Brett Wilson

W. Brett Wilson Nashville selfie via Twitter

When a businessman of the calibre of Brett Wilson grants CEO.ca an interview, we aren’t going to waste his time with softball questions. I think the ex-Dragon’s Den star, Nashville Predators co-owner and co-founder of FirstEnergy Capital, was a bit surprised with our directness. But as one of Canada’s most approachable titans, he generously obliged us with his story of making a mint in Calgary’s oilpatch.

The first point Wilson wanted to convey is that there is way more to life than money.

“If it’s the single-minded pursuit of wealth that drives you, make sure that you don’t really care about family, friends or health,” said Wilson, a cancer survivor. “Just go get the money, pile it up, and jump on that pile and enjoy it, because that’s all you’ve got.”

Brett Wilson was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1957. He had a comfortable small-town upbringing, but even as a boy decided to become rich after hearing his parents occasionally fight about money.

After high school (where he skipped a grade), Wilson became an engineer and soon after moved to Calgary to work in the petroleum industry. The connections he made at school and the hands-on experience he gained in Western Canada’s oilfields were critical to his eventual success.

“I can’t emphasize enough the value of real-life experience.”

Wilson got an MBA at the University of Calgary before joining the investment business at McLeod Young Weir.

He said his first big score was a life-changing business lesson. Wilson paid $25,000 for a 50% stake in a broken oil and gas company that was nearing bankruptcy. The owner sold it to Wilson on the condition he would clean it up.

He spent the next few years selling off its assets and fixing its balance sheet. The experience taught him about land tenure, law, taxes, partnerships, and importantly, brokering oil and gas properties, a highly lucrative field to this day, according to Wilson.

Assets that are under-managed and under-capitalized are his favourite vehicles for wealth creation. “That’s often where people don’t want to play, because it’s too much work and too complicated and ugly.”

Wilson spent a few years brokering oil and gas properties before co-founding Wilson Mackie & Co in 1991 with Jamie Mackie, then forming FirstEnergy Capital in 1993 with Rick Grafton, Jim Davidson, and oilsands billionaire Murray Edwards.

“FirstEnergy’s business model was to back Canadians wherever they went,” Wilson said. “We wanted to be set up to do it all, cradle to grave, small to large. We provide research, sales and execution, trading, and corporate finance capabilities on par with anybody and we are going to do only one industry and that’s energy.”

FirstEnergy’s founders weren’t afraid to invest their own capital, rolling up their sleeves to deal with a diversity of oil-and-gas property owners. And there were some early successes.

“We were there when Canadian Natural had a market cap of $5 million, and now it’s $50 billion. Penn West was one of my largest holdings. I was buying it at 12.5 cents and it hit $35 and was cash flowing $3 per share. I had lots of those stories.”

When FirstEnergy was founded, independents had 20% market share, according to Wilson, with the remaining 80% belonging to the big banks. Within a decade, Wilson said the banks had “let their guard down” and those market share figures were reversed. FirstEnergy is now one of the leading energy investment banks in the world.

“I don’t think the story has ever been written about how dramatic that shift was, and the balance of power in terms of wealth that was transferred from bank-owned dealers to a bunch of independents.”

On creating wealth, Wilson said it helps to choose the right industry. He referenced a line from the Harry Potter book series, “Men are not known by their abilities, they are known by their choices.”

We spoke about mentorship, and Wilson said he learned the most from his colleagues.

“People want to meet their mentors and ask them questions, and I think that’s a shame. The learning curve against people who you never meet can be just as steep. You don’t need Richard Branson to give you advice. You can read his book or watch his online materials.”

On that note, Wilson’s own book, Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes, is available on Amazon here.

Wilson retired as FirstEnergy’s chairman in 2008 and soon after joined the popular CBC Television series Dragon’s Den as a co-host for 55 episodes. There he proved himself to be the most compassionate of the Dragons, and he was a good counter to Kevin O’Leary. Wilson loved the experience because he got to help a lot of people, and while you can still see him in re-runs, he’s happy to be done with the show. He currently manages a portfolio of investments that includes a share in the Nashville Predators, a NHL hockey team, and Canoe Financial, a suite of mutual funds.

Wilson still has a few speculative oil and gas investments. He is the largest owner and chairman of Forent Energy, an Alberta wildcatter, and Lightstream Resources, another Canadian energy player. He said there are likely 20-30 energy names in his portfolio.

There is no gold bullion in Brett Wilson’s account. Not that he is against owning gold shares, but he prefers productive assets like real estate or operating businesses.

Despite all the excitement Wilson has enjoyed throughout his remarkable career, when asked what he’s looking forward to the most, he said it’s his next family vacation. Last month we learned that he is fighting prostate cancer for a second time. We at CEO.ca sincerely hope that the fire this dragon breathed into the energy sector will sustain him through this next journey.

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