Everyone loves a winner and Calvin Ayre would seem to be the biggest winner around right now. The 44-year-old scion of a Prairies pig farmer loves to tell how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to land, improbably, on the cover of Forbes magazine's annual billionaires issue this month.
"I'm a farm boy from Saskatchewan. You're never going to get that out of me," said Mr. Ayre, red wine in hand, as he met a Globe and Mail reporter in a swanky Beverly Hills hotel lobby. The handsome, Costa-Rica-based entrepreneur still betrays his Canadian roots, capping his sentences with an obligatory "eh?," but now bills himself as "the personification of a new American dream."
You may have never heard of the Internet-gambling site Bodog.com, or its founder. In fact, just a few years ago, not many people had. But Mr. Ayre is now regarded as an Internet age Hugh Hefner, and one of the leaders in the exploding Internet gaming sector. He is a public relations wunderkind, routinely blitzing the U.S. media with images of bikini models and stories of his own bad-boy-billionaire persona.
Yet when it comes to self-promotion, Mr. Ayre is as selective as he is relentless. Like Jay Gatsby, the fictional hero who cleverly crafted his own rags-to-riches story, Mr. Ayre tends to gloss over some crucial details.
Such as how, a decade ago, he was a disgraced B.C. penny-stock executive. In 1996, a provincial securities watchdog slapped him with a 20-year trading ban and fined him for "misrepresentations."
It was a nadir for the current Forbes cover boy, who figures he was $100,000 in the red at the time. It is not a chapter of his life he likes to discuss.
"Canadians are funny," Mr. Ayre said, smiling a thin smile.
"There's a lot of stuff I like about Canada and Canadians," he said. "But Canadians are just way too happy to drag down the one guy who actually makes it a little bit better than the rest of them."
Calvin Ayre's grandfather left Scotland in 1927, imagining a land of milk and honey across the Atlantic. He found work doing odd jobs in Lashburn, a tiny farming village outside Lloydminster. The first years were tough, and he nearly severed his hand on a buzz saw before he had it sewed back on -- without anesthetic.
But Fred Wilson's fortunes improved as he bought a farm, joined the town council, got married and had children. His daughter grew up, married, and had four children: Calvin, Wayne, Anita, and Corinna.
"Off to school we'd go, pig shit on the boots and all," recalled Mr. Ayre, as he tucked into a piece of halibut.
Chums from his school days remember this much about Calvin -- if you beat him in a foot race, he'd make sure he'd whip you the next time out. He didn't like losing.
He was always a committed partier, but his academic interest wavered. He enrolled at the University of Waterloo to become an optometrist, but wound up with a science degree. He joined the University of Western Ontario law program, but flunked out. "I was expelled actually, " Mr. Ayre said. ". . . I might not have been quite smart enough to be a lawyer."
But he had a head for business. He set out for the West Coast and earned an MBA at City University in Seattle, graduating in 1989. Less than nine months later, at 29, he was appointed president of a small Vancouver-based company called Bicer Medical.
It looked like a promising start, but his aging Scottish grandpa wasn't impressed.
"Fred wasn't happy with the business he was in," recalled Helen Wilson, Mr. Wilson's second wife, in a phone interview.
"He didn't think it was completely on the up and up."
In 1996, the British Columbia Securities Commission fined Mr. Ayre $10,000 in a ruling that prevents him from trading securities on the Canadian Venture Exchange or acting as a director of a B.C. public company until 2016.