Kevin O’Leary has often been called an asshole, or so he likes to brag. As the tough-guy venture capitalist on CBC Television’s Dragons’ Den (and a similar show on ABC in the U.S.), where proposals from incipient entrepreneurs are diagnosed and often demolished, he is bound to draw a few barbs. You might think he would want readers to see him in a more sympathetic light, but this is not a safe assumption.
The full title of his book is Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money & Life. Business and money are front and centre in this opus, which is part memoir and part how-to book. Life seems to get left behind.
O’Leary says an entrepreneur can tell when he or she has found the right type of business “when, despite the fact that you eat on the run, rarely sleep, travel constantly, never see your family and never relax, for some reason you’ve also never been happier.” Building a strong team is essential, he says, adding a caveat: “The only thing that truly motivates people is money. And if that doesn’t work, try more money.” Even if you feel close to your team, “at the end of the day, it’s always, always, always about the money.”
He does, though, allow for some exceptions. His mother, Georgette Bookalam, was wise about money but also about many other things. And Dr. Margie Golick, the distinguished psychologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital who helped O’Leary overcome severe childhood dyslexia, was surely not in it primarily for the money.
Starting early in the book, he says some fairly sensible things about money (“money goes only where it knows it’ll be safe, and that’s generally in the vicinity of more money”), but he also spouts some utter nonsense (“money may go to bad people, but it never goes to bad ideas”). It’s safe to say the dotcom bust a few years back would not have occurred if this were true, and the U.S. landscape would not today be littered with foreclosure signs.
The middle chapters of Cold Hard Truth are the most interesting. They detail O’Leary’s heroic (and occasionally amusing) rise to business success, starting with an interest in photography that led to creation of a television production company that, in turn, played a pivotal role in launching Don Cherry’s television career. (In the eyes of many Canadians, this alone would merit the asshole epithet.)
He later moved into the software field, building SoftKey into a competitive force that absorbed Boston-based TLC, a big name in educational software. TLC was later bought out by toy giant Mattel in a $4.2-billion deal negotiated with CEO Jill Barad. Barad, he says, is “a woman who reportedly took a business call while undergoing an emergency Caesarean section. She was our kind of partner.” Except that she wasn’t, and the association ended acrimoniously.
The next move was into television, where his talent as a showman hit pay dirt. Dragons’ Den became a ratings phenomenon. O’Leary, ever the entrepreneur, applied his notoriety to the creation of O’Leary Funds, a mutual fund operator offering a “new and exciting series of financial products” based on his mother’s philosophy of investing only in securities that pay dividends or fixed yields. (He does not explain how this differs from the dividend funds offered by most mutual fund families.) His partner in this undertaking is Stanton Asset Management, which describes itself on its website as “portfolio advisor to O’Leary Funds.” One investment letter calls the venture “a co-branding exercise.”
“I didn’t want to find, research and select the funds myself,” O’Leary admits. A good thing, too. Twice in the book, he refers to Cambodia, the Southeast Asian country where he spent a brief part of his childhood, as an “economic powerhouse” and a place where he is happy to invest. At last report, Cambodia’s stock exchange has failed to attract even a single listing, putting its total market capitalization at zero. This is not everyone’s idea of a powerhouse. Elsewhere, he refers to an operation that “separates deadly carbon dioxide from [natural] gas, pumping toxic CO2 back into the seabed.” He clearly is no expert in toxicology. Nor does he have a highly developed moral sense: “I don’t weight in on the political, cultural, religious or social aspects in countries housing my investments; money doesn’t care about those things, so why should I?”
The final chapters descend to the level of advertorial, first for Dragons’ Den (we learn in obsessive detail how to prepare a pitch) and then for O’Leary Funds, which grew to $1.5 billion in less than three years. Despite the talk of billions, O’Leary has yet to crack Canadian Business magazine’s list of the 100 richest Canadians, with a cut-off at about $500 million. But he does know a lot about money, and the condensed business wisdom he offers in the pages between chapters generally makes sense. The book rolls at a brisk pace from beginning to end. In fact, it’s quite a good read. A pity, though, about his repeated equation of money and freedom. He makes it sound more like slavery.