By Jill Kruse
When it comes to supporting the military and their families, popular reality TV star and affluent Western Canadian businessman W. Brett Wilson is all in.
“I tend to be attracted to causes that deserve more profile than they have,” says the philanthropist and investor with a conscience. “Terry Kelly’s video ‘A Pittance in Time’, gets to me, deep. Celebrating our military a minute a year is a pathetic show of the support that they deserve.
“And I often say that the people who serve in uniform at every level in our country deserve a lot more respect than they get, often because they serve in a less public way. We have paramedics, police, firefighters who are in the community–the military, for the most part, are not in the community. So they are out of sight. Once they are out of sight, they are out of mind. I find it doesn’t take a lot of work with a great cause, to raise awareness. I’m not doing fund-raising; I’m doing awareness-raising. The cause raises the funds.”
However, Wilson’s enthusiasm for supporting the military may not simply be an altruistic desire to help the troops; this self-made multi-millionaire and father of three has had a very personal and tragic experience with terrorism. One of his best friends was onboard a plane that Muammar Gaddafi blew up in 1989.
“Everyone talks about Pan Am Flight Lockerbie 103 but UTA 772 also went down,” says Wilson. “And Gadaffi’s people admit they blew it up. There was one Canadian on that plane: his name was Russell Jordan. I named my son after him. I have first hand experience if you will, at what terrorism in the mind of a lunatic madman can mean. The Taliban represent that kind of terrorism. I often tell people that the war with the Taliban would be fought in Boston, Chicago and Montreal if we weren’t fighting it in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Operation: Western Front
Wilson’s most recent show of support for the military and their families was an event called Operation: Western Front (LINK) where he and fellow philanthropist Warren M. Spitz, helped raise over $1.5 Million to support military causes.
When Wilson saw what the True Patriot Love Foundation was doing in the East he thought they needed to do something in the West. It was talked about for awhile and then his close friend Warren Spitz was brought in on the discussion and together they decided to do something in Vancouver.
“We decided to test market it and if they had stumbled in marketing it, the event wouldn’t have proceeded,” says Wilson. So in January they went out to about 200 people with a request based on a “save the date” notice to buy a $10,000 or $25,000 table, but no other information. They worked on this for about a month and sold out, more than 500 seats–50 tables with a ‘save the date, trust us, it will be a great event.’
“We had a great cause,” explains Wilson. “And people knew we would do something different. So by putting out a notice that tables would be going for between $10,000 and $25,000, instead of people saying wow that’s a lot, they said, I better buy a $10,000 table before he calls me and pushes me for a $25,000 table! A typical event for me is to under-promise and over-deliver. In this case we promised nothing.”
The funds, directed through Canada’s True Patriot Love Foundation, will support a variety of needs including scholarships for children of the fallen, child care, medical support and financial aid. Wilson says the goal was to raise awareness first, then raise money. With Operation: Western Front, he says they have designed a structure that can be replicated across the country if they choose to. But it won’t be an annual event.
“What we are contemplating is that it would rotate every two years between Vancouver and Calgary. In other words, the next Operation: Western Front would be in Calgary in 2013.”
Also Wilson hosts an annual Christmas party dedicated to the Calgary Veteran’s Food Bank. However, the Food Bank is not just about food, he says. “It’s about prosthetics, wheelchairs, mortgage payments—it’s about supporting our troops in whatever they need most. So I host a free Christmas party, invite only, and ask for a cheque. If people will support the cause I’ll throw the party!”
Four Main Causes
Wilson quickly adds that he does not commit long term support to all the causes he has been involved with. He has four main causes which he supports regularly and the rest he describes as a “one-off” or causes he will help one time and then move on.
“Someone once jokingly described me as a serial philanthropist,” explains Wilson. “And it’s true. I’ll work with a cause then I will literally abandon it and move on. I’ve emotionally supported it, I’ve financially supported it, I’ve intellectually supported it, my time supported it, and I try to help it move to another level.”
His top four causes are prostate cancer (which he describes himself as “a graduate of”), domestic abuse, volleyball (his children’s favourite sport) and the military.
Annual Garden Party
Wilson also hosts an annual garden party which he describes as a “rotation of causes”. The last one was in support of Boomer’s Legacy, a foundation established by Maureen Eykelenboom, in memory of her son, Corporal Andrew James Eykelenboom, who was killed in Afghanistan in August 2006. Cpl. Eykelenboom, known to his comrades as ‘Boomer’, joined the Canadian Forces in 2001 and was a medic based in Edmonton, Alberta. His family started Boomer’s Legacy to carry on Andrew’s work of caring for others. The foundation’s goal is to provide funds to soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan who find citizens in need.
“Boomer’s Legacy is not so much about supporting military families as it is supporting our troops in the frontline relationship with the men, women and children of Afghanistan,” says Wilson. “So through Boomer’s Legacy we can empower our troops to do a better job.”
Wilson eagerly shares his personal knowledge of the difference our troops are making in Afghanistan. He has travelled to Kandahar and talked with the soldiers who confront the Taliban daily.
“Having been to Afghanistan, I am aware that we are making a difference,” says Wilson. “I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve spent time with NGOs, I’ve spent time with businesses in Kabul, and I’ve also sat and chatted with our troops on the frontline. They now know they are making a difference. They admit that maybe a year ago they were still losing. Two years ago we were losing. But we’ve gotten smarter about IEDs, we’ve gotten smarter about our equipment, gotten smarter about squeezing the Taliban, and I hope that the change we are making there will be sustained.”
Nonetheless, the reality in Canada is that despite all the yellow ribbons and Red Friday rallies, there are still people in this country who do not support the war in Afghanistan and think our troops should not be there.
“I have a different view,” says Wilson. “I happen to disagree. I respectfully point out that the great thing about our country, unlike Afghanistan, is that we have the right to disagree here. That’s one benefit of being Canadian that an Afghanistan person wouldn’t enjoy.”
“7 Virtues“ Investment
In addition to raising awareness through charitable events, Wilson is also making a difference in the world of conscientious investing on the CBC’s popular reality TV show: Dragons’ Den (www.cbc.ca/dragonsden). Often described by his legion of fans as the Dragon with a heart, Wilson has just invested a lot of his time and money in an entrepreneur whom he believes is making a significant contribution towards the goal of self-sufficiency in countries like Afghanistan.
Nova Scotia entrepreneur and author Barb Stegemann approached the dragons with an opportunity to invest in a fragrance line produced from the oil of flowers native to the war-ravaged regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“My interest in Barb was first of all based on her incredible enthusiasm, incredible capability, incredible vision and incredible dream,“ says Wilson. “Second was the dream she was following. Not that it wasn’t important, but it was second to the entrepreneur. In this case the cause was compelling and then some. The opportunity was compelling, the business was compelling. Empowering local people in war-torn regions of the world; give them incremental opportunities for sales; well, that is pretty cool.”
We here in the military community think YOU are pretty cool Mr. Wilson. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do for our men and women in uniform and their families. Chimo!
For more on the investments and causes supported by W. Brett Wilson, visit his website: www.wbrettwilson.ca or check out his official Facebook page: W. Brett Wilson.
Business Bio: W. Brett Wilson began work as an investment banker with McLeod Young Weir Limited (now ScotiaMcLeod or Scotia Capital). Wilson co-founded an investment banking advisory firm, Wilson Mackie & Co., in 1991 – a firm that enjoyed considerable success brokering oil and gas companies and properties.
In 1993, he co-founded FirstEnergy Capital Corp., now a leading Canadian stock brokerage firm that provides investment-banking services to global participants in the energy sector – via offices in Calgary, AB and London, England. Wilson retired from active duty at FirstEnergy in July, 2007 but retained his role as Chairman of the company until December, 2008. His primary holding company, Prairie Merchant Corporation, is the vehicle from which he makes most of his investments.
Front page photo: Wilson in Afghanistan. Top photo Wilson and Maja, his furry four legged friend. Wilson and Guy Lefleur in Afghanistan. Maureen Eykelenboom and Wilson at his annual Garden Party. Wilson, Barb Stegemann and the Minister of Defence, Peter McKay.