Kevin O'Leary, Canada's own Scrooge

Whether it's to eager entrepreneurs trying to pitch him, or with a guest on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, Kevin O'Leary speaks his mind. But is he nice?

 It’s an inspired bit of casting:  Kevin O'Leary played Scrooge on the Christmas special from CBC's popular comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. O'Leary was seen in bed wearing a nightgown, advising Jacob Marley's ghost on how to invest. 

It's "the role he was born to play", according to the blurb on YouTube.

And ain't that the truth?  Through his almost constant television exposure, (his new show Redemption Inc. debuts in January) O'Leary has become famous for his singular focus on money, and his complete lack of compassion for people’s feelings. 

Whether it’s the eager entrepreneurs who come to pitch for investment on Dragons' Den, or his guests on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange, the CBC News Network program on which he appears with Amanda Lang every day, O'Leary speaks his mind with no apparent concern about how he comes across. 

"I always tell the truth," he often defends himself: "That’s why I’m known as Mister Wonderful."

Other people have other names for him. 

Kevin O'Leary is one of the investors on CBC Television's Dragons' Den. (Jeffrey Kirk/Canadian Press)

"Yes, Kevin O'Leary is a jerk."

I'm told that’s how Arlene Dickinson recently opened a speech, beginning her remarks by answering the inevitable question all of us who work with him get so often about Kevin.   

People want to know what he’s really like, behind the scenes, and if his tough guy image is for real. (Arlene confirms "Haha!  Yes, I may have said something like that.")

When I get asked, I answer oh yes, he's for real.  His personality is no reality show gambit.  The day many of us met him for the first time, when Dragons' were auditioning for the show, he arrived with his prickly persona fully intact.  

And what about his world view? Is that for real too?  

He says himself that his political stance is "somewhat right of Attila the Hun." Kevin sometimes gets himself in trouble with people who take what he says absolutely seriously. 

My belief is that he over-states his viewpoints somewhat, to be provocative. And in doing that, he does indeed get people talking and thinking about ideas and values. I think that’s a valuable public service. 

So at the risk of offending all the passionate Kevin-haters out there, I admit I have a bit of a soft spot for Mr. O'Leary.

Mr. Wonderful

Reading his book The Cold Hard Truth is one reason for that. This Montreal native didn’t have the easiest life growing up.  His Lebanese mother took over and eventually sold her family's children's wear company, but she was "no heiress," as Kevin says in the book. His Irish father was a salesman. They weren't wealthy. 

Kevin was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of six, the same year his parents separated. Two years later, his father died at the age of 37.  When his mother re-married a traveling executive, Kevin and his brother began a peripatetic life, moving from Montreal to Cambodia to Cyprus, spending time in Ethiopia and Tunisia before eventually settling back in Ottawa. As a teenager Kevin spent three lonely years away from his family, at a military college in Quebec — he'd failed the entrance exam to attend the one English school in Cyprus.  

Those details made me see him less as a villain, and more as a kid who came through a lot of challenges.

And I found it very endearing that Kevin so obviously adored his mother Georgette, who passed away three years ago.  He quotes her constantly in the book, and there are many pictures of them together. He has a strong relationship with his stepfather George, who he visits regularly in Geneva.

But it's the vigour with which Kevin applied himself to work that I believe makes him so demanding of entrepreneurs who ask for his hard-earned money.  After all, it was his own industriousness, creativity and relentless drive that made him millions. 

After getting an MBA at the University of Western Ontario, Kevin got his start in television production (his company produced Don Cherry's Grapevine show) and hit on a hot idea when he saw the potential in a new type of graphics software developed by one of his colleagues. From there, he and his partners expanded one business after another, with Kevin keeping a laser focus on the needs of the marketplace, and his ability to generate ever-growing revenue.  It culminated in his sale of The Learning Company to Mattel in 1998 for $4.2 billion.

The deal made him rich, of course, but after a short period of 'retirement’, he was back to work. The man is a machine.  He goes hard all day, every day, juggling an unbelievable number of responsibilities — to CBC Television of course, and to his mutual fund company O'Leary Funds, among others. 

He's constantly on the road, and is frequently hitting studios in Boston or Montreal to appear on his daily show with Amanda Lang. You have to respect his work ethic.

But none of that means he’s actually kind or decent.  And when I asked him recently "when was the last time you did something nice?" the question stumped him.

"I'm nice all the time!" he exclaimed.  "Can you give me an example?" I asked.

Long silence. "I'm timing you," I said, looking at my watch. 

"This is pretty telling that you can’t come up with an example."

"I took my kids out for dinner last night," he offered. 

"That doesn’t count," I said, "you have to feed your kids."

"Right. True. So when was I nice," he ruminated, looking around the office as he tried to come up with something. "You can say I helped Arlene get on her broom."

Luckily, some of his associates have examples of Kevin being kind.  Just last week he offered to take the entire staff of The Lang & O'Leary Exchange out to the Ritz-Carlton for the annual Christmas cocktail outing. A booking had already been made at a more down-market location, so Kevin got off lightly.  He joined the group (even though he claimed drinking the sub-par wine available there could blind him), and he did pick up the entire tab for the group. 

"If you look at the way Kevin grew his various businesses, a lot of it was through deal making," says Alex Kenjeev,  who runs O'Leary Ventures, one of Kevin's companies.

"To do that, you can’t be a fundamentally bad person — you have to be the kind of person that attracts people and gets them to come together. He really does have a gift for putting people on the same page. And he accomplishes that with honesty, sometimes with humour. He makes people feel comfortable enough that he’s not going to hold back something from them."

"One thing I can say about Kevin," says Dragons’ Den senior producer Lisa Gabriele, "In all the years that I've known him, I have never heard him utter a bad word about another human being behind their back. Ever. He's taken people down — to their face — but the guy doesn't gossip and is always, always genial. I cannot say that about any one else I know."

I remember during trial runs for Dragons’ Den’s first season, Kevin made a pitcher cry. Her pitch was lame, there’s no doubt, and he let her have it with both barrels. 

But afterward he was clearly consumed with guilt over her tears, telling us he was sending her a Coach purse (retail price $300-$800) to make it up to her. I don’t know if he actually did that, but the fact that he had the urge tells me he has a heart. 

So in the spirit of the season, I’m reminding everyone that no one is all bad.  Not even Canada’s own Scrooge, Kevin O'Leary.