It could never happen here. That’s the mantra many Canadians take solace in repeating to themselves as Donald Trump edges ever closer to the American presidency.
To those folks, Kevin O’Leary is living, blustering proof that yes, actually, it could totally happen here. Throughout the year, the multimillionaire-turned-TV personality has been fuelling speculation that he might run for the federal Conservative Party leadership, which, in turn, has garnered him comparisons to a particular confoundingly coiffed Republican nominee. The similarities are obvious: the reality show name recognition, the businessman CV, the blowhard persona, the clickbait magnetism. And, of course, the astonishing support: early Tory polls (the leadership election isn’t until May 2017) show O’Leary in the lead for the top spot.
But to call the guy a Trump knockoff wouldn’t be quite accurate. Mr. Wonderful, as he’s sarcastically nicknamed, is his own, slightly more pragmatic brand of pot-stirrer. As the story goes, O’Leary rose to prominence selling SoftKey, his educational software company, to Mattel for $4 billion in 1999. He went on to leverage that success into careers as a venture capitalist, board member, author, speaker, and broadcaster.
While most Canadians recognize him as that asshole from CBC News Network and Dragons’ Den, stateside he’s become a primetime superstar, tearing entrepreneurial pitches and dreams asunder as a judge on ABC’s version of Dragons’, Shark Tank, along with Daymond John, Lori Greiner, and Mark Cuban. The 62-year-old has made his name via his bullheaded, venomous, tell-it-like-it-is bombast. Love him or loathe him, he’s impossible to ignore and represents a body of thinking that’s quickly gaining popularity in Canada. Kevin O’Leary is happening here, so you better get used to hearing about him.
“Why not tell it like it is? I think many Canadians would be refreshed to have a politician who, for the first time in decades, told them the truth.”
It seems the media here is really fond of calling you the Canadian Donald Trump. How flattered are you by that comparison?
Well, there’s some reality to it. Trump and I both worked for [The Apprentice and Shark Tank producer] Mark Burnett, so obviously we know each other through that. But I’d say that’s where the similarities end. I think about this idea of building a wall. I’m half Lebanese, half Irish; if there were a wall around, I wouldn’t exist. So that’s certainly not where my head is. I’m more focused when it comes to political interests. I’ve been watching a combination of incompetence, bad policy, and stupidity in what’s happening both provincially and federally. It’s making our country very, very uncompetitive, so it’s out of frustration that I’ve taken a dive into politics. I reach 10.2 million people a week, and now I’m a card-carrying Conservative, but what I’m using this platform for now is to ask for transparency and performance metrics on politicians who, in my view as a Canadian taxpayer, all work for me. They’re my employees; they’re hired to do the country’s business. And the performance has been abysmal.
So are the rumours true? Are you gunning for the Conservative Party’s top spot?
I certainly intend to keep that option open. I’m interested in having influence over financial and fiscal policy. This whole journey started for me earlier this year when I was teaching engineering classes. Whenever I teach in Canada, a third of the class asks me, “Listen, can I get access to your Rolodex? I’d love to get a job at Google or Apple or Facebook.” And I say “Wait a minute, you just finished four years at one of the best engineering schools in the world. Why not stay here in Canada and start a business?” And the answer is always the same: “I don’t want to be paid in dollarettes; I don’t want to be taxed at 53.1 per cent; I can’t attract anybody to this country.” Well, that’s really screwed up. This reminds me of the mid-1990s, when we had politicians who were driving away our best and brightest entrepreneurs. That’s why I’m doing this. Shame on those politicians who’ve never run a business in their lives. I don’t want our government spending money; they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I want to give our companies tax incentives to attract capital from all around the world. That’s how this is done.
Much of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appeal is he’s unflappable and cool. You’re very blunt and aggressive. Do you think that could win Canada over?
You know, I admire what Justin Trudeau’s done in terms of bringing a sweeping change into federal government, but I think there will be three measures he’ll fail on. Number one: the millennial living in your basement who can’t find a job; three years from now they’ll still be unemployed, but older. Number two: if you’re in your 40s, 50s or 60s, you will not get an increase in your wage. The policies Trudeau’s putting into place are of more taxation and more crushing debt. And number three: in three years, the value of each individual Canadian’s number one asset, their home, is going to be down and that’s going to really hurt. You can walk in every Pride Parade you want or participate in social media all day long and you won’t be able to fix those problems. If you don’t fix those three problems, you will get your rear end kicked out of government and that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
“I’ve made many successful businesses; I’ll point to those and all the people who have made millions of dollars working for me. That’s the essence of what makes Canada great.”
All right, let’s be real. How much of this tough-talking, bad cop persona is really you and how much of it is for the cameras?
No, it really is me. I simply look at business as something that’s very binary, very black and white. Either you make money or you don’t; either you have a growing economy and create jobs or you don’t; you’re reducing debt or you’re not. So why pussyfoot around with it? Why not tell it like it is? I think many Canadians would be refreshed to have a politician who, for the first time in decades, told them the truth. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m speaking to people like you to shine this spotlight of incompetence, mediocrity, and stupidity on those who deserve to have that light shone on them.
Your critics point to things like O’Leary Funds, your failed mortgage venture from just a couple of years ago, as proof you’re not actually a great businessman. So why should we listen to you?
Because I have 32 portfolio companies. At any one time, half of them are doing very, very well, some of them are failing, some of them will work, and some of them won’t. That’s the nature of taking risks and creating jobs; that’s what an entrepreneur does. Anybody who wants to criticize me on that can show me what they’ve done to create jobs. Show me the companies they’ve sold for $4 billion. Of course I have failures, but I take the risk. That is the element and the nature of what being an entrepreneur is. That’s exactly what we need more of in Canada. I’ve made many successful businesses; I’ll point to those and all the people who have made millions of dollars working for me. That’s the essence of what makes Canada great. These critics are just noise. I don’t care about them.
So you can empathize with failure. But I’ve seen you on Shark Tank and you’re quite, let’s say, BRUSK with entrepreneurs whose pitches you’re rejecting. Why do you have to be so mean?
I’m not trying to be mean; I’m trying to wake them up to the economic reality. Listen, on Shark Tank, I’m not trying to make friends; I’m trying to make money. There’s a difference. I’ll invest in people because I think they have an opportunity to create wealth for themselves and for me. Ask any of the entrepreneurs in my portfolio companies; there are over 30 of them now and they’re all happy with our relationship. We don’t have to kumbaya every day; we have to make money for each other. That’s the whole reason for business. The DNA of business is to make money for its shareholders, including the founders of the firm, and nothing else. That’s why I provide my entrepreneurs with my optic focus on what matters: making money.
Can’t you make money and be a friendly guy?
Of course you can, and I am. That’s why they call me Mr. Wonderful.
I feel like that nickname is tongue-in-cheek.
Maybe, but it also could be true.
So you don’t feel a responsibility at all to look beyond your shareholders? To do good for society at large?
Of course I do. I give to many, many charities and causes in the arts and medicine and sciences. But I do it after I make money. I take my profits and I distribute them the way I want to. It’s my decision. I don’t think a company’s goal is to solve the world’s problems; it’s to make money for its shareholders who took risks. You can’t solve everybody’s problems; you will never be able to. But those shareholders do the good work. Never have more entrepreneurs given back more money than in the last 10 years. Billions and billions of dollars returned, and everybody should be very proud of that.
What you’re saying is the 1 per cent is actually doing a lot for the 99 per cent?
More than ever before, and that’s a fact. They’ve given back more than ever in mankind’s history. The point is, they created companies that solve problems for people all around the world. They took a large portion of what they made and they just gave back. If you want to solve the world’s problems, go out and create a great company.
Let’s back up a bit. As a young’un, it sounded like you wanted to stick it to the man. I read you majored in environmental studies in university, and even engaged in some activism. Really?
Yes, that’s true. I was in one of the first graduating cohorts of environmental studies from the University of Waterloo. I was hip to this issue decades before the left got involved with it. I always knew it would matter and I was one of the first to study it. So no one can say I don’t understand environmental issues. But because of my background in this, I understand the true balance of what it takes. You have to make sure your policies take care of the environment, which is incredibly important for the future, but also make sure you take care of the people today in Canada.
“Either you have a growing economy and create jobs or you don’t; you’re reducing debt or you’re not. So why pussyfoot around with it? Why not tell it like it is?”
What was the turning point? When did you decide to join The Man?
When my mother said to me she was going to cut me off the day I graduated and I had to go find a living for myself. It’s the same thing I’m going to do for my kids. She said, “Look, I’ve paid for your whole life, from birth to your last day of college, now go make it.” And the thing that gets you focused is you’ve got to eat. It’s what I figured out along the way.
That’s when you first learned the cold, hard truth?
Yep. That’s where it started.
How about the Inconvenient Truths? You’re a big proponent of the invisible hand. But some argue it leads to environmental decay and income inequality.
It’s simply not true. I mean, there are huge cycles on earth, some are 10,000, some are 100,000, some are a million years long. So you have to understand that while we’re in the ecosphere of the earth, we don’t completely influence what’s going to happen. There are many other forces at play and we have to understand it. You can’t legislate a volcano from erupting. They’ll do it anyway. They spew carbon emissions all the time, and the earth knows how to deal with that. That’s why the study of the environment is so important, and I encourage everybody to take some time to understand how the earth works. That way, you avoid alarmists who tell you the earth is failing. That’s not true.
You think all this talk of climate change is being blown out of proportion?
I think politicians try to use it for personal gain. What Al Gore was spewing when he was doing alarmist speeches, flying around on a jet between locations, much of that was written by a fellow named Jason Box. If you’re an environmentalist, you know who Jason Box is; he’s been investigating melting ice sheets in Greenland. I had a chance to work with him on the ice for 10 days. He believes in the large cycles of what occurs in the extension of polar ice fields and the retraction of them, and Gore just took pieces of his work and tried to be an alarmist. I think Jason felt used in that situation.
“It’s all about the money; it always is.” That’s one of your favourite catchphrases. But should money really be the primary diving force in one’s life? What about other things? Like, say, love or family?
You know, it’s very simple: try love without money. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to eat. That’s my whole point. You can be in love for a few months, but if you don’t eat, it’s over.
So what exactly does money mean to you?
Money is the foundation upon which you build a family, so you have to make it important. It’s a family member. It’s not the only thing in life, but without it, it’s very hard to live. And you have to be honest about it. You have to treat it with respect. It’s not about greed. This is about providing personal freedom for your family. That’s why you sacrifice in your early years to be an entrepreneur. I tell young entrepreneurs, these companies that started one year and are worth billions the next, they’re few and far between. Most entrepreneurs toil for 15 years before getting their big break. And to do that, you’re going to have to miss lots of baseball games and hockey games and everything else, but the reason you do it is to buy freedom in the later years, which I enjoy now. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I do everything I want to. Why? Because I can afford to. I encourage every Canadian to pursue such a path.