

But wait, many of you are saying. That’s all well and good, but how can I get my hands on some of his cash?

Well – first off, if he doesn’t like you, you can forget everything.

“My most important thing is the person,” he says on the art of dealmaking. “I’ve often said I don’t want to get into business with someone if I don’t like them. That’s a route for disaster.”

But having the right personality is just the beginning – you’ve got to know the business inside-out, Mr. Treliving says, and have a plan impervious to the various assaults it will inevitably endure before becoming reality. “And there comes a time where you have to stop listening to your friends.

“You need to go to the people you don’t know for feedback.”

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