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Follow small-town boy into the Dragons' Den

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Jim Treliving is a kid from Virden who's now co-chairman and co-owner of Boston Pizza. He also owns controlling or non-controlling interests in a host of other businesses, including Mr. Lube.

But he's probably best known as the tall, avuncular venture-capital "dragon" on CBC-TV's popular reality television program Dragons' Den, where entrepreneurs in need of financing pitch their enterprises to a five-member panel of venture capitalists, in exchange for royalties or equity positions in their businesses.

Decisions is about how a small-town Manitoba barber's son and ex-RCMP officer who barely made it out of high school became a multimillionaire.

It's equal part memoir and business-advice book. And by the yardstick of most business memoirs, it's an engaging read.

Its title derives from Treliving's theme -- that both life and business are about making good decisions, and that he's acquired expertise in making right choices he wants to share.

Each chapter of this memoir is followed by a three- or four-page "checklist," a summary of business pointers or principles gleaned from the part of his life story just narrated.

For example, the chapter relating his fallout with his first partner in Boston Pizza, fellow ex-RCMP officer Don Spence, and his subsequent successful teaming up with his former accountant, and current partner, George Melville, is followed by a "Checklist for Making Decisions about Partnerships."

Likewise, a chapter about how he pulled together enough money to (barely) finance the start-up of his first Boston Pizza restaurant, is followed by a "Checklist for Making Decisions about Money."

Along the way, you pick up a lot of insight into Boston Pizza's success. And also learn how a Canadian prairie pizza franchise came to be named after an American eastern seaboard city none of its principals had ever even visited.

Boston Pizza can thank Bobby Orr for its name. The Greek-immigrant restaurateur from Edmonton who opened the first Boston Pizza had never been anywhere near Boston. But he registered the business name because he was a big hockey fan who "loved Bobby Orr, a Canadian who'd been recruited by the Boston Bruins as a teenager."

Astonishingly, Treliving had never tasted pizza until the fateful night in 1966 he dropped in at one of two Boston Pizza restaurants then owned by the Agioritis brothers of Edmonton. It was a revelation.

"Pizza was the kind of thing you could put down in the middle of the table and share with friends, everyone grabbing a slice, which to me seemed exotic," he recalls of that night. "In the Canada I grew up in, you sat silently at a table, the only noise being the scraping of your knife on the plate."

Not much more than 18 months later he tossed the RCMP for the pizza business, opening his first restaurant in Penticton, B.C.

Treliving, now 71, is candid about the chain restaurant's business model.

"Pizza and pasta are mostly made from two ingredients: flour and water," he writes.

"One of those ingredients was extremely cheap, the other practically free, making food costs really low. (That's still the case today, which explains in part why there's a waiting list to become a Boston Pizza franchisee.)"

Theoretically, if you don't have the time or inclination to read the details of his life and success, you could skip right to the end-of-chapter business lessons.

But that would do the book a disservice, because Treliving's distinctive voice is worth hearing in full.

Ultimately, his book mirrors the guy you see on Dragons' Den: interesting, but not flashy; smart, but plain-spoken; compelling, but short on drama.


Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J8

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