Truth-telling in Layers: An evening with Kevin O’Leary

The Scene

Kevin O’Leary’s cultural currency (pun intended) is such that the NAC’s Panorama Room was abuzz with eager business students and their older evolutions, as well as those of the type whose curiosity would lead them to visit a zoo. Like him or not, his message resonates. His candour which you think should emanate that overdone after-shave scent, instead refreshes like a Gatorade shower. O’Leary was in the house promoting his recently released book ‘Cold Hard Truth’; part-memoir, all-polemic.

 

The Revolution, Televised

 While much has been said about his built-from-scratch development of The Learning Company – whose sale to Mattel made him a billionaire – it is even more remarkable that he has reinvented himself the past decade as an indispensable TV personality. Ask Mark Cuban if this is as easy as O’Leary makes it look. By revealing a clip of outtakes from Dragon’s Den to the audience, O’Leary stated that the main reason he gets on television as much as he does, is the sheer pleasure of meeting new people with interesting ideas, who can give him a return on his investment (naturally). A trip to a screening of Dancing with the Stars led to his purchase of the stock of the suppliers of Apple components, after a meeting with Steve Wozniack – apparently a massive fan of said show. Not a bad deal at all. Some of the viewership numbers to his show Dragon’s Den is truly astounding – 2.2 million viewers, almost 1 in 3 families in Canada! The question he fervently posed was “why?” to this phenomenon.

 

What’s It All About O’Leary?

The heart of O’Leary’s message is that the pursuit of wealth is ultimately the pursuit of freedom since having wealth enables you to do whatever you want to do. “This is true freedom.” One is tempted to dismiss this as too simplistic, but as O’Leary would point out later – those who do so “aren’t exactly starving”. The impulse to make a better life is a story repeated everywhere, at once, as always. To be either employees or entrepreneurs were both painted as legitimate paths: though the latter being the only one that make’s someone rich, creates jobs, leads to millions in tax revenue and the one that O’Leary espouses.

 

Failing and fixing the gaps

O’Leary stressed the importance of knowing one’s weaknesses as an indicator of seeking partnerships where the gaps can be filled with other’s strengths.  He even speaks of marriages and his own relationship to his wife as an example. O’Leary’s repeated admonitions had the phrase “for your children, for your family” as a reason for the entrepreneurial drive. This struck me as charmingly old-fashioned; much like how the ruthlessness of the Don Corleone belied tenderness for his kin. I mention this only because it appears quaint when juxtaposed to the prevailing hyper-individualism today – in business and vice. Indeed, the book is dedicated to his mother Georgette, who wasn’t solely praised for her kindness but also her business savvy. In an audience question which would appear later, O’Leary implied that women would have to make the same level of sacrifice that men do while proclaiming that women were better investors. It’s unfortunate that the dearth of women in top executive positions in the corporate world didn’t provoke a more thorough discussion. In terms of failure being a spur to change, O’Leary’s views carry more than anecdotal water. In a recent issue on education, the New York Times Magazine spoke at length on why children need not be shielded from failing, how it is necessary even - in developing resilience and other favourable character traits for success. Failure is seen as a value-neutral term in the Israeli business culture, leading to impressive growth in the amount of start-up companies in that country; more than any other.

 

Charity

A CEO of a bank was upbraided by O’Leary because he chose to distribute funds to selected charities without allowing shareholders to make a profit first. O’Leary critique that a business’s sole purpose is to increase the value of its profits for its shareholders is right. Losing sight of this would mean dismantling the DNA of the entrepreneurial spirit. While praising the pursuit of profits rubs the heart the wrong way, this was in no way a negation of munificence. He stated that it is a personal responsibility whereby every individual should take a percentage of their income and give it away, not something which a CEO or the government has to force one to do.

 

Adrian Harewood

Adrian had another stellar performance as the interviewer whose “yes, but” follow-ups made the discussion richer and made O’Leary through his responses seem...well, more human.

 

Family and the balanced life? Bad news.

O’Leary was frank about how there is a cost of being an entrepreneur who is competing on a global market. He spoke to length about the sacrifice he made along with his wife but even if he had missed out on family time, the price had been worth it. Adrian’s rejoinder that “families need more than money” merely merited a shrug. O’Leary stated that while it was true that divorce, unhappiness and great personal cost were to be expected, it would all be worth it. I’m not so sure it always would be. The very powerful impact of finances (or lack thereof) on relationships and families is tremendous – second only to adultery in conjugal breakdown. O’Leary’s message of respecting money enough to treat it with realism did strike a chord.

 

Ethics of investing

When Adrian challenged O’Leary about his seeming disregard for the politics of the states where he invested, an interesting discussion followed. The familiar scenario of “with hindsight, would you invest in Nazi Germany” was brought up. O’Leary’s contention was that no collective investment of monies into an unjust state - which treats its own citizen’s poorly – takes place. It’s fair to say places like North Korea, Zimbabwe and Burma aren’t exactly magnets for foreign investment. There has been instance of where economic growth having moral implications. While China seems to be the paradoxical communist state which plays (rather well) at capitalism, it remains to be seen whether its rising middle-class can be put in a corner, gagged of dissent indefinitely.

 

Regulation Smegulation

O’Leary’s admits that much of what the banking sector in Canada being less risky and under stricter rules has been a good thing in weathering the recession, but any desire to clamp down too much was seen as an impediment to competing globally. An interesting idea of (since O’Leary believe a third of every dollar spent by government is wasted) making bureaucrats receive a bonus of 15% on every dollar they save conjured up images of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s “well that’s unheard of!” Min. Tony Clement’s recent announcement of “at-risk pay” for the public service indicates that this idea does have traction with the current federal government.

 

What freedom gets you

Perhaps the best question from the audience was about how this freedom that O’Leary keeps touting looks like: a sample of things O’Leary does with his time – since it, not money has become more important. A visit to Angkor Wat with his children to show them how simple river folk live and a trip to Miami for LeBron James’ birthday party, were offered as slices.

 

All this to say...

The preaching of hard work, fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship indeed have merit, especially when addressed with O’Leary’s bracing honesty. Canada does need more entrepreneurs and to forge farther alliances with emerging economies such as Brazil, India and China. 

At a personal level however, something still felt as if it were missing from O’Leary’s worldview. The last word (literally) belonged to Adrian Harewood whose “you’ll still die though” to O’Leary’s “...that way you can die rich!” lingered.