Day 6

Meet the man who helped Kevin O'Leary shape his powerful personal brand

Kevin O'Leary isn't actually a candidate yet, but this week, Conservative Party leadership hopefuls turned their sites on him, suggesting the larger-than-life reality TV personality could be a serious contender for the job. Former Dragons' Den executive producer Stuart Coxe — the man who helped make Kevin O'Leary a household name — explains how O'Leary built his brand and how it might translate into politics.
Canadian businessman Kevin O'Leary speaks during the Conservative Party of Canada convention in Vancouver, Friday, May 27, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy

Of the 13 candidates contesting the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, two of them decided this week to put pressure on a rival who's not even officially in the race.

Both Andrew Scheer and Lisa Raitt went after Kevin O'Leary, the businessman, reality TV star and political neophyte who's been teasing a possible leadership bid.

O'Leary has assembled an organizing committee, taken shots at the Prime Minister, launched the web site, O'Leary for Canada and talked about how he'd govern if he gets the job. 

But so far, Kevin O'Leary hasn't put himself in the official race.  Some are sceptical he will.

"If you'd asked me six months ago, I would have said absolutely not," Stuart Coxe told me on CBC Day6. "He's got too good a life. But people who know him are starting to think that he might actually be serious about this."                                           

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Making Mr. Wonderful

Stuart Coxe was executive producer of the reality show that made O'Leary a star.

He launched Dragons' Den for CBC Television in 2006 and cast the original ensemble. Coxe watched from behind the camera as O'Leary created the persona — or the brand — that would make him famous.

I had to basically take him aside to say, 'Kevin you've got to work on being more evil. It's better that way.'- Stuart Coxe

"Everyone told us you're never going to find an interesting Canadian business person. You're never going to find someone who can command an audience. Canadians are boring. And Kevin is many things but he is never boring."

Coxe says that from a TV perspective, that's what makes O'Leary stand out. 

"He's someone who's not supposed to exist."

Businessman Kevin O'Leary, a former panelist on CBC's Dragon's Den, is considering a run for the Tory leadership. (CBC)

The first season of Dragons' Den spanned only seven episodes. It was just enough to show O'Leary the value of being what Coxe calls "the dark heart" of the panel.

In the second year, they turned up the heat and ratings rose.

"The important thing to recognize about Kevin", Coxe says, "is he wasn't exactly who he is today. He has definitely evolved the character over time — over the years of doing Dragons' Den."

"Second season, he came back and I said 'Kevin you were great. You know it was really working. And we've got to make it a little bit more evil.'"

"And he says, 'Oh, my wife tells me I can't do that anymore.  She's getting hell from her friends at cocktail parties.'"

"So we started shooting for a couple of days and I had to basically take him aside to say, 'Kevin you've got to work on being more evil. It's better that way.'"

"And by season three or four he didn't need any more convincing.  He knew that was what was getting the audience reaction."


The Trump route

O'Leary clearly relished playing the villain.

It made him a star and his television footprint expanded. In 2009, he was hired by CBC to co-host The Lang and O'Leary Exchange. The same year, he would leave Dragons' Den for a similar show on ABC called Shark Tank where he honed his brand.



The executive producer of Shark Tank is Mark Burnett, who also launched The Apprentice, which made a TV star of Donald Trump. 

So how does Stuart Coxe think the election of Donald Trump has resonated for O`Leary?

"I think there is no question that everyone around Kevin was very aware that there were some obvious parallels, including the fact they both had the same employer in Mark Burnett in the States."

I wondered how Stuart Coxe felt about television stardom being the ticket to the highest echelons of power.

"There was a time when people said about someone like Ronald Reagan that he was an actor. But he had a very sophisticated way of understanding how television news worked in the 1980s."

"My feeling is that people want someone who's really authentic and who has rough edges. You know, so much of it is brand awareness. And Kevin has brand awareness."


A transition from small screen to big stage

After he won the Republican nomination, many wondered if Donald Trump would pivot away from the extreme positions he took to win that contest, to a more moderate posture. 

If O'Leary's public persona is a creation of TV, and specifically reality television, how comfortable would he be shedding that image to take on the consensus-building business of government?

Stuart Coxe believes we would see another side of O'Leary in public life.

"You know, he made some comments about unions over the years. That's the kind of thing that he would say on television to get a reaction. If that's the extreme position that people are worried about with Kevin, he would never do that if he ever did choose to go into political life."

" I had one telling exchange with Kevin about politics a couple of years ago which did strike me," Coxe says. "He got into a spat with Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario, over taxes."

"And I said to him, 'Well you know, guys like you, you just figure out a way to avoid taxes anyway, so what do you care?'"

"And he said he felt that it was morally wrong that the tax system was set up for people like him to cheat.  And I thought it was very interesting because that's actually not the Kevin O'Leary of Dragons' Den."

"And you know, there's a lot of bombast and bluster in everything he's doing now. But there was a sense of a kind of public good about Kevin about the way the economy is structured and about a sense of fairness around that."

The deadline for entering the Conservative leadership race is February 24th.

Some believe O'Leary hasn't entered the race yet because he doesn't speak French and wants to avoid the unilingual French language debate in Quebec City on January 17th.

As O'Leary considers his options, other candidates may be remembering the theme song from Dragons' Den.

It's called Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is.

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Stuart Coxe, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.