Realizing the pursuit of financial success isn’t all it’s cracked to be, W. Brett Wilson now finds success and solace giving his time and money to charity.
This local entrepreneur, best know for his stint on the hit TV series, Dragons’ Den, was living the high life — pouring his heart and soul into his company, First Energy, an investment bank catering to the oil and gas industry.
But that lifestyle came at a high cost — his health, his family and his marriage. Knowing he was on the wrong path, he reset his life and priorities. Now his number one priority is family, and second, philanthropy.
Wilson champions many causes and has a special place in his heart for animals. “We’ve been active as a family supporting a number of animal causes … wild horses, several cat programs and a number of domestic animal causes — the Calgary Humane Society being a big one here and others in my hometown back in Saskatchewan.”
In September 2010, the W. Brett Wilson Family Dog Park opened at the Calgary Humane Society. The dog park, a 2.3-acre off-leash dog park designed specifically for the shelter’s canine residents, is dedicated to Wilson’s chocolate brown, flat-coated retriever Maja, who he lost to cancer almost two years ago.
One of Wilson’s key business partners at First Energy, Jim Davidson, took on the unenviable challenge of raising some $10 million for a new animal shelter for the Calgary Humane Society. “The challenge is that for most people dogs are very close to their hearts but a long way from their wallets,” said Wilson. “It’s a personal choice. People will spend any amount to keep an animal alive but if it’s someone else’s dog or a shelter dog it’s a little harder to get people’s attention.” So Wilson came to the table in support of his partner, Jim, for this great cause, and that was how the idea of creating the dog park started to percolate.
When it comes to animal philanthropy, the way Wilson sees it is, charity begins at home.
“I get quite frustrated with some of the programs that are trying to bring rescue pets in from foreign countries to be adopted,” he said. “My frustration starts knowing that we have to euthanize animals here on a regular basis … so I am completely opposed to the money that’s being invested in bringing animals in from other countries for adoption.”
In his new book, Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes, Wilson talks very candidly about his work and personal life, all the mistakes he’s made along the way and his unique approach to philanthropy.
“Philanthropy is good business,” said Wilson. And, if you’ve made a corporate decision to make a contribution to community, a good place to start is with your attitude toward charitable giving.
“I happen to believe that philanthropy is an opportunity rather than a nagging obligation,” he said. “Secondly, if you are good at it, and every business should be good at it, you can engage your clients, you can differentiate yourself from your competitors and develop enormous goodwill with your staff, and the family members of your staff, and therefore community.”
That’s why Wilson calls it good business. “It’s all about engaging and the small cost of doing some selective, targeted charity work,” he explains. “Whether you support a bunch of causes a little bit or a few causes a lot — with time, or money, or leadership (creative application of time and money) — it doesn’t matter; as Mother Teresa said: ‘no act of charity is too small,’ so do something.”
Wilson suggests three approaches to
1. Breadth over depth: helping a lot of causes just a little does wonders for building goodwill. “I’ll use the example of how First Energy approached the community. We helped an awful lot of causes with the least amount of money that we felt comfortable allocating. We were fortunate that we had a large base to work from.”
2: Wilson’s own personal approach is something he calls “serial philanthropy”: “I help a cause and the first thing I do is raise awareness,” he explains. “My argument is, once you believe in it people will put money behind it … and it seems to work.”
3: Choose a single cause and do it well.
“Whether you choose a lot and do a little or choose a little and do a lot, it doesn’t matter, it has to suite the needs of your own family and your own business.”
Wilson’s philanthropic acumen seems to run in the family. His beloved Maja was a PALS dog, visiting seniors or sick kids in hospital, and helped to raise funds for the Calgary Humane Society. Near the end of her life she was working with a little girl who was autistic, said Wilson. “It was a pretty cool experience.” Maja was also Wilson’s constant companion and many people came to know her through his charitable work, so it was a very difficult loss.
His new pal, Cash, will soon start making his own charitable contribution through visitation programs like PALS. But, it was a long journey getting him ready.
Cash came to Wilson through Facebook. “Someone in my neighbourhood knew that I had lost Maja and asked if I’d be interested in getting another dog and at first I said no.” Without Maja, there was now some freedom and there was also the feeling that no dog could live up to Maja’s namesake, WGD — world’s greatest dog.
“A couple of weeks later I said, ‘Why don’t you drop him off on a Saturday for a couple of hours and I’ll just hang out with him and see whether or not there’s any chemistry.’”
Two weeks later Wilson took Cash out to his cabin for the weekend. “I still remember sitting on my front lawn with Cash at my feet listening to a dog barking next door,” he recalls. “When I looked down, my dog was gone and I realized he must be the dog barking next door. So I went over and sure enough, Cash had pinned the neighbours on their deck, barking at them.”
With that incident and a subsequent fight at the off-leash park, Wilson knew it was time to get Cash some training. The handsome standard poodle’s previous guardian was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, so in his final year he had the misfortune of having 20 or 30 different dog walkers, care givers etc. and as a result he lost all sense of discipline. “He just needed some care and attention and just like any kid, you need to set boundaries,” said Wilson.
“The dog I have today, thanks to discipline, is so relaxed,” adds Wilson. “One of the best things about Cash is he’s completely different from Maja. I contemplated seeking out the granddaughter of Maja, but I realized I was setting myself up for disappointment.”
Wilson admits that Cash has been great for his health. “I happen to believe that the energy of an animal can be very cathartic to people. There are very few people in the world that offer unconditional love, but dogs do.”