Brett Wilson emerges from the den

The dragon was nursing a sore throat, but he still breathed a bit of fire Thursday morning in Red Deer.

Brett Wilson from the CBC's Dragons' Den speaks during the  2009 United Way Campaign Kick off Luncheon

Brett Wilson from the CBC's Dragons' Den speaks during the 2009 United Way Campaign Kick off Luncheon

The dragon was nursing a sore throat, but he still breathed a bit of fire Thursday morning in Red Deer.

Brett Wilson, a Calgary investment banker who appears regularly on the CBC program Dragons’ Den, spoke passionately about the importance of philanthropy during a presentation to a large audience at the Capri Centre.

Describing charitable giving as “an opportunity, not an obligation,” he said individuals can change the world through small acts of kindness.

“The bottom is that we’re more powerful than we think we are.”

Wilson said he finds it more satisfying to donate to a worthy cause than to spend on himself.

He also thinks it’s preferable to invest in charities than amass wealth for his children.

“Giving while living is always going to be more rewarding that trying to guide from the grave.”

Wilson related how he had suggested that FirstEnergy devote 2.5 per cent of its pre-tax profits to charitable giving. Part of the motivation, he acknowledged, was a belief that this would produce marketing benefits for the company — and it has.

FirstEnergy divides its support among arts-, health-, political and community-related causes. Where appropriate, said Wilson, it ensures that key people — clients, prospective clients and community leaders — are made aware of the donations.

“We make sure that everyone who could care about FirstEnergy, or should care about FirstEnergy, gets on that list.”

He and his partners also gives personally, In Wilson’s case, this includes financing annual trips for 50 to 60 people to build homes in Mexico.

“That’s a powerful experience,” he said, describing how one 21-year-old participant called the trip the “best weekend of my life.”

Wilson expressed remorse about his previous workaholic tendencies, which he said cost him a marriage and jeopardized his relationship with his children.

Later, he said his priorities have changed from making money to focusing on health, family, friends, learning and community.

Wilson recalled how his parents’ actions influenced his development, with his father coaching every sports team he played on and his mother once taking part in a swim-a-thon fundraiser even though she couldn’t swim and had to wear a life-jacket.

One particularly vivid memory involves the abuse his parents endured when his mother — a social worker — repeatedly crossed a picket line of striking government employees rather than abandon clients in need.

“I still remember her saying she thought that was the right thing to do.”

A failure to do the right thing was a root cause of the current economic downturn, said Wilson.

“In my opinion, what happened is we had a crisis of morality at the highest level of corporate (North) America,” he said, explaining that sub-prime loans were rolled into “poorly conceived investment packages” even though those responsible knew better.

Wilson also blames the Canadian and Alberta governments for making the situation worse than it needed to be.

The federal decision to boost taxes on income trusts wiped out wealth and destroyed a vehicle that helped develop marginal energy reserves, he said. And by restructuring the oil and gas royalty system and then continuing to tinker with it, the provincial Conservatives dealt a blow to the energy sector at an inopportune time.

Oil prices have now nearly recovered to the point that Wilson thinks is appropriate — in the $75 to $100 range — but he doesn’t see natural gas rebounding. That’s because technological advances are making vast reserves of shale gas accessible.

“I think we’ll see something in that $5, $6, $7 range on a longer term basis.”

However, near infinite supplies of natural gas will produce benefits, he said, including stable prices for consumers and stable electricity prices.

Discussing his involvement in Dragons’ Den, Wilson said he is pleased to see entrepreneurship being celebrated. But he’s also frustrated when producers with no business experience edit out relevant discussions in favour of amusing quips and barbs.

Wilson, who was born in North Battleford, Sask., has lived in Alberta since 1979.

In addition to his involvement in FirstEnergy, which has brokered more than $150 billion in deals, Wilson is president of private merchant bank Prairie Merchant Corp. He was Alberta Venture magazine’s Business Person of the Year in 2008 and Calgary’s Person of the Year in 2007.

Following his morning presentation, which was organized by the Rotary Clubs of Red Deer, he spoke at the community kickoff luncheon for the United Way of Central Alberta’s 2009 campaign.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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