It was an unlikely marriage: the extreme-right-wing investor and the left-leaning public broadcaster. But for eight years, CBC Television gave Kevin O'Leary a loudspeaker to spout his arch-capitalist ideas, and he and the network both prospered. A former tech entrepreneur, O'Leary was the resident ogre on the reality show Dragons' Den, which debuted in 2006. Three years later, he became the abrasive counterpoint to centrist broadcaster Amanda Lang on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, while also appearing on Shark Tank, the U.S. look-alike version of Dragons' Den. But earlier this year, he walked away from the CBC to join Bell Media's stable of broadcast assets, including network rival CTV.
How did this move happen?
It began when CTV started to air Shark Tank in Canada. As Shark Tank grew, it became harder to shoot both it and Dragons' Den. It was natural to choose the show with the larger audience. Shark Tank had 9.3 million U.S. viewers and was growing in Canada. [Last year, Dragons' Den averaged about 1.4 million.] And Bell Media had acquired a range of other media assets. I don't do TV for money; I do it to reach people. It is a hobby gone berserk.
Is your departure another nail in the coffin of the CBC?
The CBC's mandate got contorted. It should never have been competing with the private sector. But it still has a huge mandate to tell the Canadian story, just as the BBC tells the British story worldwide. Other Kevin O'Learys will come along. CBC should hire them, too.
But CBC made you. Isn't loyalty important?
That's not entirely true. I always worked for multiple networks. I owe gratitude to the CBC, but my interest is to tell my story to the largest possible audience: I am a huge advocate of Canadian entrepreneurialism, I want to fight big government in Canada and I want to educate our children about capitalism.
Given the election of the Liberals in Ontario and Justin Trudeau's strong poll ratings, aren't you a failure in fighting big government?
It's an ongoing battle. You can't eradicate evil; you have to keep fighting it.
But aren't you most effective playing off strong adversaries, like Lang and Arlene Dickinson on Dragons' Den? Will Bell just feature your own voice, droning on and on?
When you take a controversial view, you are always going to be pushed back. I work for ABC, CNN, Fox, CNBC and CTV, and I will find foils wherever I go. Making TV without a counterpoint doesn't work.
Are you now a businessman first or a TV personality?
I've always been in the forefront as an investor, and now as chairman of O'Leary Funds. I spend two-thirds of my time there. My point of view comes from being an investor.
Don't you take extreme positions just to hype up the conversation?
My views are extremely right—and I mean that both ways: I am correct and I am right-wing. But I want to have a debate. My approach is: I believe this is correct and if you don't, tell me why.
Did your mother, Georgette, have a big impact on your life?
She came from a Lebanese family, and she told me to never spend the principal, only the interest. She would save a third of her own paycheque, and kept her money sequestered. With both husbands, she refused to have them manage her money. When she died, I was the estate executor and I was blown away by her returns.
Somewhere, is she saying, "Kevin, behave yourself"?
Definitely. She was a big fan of Amanda Lang and she would often call me up after the show and say, "Kevin, you were too rude to her."
This interview has been condensed and edited.