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report on business education, spring 2012

Brett Wilson on the set of his television show, Risky Business.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson is well known within the Canadian financial industry for his role in co-founding FirstEnergy Capital Corp. and more recently has become a household name with his roles as a TV panelist on Dragons' Den and as the host of Risky Business.

Mr. Wilson graduated in 1979 from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, and in 1985 he earned his MBA from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. In 2010, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Royal Roads University and in 2011 he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

Do you feel that having an MBA offered you opportunities that wouldn't have been available otherwise?

Absolutely. The classmates I had an opportunity to work with and learn from became the drivers and decision makers of Calgary industry throughout my career. Without my MBA, I would not have had the opportunity to meet many of these individuals and develop both friendships and working relationships.

Why did you choose Haskayne? Do you feel that studying at Haskayne gave you an advantage to doing business in Calgary?

I didn't really have a choice in business schools. Given the economic environment then, the fact that I was underwater on my house, and my work commitments, Haskayne was my only option. In fact, when I went to apply at Haskayne the administration refused to give me an application because at the time, I lacked a GMAT score, had only three years of work experience and a low undergraduate average. It was only through a connection that I managed to get an interview with the dean and was subsequently allowed to enroll on a probationary basis. Given my experience, I very much hope that Haskayne still allows probationary students to enter the program.

Studying at Haskayne presented opportunities that were light years ahead of someone with a degree from outside of Calgary who could not rely on local connections or relationships.

How long did it take for you to realize the value of your MBA? Did immediate opportunities present themselves upon graduation?

The payback was almost instantaneous. I had won a scholarship from an investment bank, which gave me a chance to meet the sponsoring bankers. Through this relationship I earned an interview with the firm. Prior to this, I had been turned down when I applied to investment banks. I actually still have a rejection letter in a file somewhere saying I was not "investment banking" material.

Looking back on your career path, do you think that your decision to study for an MBA was worth it? Would you change anything if you could?

Studying the MBA was a logical step for me as a young guy in my 20s. It's not necessarily logical for someone in their 40s looking to change careers and break into an industry. My MBA led me down a fascinating career path, and if I could do it all again I would probably take a few more marketing classes. One of the best classes I ever took was called "Consumer and Buyer Behaviour." I use the learning from that class all the time. Today, I believe graduates of all degrees are lacking marketing skills and MBA graduates are no different.

Do you think there is a difference between MBA programs while you were studying and those of the current day? Do you feel the "brand" of an MBA has changed over the years?

The MBA seems to be finding a practical application for itself and is developing a resurgence. I suspect this may be because technological advances have enhanced the teaching and student experience. There also seems to be a trend toward specialization in MBAs, whether it's resources, fashion, politics, entrepreneurialism or something else. I think this is good because the business world is not a general experience and there is no one-size-fits-all education model. It makes sense to pursue an education that matches the needs of the business one is interested in.

After I graduated I felt there was a ballooning of the MBA universe; part-time, online, traditional and joint programs seemed to be offered everywhere. This choice and program availability raised the expectations of candidates, and many graduates were slightly delusional believing that an MBA was a panacea for their career and not a tool to be used appropriately. However, the brand of an MBA is still valuable.

When looking to hire new employees do you feel any differently toward applicants with an MBA? What about when making investments, do you value members of the management team having an MBA when making your decisions?

For entry-level roles, we are inundated with applications from both MBAs and undergraduates. In my opinion they are pretty much equal performers, but when hiring, there is a slight positive bias toward those with an MBA.

When making decisions about hiring, having an MBA is a plus but not a must. MBAs have a few more skills and a bit more knowledge but I try to focus on the person and overall impression. The same is true for investment decisions.

Do you have any advice for a student in business school, either undergraduate or MBA?

My advice applies to all students from Grade 3 to MBAs: learn marketing, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. Without an understanding of these you will not understand business. I believe that students in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 should have an embedded program called "Change the World" which incorporates these courses into the curriculum.

I like to say "Until you can sell it, you have no product and until you can sell it at a profit, you have no business."

Special to The Globe and Mail