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the lunch

Brett WilsonAnthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

At noon on Sept. 17, I walked into Brett Wilson's Calgary office expecting a leisurely lunch with the financier, philanthropist and reality TV star. Fifty-three days and six hours later, that meal was finally consummated - at a gala dinner this week in Toronto.

In between, our conversation was derailed by phone calls from Mr. Wilson's girlfriend, quality time with his ailing retriever Maja, his meetings with business partners, and his trips to Britain and India.

Oh, and did I mention Dan Aykroyd? The actor and booze-marketer, an old friend of Mr. Wilson's, suddenly appeared in his office on that September day, scuttling my lunch interview and setting off an eight-week marathon of e-mails and apologies.

"This is a typical day of madness," the 53-year-old Mr. Wilson said apologetically, as I gulped down the fish stew prepared by the chef at his investment company, Prairie Merchant Corp.

Welcome to the hectic, friend-filled, celebrity-packed life of Brett Wilson, international man of non-mystery - the personable tycoon who plays "good cop" on Dragon's Den, the show where millionaire panelists mercilessly grill starry-eyed startups and dispense money or mockery.

All this self-inflicted mayhem has made Mr. Wilson's modishly unshaven visage one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian business. He has built household-name cachet on wealth (which he won't divulge) gained from his investments and his founding stake in Calgary financial boutique FirstEnergy Capital Corp.

Mr. Wilson sees his celebrity status as a transitory tool that, for the moment, draws attention to his causes, celebrates entrepreneurship, and brings interesting deals across the transom. "Dragon's Den gives me a platform that I don't want to waste," he said. "If the brand works and people like it, we will keep on playing."

Indeed, the brand often veers toward super-saturation. As Mr. Wilson was evading lunch with me, he was keeping other dates - on covers of magazines, in an ad for clothier Harry Rosen, and in a contest offering "lunch with Brett Wilson." On the business side, Mr. Wilson was busy too. Having left FirstEnergy two years ago, he is returning to the financial services sector in partnership with Bruce Chernoff, a Calgary investor who is as media-shy as Mr. Wilson is spotlight-grabbing. The two old friends are collaborating in Canoe Financial, which aims to be a significant player in the investment funds industry.

"It's not Wilson versus O'Leary," Mr. Wilson insisted, referring to tough-guy Dragon Kevin O'Leary, another publicity-craving financier who has emerged as investment-fund front man. "This is Wilson versus the other 50 fund managers in the country, and Kevin is one of them."

At the moment, Canoe, where he recently became chairman, has about $1.5-billion under administration, and aims to grow to $5-billion to $10-billion over the next five years. "We wouldn't define our program as a success unless we are in that range," Mr. Wilson says.

Canoe is hiring people, including veteran money manager Bob Haber, who spent 25 years at Fidelity Investments Canada and will run Canoe's EnerVest fund focused on Canadian equities.

Mr. Wilson says Mr. Chernoff lured him to Canoe not just for his pretty face, but for his track record in building financial services companies, and his reputation as an investor.

In his philanthropy, Mr. Wilson supports a number of core causes, including Outward Bound and Canada's troops. Hence, his attendance, along with 1,700 others, at the True Patriot Love dinner Wednesday in Toronto. The fare was heavier than at Prairie Merchant - beef Wellington and well-cooked veggies - but it was all to raise money for families of military personnel.

Outside his few favoured causes, Mr. Wilson is rarely a long-term benefactor. "I refer to myself sometimes as being a serial philanthropist." He spends time on a cause, raises awareness and cash, and then, as it gains suitable prominence, moves on to another worthy target.

But another of his continuing preoccupations is prostate cancer. He had an epiphany nine years ago when, in his early 40s, he was diagnosed with the disease. Being a cancer survivor forced an evaluation of his life.

He withdrew from FirstEnergy, and devoted more time to personal investments and philanthropy. He has, for example, already booked a venue that holds 5,000 people for his 55th birthday, which will be a fundraiser for the prostate cause. He spends more time with friends, and his three children - he divorced from their mother in 1999.

The cancer was a rare setback in the charmed life of this car salesman's son from North Battleford, Sask., who studied engineering at University of Saskatchewan. In student government, he made friends with a commerce student from Regina named Murray Edwards.

In Mr. Wilson's life, good friends make good business. The two men reunited in Calgary, where they were cofounders of FirstEnergy. Today, Mr. Edwards, as major shareholder in Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and other prominent companies, is the most influential Calgary tycoon, and Mr. Wilson one of the most public philanthropists.

As with many old friendships, there have been rocky moments, but the two men remain partners in some private energy ventures. At Christmas, there will be a combined party involving their companies.

As he stepped away from FirstEnergy, Mr. Wilson poured his efforts into Prairie Merchant, his personal investment arm specializing in real estate and energy. One small but highly strategic subset contains 31 Dragon's Den investments, representing a value of about $4-million.

As a philanthropist, Mr. Wilson is scornful of efforts by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to get the world's mega-rich to give away half their money. His concern is what the billionaires will do with the other half. Anything left over from charity generally goes to children, thus reinforcing a sense of entitlement. "If you want to kill your children, give them all the half-billion or billion dollars that's left,' he says.

He is setting up his own children to embark on life, but not to inherit great wealth. "I'm rich - my children are not."

Next week, Mr. Wilson's moveable feast takes him back to Calgary, for lunch around the communal table with his Prairie Merchant team of about a dozen people. The chef comes in from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the food is superb, and the table talk binds the team together, he says.

And who knows who will pop in? Mr. Aykroyd, who was in Calgary to show appreciation for local retailers who sell his wine, is typical of the circles Mr. Wilson moves in. They first met on a white-water rafting expedition organized by Robert Kennedy Jr. Mr. Wilson took along his son, who got a chance to mingle with the families of other guests, including tennis legend John McEnroe and Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Indeed, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Aykroyd share a common quest - to push their personal brands into new markets.

Mr. Wilson admits he doesn't return e-mails as quickly as people would like, but that doesn't seem to matter any more. "My priorities now are my children, my health, and my friends."




Born July 1, 1957. Mother was a social worker and father sold cars in North Battleford, Sask.

"My roots are capitalism with a heart."

Key connections

Murray Edwards: They met in student politics and are still partners - and still involved in the University of Saskatchewan.

University of Saskatchewan: Gave $1-million to launch the Brett Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence in U of S's Edwards School of Business.

Sarah McLachlan: The tycoon and the Lilith Fair songstress have been close in the past.

Kevin O'Leary: The two Dragons make great TV - Mr. Sensitive versus Mr. Loudmouth.

Sports teams

Co-owner of Derby County, an English professional soccer club.

Partner in West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, a minor league baseball team in Tennessee.

Bid to buy part of the NHL's Nashville Predators is delayed by paperwork, he says.

On BHP bid for Potash Corp.

"It's a chess game and this 30-day waiting period means there will be all sorts of conversations going on."

"Some years ago, somehow, someone let [Potash Corp.]move to Chicago. But the assets and the employees, and therefore the heart, are still around Saskatoon."

"What you can't legislate is soul. How do you get the soul of the company so that it will be a major supporter and sponsor of Saskatchewan without being asked twice?"


"I want to redefine 'corporate social responsibility' as 'corporate social opportunity.' "

"Will my children be well off when I die? Yes. Will they have even a fraction of what I have? No."

"I was worth more than $1-million 20 years ago and I've enjoyed a pretty good compound-growth rate since then."

"Stress is either an accelerant or a trigger to cancer; then cancer is a trigger or accelerant to life change."