Opinion: W. Brett Wilson on why giving leads to getting

Brett Wilson has been called all sorts of things since joining CBC’s Dragons’ Den a few years ago. The Dragon with a heart. The friendly Dragon. And so on.

But Mr. Wilson makes no apologies about what seems to have evolved into a somewhat gushy public persona – especially when superimposed beside fellow fire-breather Kevin O’Leary – despite being one of the most successful Canadian entrepreneurs around. Quite the opposite, really.

“My parents were model community citizens,” he explained during a recent trip to Ottawa. Mr. Wilson was in town for a couple of events – to first give a speech to Entrepreneurs’ Organization Ottawa, and then to drop in on the first-ever “Democracy Challenge” at the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, in early March.

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“My dad coached every sport I played in, and my parents fundraised for every cause imaginable,” continued Mr. Wilson, who grew up in Saskatchewan. “My mom also taught parenting classes for foster parents and we often had kids come home to our house who had nowhere else to go.

“And these things just became part of my consciousness.”

A bout with prostate cancer along the way, he said, helped solidify this philanthropic worldview.

A Prairie boy through and through, Mr. Wilson acquired his first taste of Canadian business the hard-nosed way – slogging on oil rigs as a drilling engineer.

It was here, he said, that he developed a deep respect for the value of an honest day’s work. “One of the reasons that the Prairie boys are so sought out is that they know how to work,” he said. “Honesty, integrity and a handshake all mean something.”

But while some – notably those of the Mr. O’Leary school of business – typically maintain that a soft touch can only cost money, Mr. Wilson disagreed. Rather, the multimillionaire and founder of Alberta’s FirstEnergy Capital Corp. said giving is the foundation upon which he’s built his business empire.

Indeed, companies that don’t see charity and good works as a cost of doing business aren’t getting the point, he said. “(Because) it’s a smart cost of doing business.

“When we started FirstEnergy, we allocated a part of our profits to charity and that was our marketing budget,” continued Mr. Wilson. “We were smarter about how we chased (media) profile. We had around 20 employees at the time, and were giving to around 200 charities.”

In terms of developing brand identity, he added, the strategy was impeccable.

“And it soon became obvious (to us) that businesses could differentiate themselves by having a social conscience.”

But the most fun part of his corporate giving strategy? “Often members of the boards of the charities we gave to contained a competitor,” he said with a laugh.

And while some may criticize his by now well-publicized investment style, Mr. Wilson, again, doesn’t apologize one bit. “I’m talking about investing in people in a way that gives everyone a leg up, and gives us a better society,” he said.

“And I get a great return on investing in people.”

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