The dragon’s pen

Reality TV villain writes about life and money in new autobiography


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Kevin O'Leary has been called many things -- and often they haven't been very flattering.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/10/2011 (4147 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Kevin O’Leary has been called many things — and often they haven’t been very flattering.

But most notably, Canada’s best-known venture capitalist has been called a dragon, as per his regular role as one of four successful entrepreneurs who control the purse strings on the popular CBC television program Dragons’ Den. Every week, millions watch aspiring entrepreneurs bid for cash from these “dragons” of venture capital. And many viewers tune in, anticipating O’Leary will use quick wit and sharp business acumen to shamelessly and mercilessly verbally eviscerate contestants.

The notoriety has earned him many nicknames — such as “The Mean One” — that most of us would not bear as proudly as O’Leary.

"Money has no grey areas. You either make it or you lose it" - Kevin O'Leary

But it’s also a rep that has paid off handsomely, helping land him another TV role and another name — this time “shark” — as a venture-capital investor on an American version of Dragons’ Den, called Shark Tank, on ABC.

And now O’Leary can add another name or title to the list: author.

He recently published an autobiography titled Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money and Life.

In fact, early in the book he addresses his many monikers, including “asshole,” given to him by a stranger after an uncomfortable encounter in a public washroom. But the one he relishes the most is The Mean One.

O’Leary is also well-known by another name: “Mr. Wonderful.” It’s a title he often uses when referring to himself on the popular business news program The Lang and O’Leary Exchange, which he co-hosts on CBC Newsworld.

In some ways, O’Leary says those two nicknames — The Mean One and Mr. Wonderful — are interchangeable. Yes, he can be cruelly honest, but that’s what makes him wonderful, he says.

Like the book’s title, the truth can be cold, and so is money. So why beat around the bush with niceties?

“Money has no grey areas. You either make it or you lose it. It’s an exact science and there’s no room for anything else except the truth when you’re dealing with it or talking about it,” he says during a recent interview.

“If telling the truth to people about their idea or about money turns into an emotional experience for them, that’s too bad.”

Yes, he admits he’s made contestants cry, but he is unapologetic if he comes across as nasty.

Business is hell — just like war, he says. It’s not about making friends, it’s about making money — a point any O’Leary watcher has heard repeatedly.

His new book is no departure from that mantra. In fact, it’s an ode of sorts to his respectful, undying love of cash.

But more importantly, the book is his way of giving back as an entrepreneur, he says.

“I think every entrepreneur in Canada owes the next generation a road map of how to do it again,” he says. “But it’s not from the perspective of the success I’ve had; I wanted to explain what my mistakes and what my failures were.”

Those are the teaching moments, he adds.

O’Leary’s life has certainly had its share of trials and setbacks. Born in the 1950s in Montreal, of Lebanese descent on his mother’s side and Irish on his father’s, he did not have the easiest of childhoods. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father, Terry, a hard-drinking salesman and not-always-so-present parent, died a few years later.

O’Leary had dyslexia. It was a potentially negative experience, but he says he turned it into a positive one that helped him later in life when he co-founded The Learning Company, which developed visually driven educational tools for home computers.

O’Leary devotes many pages to the growth and eventual sale of that firm, purchased by toymaker Mattel for $4.2 billion at the height of the tech boom.

What should have been the pinnacle of his career soon turned into a hard life lesson. For a short time, he continued to work on a consulting basis with Mattel, but he butted heads with higher-ups over direction and Mattel eventually fired him. He was even escorted by security from the corporate giant’s headquarters with just a box under his arm..

O’Leary spent the next couple of years reassessing life.

But without the setback, he says he wouldn’t be where he is today — a famous TV personality and founder of O’Leary Funds, a rapidly growing investment firm that has amassed more than $1 billion in assets in 30 months — unprecedented in the Canadian mutual-fund industry.

Hard work and sacrifice have most certainly played roles in his success, and they need to play starring roles in the life of any aspiring entrepreneur who longs for success.

“You have to throw out the concept of balance in life,” he says. “You need to get myopically focused. You become a prisoner of the business for a few years and then you’re set completely free when you sell it.”

But O’Leary also writes extensively in the book about the influence of his mother, who ran a family garment business before remarrying an Egyptian-born American diplomat named George Kanawaty, whose work with the United Nations took them all over the world.

His mother, Georgette, was the foundation for much of his success, he says. After all, if it weren’t for her lending him $10,000 in the ’80s, his education software company would never have gotten off the ground.

More importantly, she imbued him with a piece of key financial advice he credits for much of his success: Never invest in anything that doesn’t pay you to hold onto it.

“She had a very simple philosophy — that she only owned companies that paid dividends,” he says.

History has proven it works, he adds. Stocks have gone sideways in capital growth in the last decade, but if you’ve held bonds or stocks that pay dividends, you’ve at least earned a salary along the way.

“I got that same disease,” he says. “I do not own a single security anywhere that doesn’t pay a dividend, and I formed a mutual-fund company with that very simple philosophy.”

He started O’Leary Funds in 2008 after realizing high-priced portfolio managers failed to preserve his hard-earned wealth because they were chasing returns in once high-flying growth stocks.

With O’Leary Funds, there are no such shenanigans, he says.

“You know with certainty when you buy an O’Leary fund that the securities inside all generate yield.”

It’s certainly not a strategy exclusive to his fund company, he says, but it’s definitely tried and true. Just look at the last four decades. Seventy per cent of the returns in the stock market have come from dividends, not capital appreciation.

And he says he has only his mother, who died in 2008, to thank.

“That’s what’s so amazing about it all; sometimes women are much better investors than men.”

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