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5Q: Dragons' Den star Mike Wekerle on being the baddest big shot on Bay Street

Michael Wekerle

Mike Wekerle lost US$900,000 this week.

It’s probably not the most the CEO of merchant-banking firm Difference Capital and the newest Dragon’s Den judge has lost in a week or maybe even a day, but this one burns.

His shiny new Porsche 918 Spyder – one of the first two sent by the carmaker to Canada at the start of September caught fire at a Caledon gas station.

And now it’s gone, the latest addition to his Porsche collection turned into a million dollar hunk of melted metal. Not that it’s the craziest thing to happen to him.

Wekerle –the Oracle of Bay Street as fan boy investors call him or plain ol’ “Wek” to pals – has stories that could probably carry a Wolf of Wall Street sequel, were Marty Scorsese looking for a Canadian angle.

Of course, he’d probably deny half of it to keep you guessing.

With rock star locks and tattoo sleeves tucked under his shirt cuffs, celebrity buds like Mark Wahlberg (who he recently launched burger joint Wahlburgers with) and perhaps most importantly, a savant-esque financial acumen, Wekerle is hands down the most intriguing character to come out of Bay Street.

And then there’s the whole penchant for fast cars thing.

“I grew up with a paper route and when I was nine years old, a guy on my street had a beautiful candy apple red Corvette Stingray and I’d walk by it and one day he let me sit in it,” says Wekerle. “That gave me the bug.”

Raised in Toronto by two immigrant entrepreneur parents, business is in his blood. Fresh out of high school, he hit the trading floors in the early 1980s with First Marathon Securities eventually earning a rep as the go-to trader for the big guys looking to move large blocks of stock. He bought his first Porsche in 1994 and a year later joined Griffiths McBurney and Partners (GMP) putting him at the epicenter of the Bay Street tech boom.

In 2012, after a good run at GMP, which included early investment in Blackberry creator Research in Motion, Wekerle co-founded Difference Capital.

We sat down with Wekerle to discuss the Wolf of Wall Street, being the new Kevin O’Leary on Dragon’s Den and the parallels between Silicon Valley and Waterloo.

I must say, it's fun reading about you. 

Don't believe everything you read. I can tell you, with everything in life there's an element of truth and element of mistruth. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

Do you ever get sick of your Warren Buffett meets Mick Jagger branding?

Man, I don’t even know what that is. People say lots of things about me. I’m sick of everything as it is but I can’t change what people think good and bad. 

Who are you then?

I grew up with three sisters. Some would say I’m a momma's boy but I’m proud to be the way I am because growing up with sisters, you get in a lot of fights, you get hand me down clothes or chick clothes. I’ve no knuckles left and I broke my nose 12 times, well, four times to get it re-set. 

You held your own on Bay Street in the 1980s as well, despite the recession. How has working on the trading floor evolved since then? 

The world always changes – like any industry you have to understand the rules of engagement. So if you don’t know the rules you can’t play. But if you know the rules, you know how to work alongside the rules and how to optimize your decisions. 

How do you feel about the Wolf of Wall Street – element of truth or gross exaggeration?

I met him speed dating. 

Really?

(Laughs) No. But I know of the individual. A good friend Tony Forstmann, a mentor of mine who started ForstmannLeff and financed McDonald’s in 1966 when they only had 5 restaurants, knew him better than I did. I think a lot of that is Hollywood than it is reality. The era they participated in, the market was a very small sector. I tend to avoid the stocks with more than three letters like LGF76543 or whatever because they’re the pump and dump guys. Think of a boiler room, which was their world. Sure, they would have had one legitimate deal that they focused on. But we wouldn’t have crossed paths – I was an institutional guy. They stole a lot of my lines though, a good friend of mine is Mark Wahlberg and his right hand man is producer Eric Weinstein who is good friends with Scorsese so you know three or four of the lines are my lines, “boom shakalaka” is definitely mine and “safety first” – there’s a lot of Wekisms in that movie.

But you get to be a television celebrity now. How’d Dragon’s Den come about?

I'm very fortunate to be on the show, they approached me a couple of times and I really didn’t pursue it but Kevin had left the show and a couple of the guys like Bruce Croxon twisted me hard to do it. I had never really talked to the press as a way of life just because of my role when I was on the selling side – discretion and secrecy are the biggest issues in our industry. When I left the sell side, promotion became more of a need. I went through a pretty difficult time between 2010 and 2012, personally. I had to go back to the basics and back to work primarily for my children's sake. I'm a single father with six children. It’s not just about Difference Capital or myself it’s about promoting some of the causes I have, I’m a big believer in giving back.

So are you going to play Kevin O’Leary’s tough guy role?

I've known Kevin for 29 years, we sold SoftKey back in the day. He’s a great guy and he’s a very good person. His persona on TV is really not the way he is all the time in real life but he plays the role incredibly well. But I know how to stand up for my own.

The oracle comes out with your foresight into the early days of the tech sector, what pushed you to invest in Research in Motion, eventually helping to take the Blackberry maker public in 1997?

I was really fortunate to be involved with RIM in 1995. Brad Griffiths (from GMP) was really the promoter behind the strength of RIM and their franchise; he initially took me out there then Scott Burk, who was a salesman at the time and Kevin Sullivan came along. I forged a good friendship with the guys and we bought the account. When nobody had really hear of RIM, we ran a pre-initial public offering capital raising campaign and then we left the initial public offering with RBC but it was really ourselves who broke the bust. Brad, who passed, had some issues but at the end of the day he was one of the smartest guys I ever worked with and he would come up with these things like an epiphany out of nowhere.

How do you feel about where the company is these days?

Hey you know, up the stairs and down the elevator, unfortunately and fortunately. I think they’re back on track, I like where they’re going but they made a lot of money for people at the peak, when they had multiple billion dollars on the balance sheet as cash. Think of yourself, if you go out at night with a thousand dollars in your pocket or 40 dollars you act differently.

I was reading about the tech startup brain drain – 350,000 Canadians are living in Silicon Valley, not an insignificant number. Do you buy into the brain drain or does Canada have the ecosystem to support?

I believe Canada has the ecosystem and it’s in Waterloo. Without any conflict because I’ve purchased a lot of assets from RIM – here and in the U.S. – I can’t say enough good things about them. I believe that the ecosystem that Canada has is its universities. It’s a third of the cost to be in Canada versus the US both from a lease, salary and a locational lifestyle point of view. It’s a hundred miles between San Francisco and Menlo Park and it’s 100 miles between Waterloo and Toronto. So in the end there are a lot of similarities.