They call him Mr. Wonderful. But Kevin O’Leary was recently engaged in one of his less-than-wonderful rants, the kind familiar to anyone who loves to hate him on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
“If I were the president of the United States, I would make unions illegal,” O’Leary declared, between sips of Cabernet during a Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “They no longer serve a functional purpose in democracy, in my view.
“My problem with unions is they breed mediocrity,” the 58-year-old former educational software mogul turned investor added, warming to his topic. “Let’s say you’re a union member on an airline and you’re serving people and you do a spectacular job and you’re better than your peers. I can’t reward you. I can’t pay you more. I can’t pay you for performance. In fact, I have a hard time firing you when you don’t perform.”
What about people who work at places like Wal-Mart, which has blocked unions and offers generally low pay?
“Nobody forces you to work at Wal-Mart,” O’Leary retorted. “Start your own business! Sell something to Wal-Mart!”
And so it goes with O’Leary, whose self-described politics are “a little right wing of Attila the Hun.” Finishing up its fourth season, “Shark Tank” has slowly grown from near-flop to bona fide hit for ABC on Friday nights. Since it drew 4.2 million viewers for its August 2009 premiere, “Shark Tank” now notches well more than 6 million viewers and is Friday’s No. 1 show. And O’Leary — a short, balding, fireplug-like force of nature from Canada — has become its undeniable star.
Essentially “American Idol” for entrepreneurs, “Shark Tank” features O’Leary, Mark Cuban and other moguls sitting in judgment of struggling inventors and proprietors, many of whom have taken on second mortgages and massive credit-card debt to try to realize an American dream that threatens to crumble into dust. Successful pitches get investment offers from the “sharks,” who put up their own money. Failures get sent packing, often with a figurative kick in the seat from Mr. Wonderful (the tongue-in-cheek nickname came from real estate tycoon Barbara Corcoran, one of the other sharks on the show).
The show is several notches above the typical reality fare, mostly because the participants do have to know something about business if they’re going to survive interrogation from the sharks. The program is taken seriously enough that in 2011, several sharks — although not O’Leary — were invited to speak to students at the Harvard Business School.
All told, the sharks have invested more than $23 million over the four seasons, with O’Leary providing nearly $3.5 million of that total, according to the producers. However, O’Leary and the others decline to say how much they’ve made off their bets.
O’Leary’s put-downs are often brutal — and memorable. He called an inventor of a folding-neck guitar “a nothing-burger” and shouted that he should be arrested for stupidity (his crime consisted of balking at O’Leary’s deal terms). When another entrepreneur choked up recalling tough times when he had to live in his car, O’Leary scolded: “Don’t cry for money. It never cries for you.” An aspirant who drove a hard bargain for his graffiti-cleanup business elicited a typically warm reply from Mr. Wonderful: “You are dead to me,” O’Leary hollered.
“He has all the sensibilities of being the meanie, the toughie,” said Scott Sternberg, a veteran reality TV producer who’s not involved in “Shark Tank” but describes himself as “addicted” to the show. “He’s got a big opinion and a big mouth.... He’s a very entertaining Wicked Witch of the West.”
John Saade, who supervises “Shark Tank” as executive vice president of alternative series at ABC, said: “He’s a completely unique television personality. He almost looks like a character out of ‘The Simpsons.’ But he is able to say things that are sharp and funny but ultimately meaningful.”
O’Leary says he took his best financial lessons from his mother, Georgette, a Montreal seamstress who quietly invested for years and left behind an estate worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though she had divorced O’Leary’s father when the boy was young and the family’s means were modest.
“I looked at her account and said, ‘How is it all possible?’” he recalled.
The secret, he said, was his mother’s insistence on bonds and stocks that pay interest and dividends, which over the years accumulated into a large nest egg. He determined that he would follow the same path in his own investing.
He initially dreamed of a photography career. Beside him at brunch sat a vintage Leica M6, which he still uses to snap photos. But perhaps sensing that his instinct for commerce was far greater than that for art, he wound up getting an MBA at the University of Western Ontario.
In the early 1990s, with the PC revolution roaring, O’Leary started a software business in his basement with two partners. Ten thousand dollars in startup money came from his mother. That business grew into SoftKey, which churned out popular educational programs for kids. Growth was phenomenal, and in 1999 the toy giant Mattel bought the company for more than $3.5 billion.
That rags-to-riches tale is the essence of the Kevin O’Leary Story, a calling card mentioned in the opening credits to “Shark Tank.”
But almost as soon as the ink was dry on the deal, Mattel began bleeding tens of millions of dollars as crates of unsold and returned computer products piled up. Analysts accused SoftKey of exaggerating demand by shipping far more units to stores than they could reasonably expect to sell — which company officials denied.
O’Leary, who had become a Mattel employee, got the boot (and also a $6-million payday by selling the company’s stock at the right time); Chief Executive Jill Barad soon followed him out the door. Within months, the toy maker had quickly unloaded the division in a hasty attempt to make amends, but the damage was done. Businessweek later called the SoftKey buy one of the worst deals of all time.
Asked about the experience now, O’Leary sheds some of his bluster. He says that SoftKey and Mattel amounted to “a huge cultural misfit.”
“It’s sad what happened,” he said.
Was it really one of the worst deals ever? “Not anymore it isn’t,” he quickly replied. “There have been worse deals since then.”
“The deal I made — not quite the most abysmal for shareholders” is a motto that might earn O’Leary’s withering scorn on “Shark Tank.” But in the end — or at least, in TV land — that was not what mattered.
The SoftKey saga gave O’Leary credibility in the business world, something that allowed him to elbow his way into cohosting a business show on Canadian TV about a decade ago. Then, in 2006, he was cast on a Canadian reality series called “Dragons’ Den” — which reality impresario Mark Burnett later adapted into “Shark Tank.”
O’Leary looked up as a fortysomething man wearing a hoodie approached his table at the Four Seasons.
“Are you around tonight?” O’Leary asked the visitor, adding that he was going to a barbecue and wanted a friend to tag along.
Daymond John considered the offer. A fellow shark on “Shark Tank,” John is the founder of FUBU — a clothing company aimed at the hip-hop community — and is reportedly worth $100 million. In a coincidence that might as well have been scripted, he happened to be hanging out at the Four Seasons with his friend the Miami rapper Pitbull, a.k.a. “Mr. Worldwide,” just as O’Leary was chatting with a reporter.
“Going with a white man to a barbecue?” said John, an African American, to O’Leary, with mock doubt.
“You’ll be my manservant,” O’Leary shot back. “It’ll be terrific.”
He suggested John bring along Pitbull too. But the clothing magnate noted that the rap star was about to catch a flight overseas.
“He’s probably not going to stop his tour to India to go to your barbecue,” John said.
Pitbull swung by O’Leary’s table to say hello and the unlikely pair — Mr. Wonderful and Mr. Worldwide — engaged in small talk. O’Leary gazed after him as the musician and his entourage headed over to a nearby banquette.
“I find that a very difficult business,” O’Leary murmured in a confidential tone. “I don’t know how you pick winners” in the recording industry.
One way you can pick winners, of course, is by hedging bets all over the place. And that’s what O’Leary is doing these days. He publishes books — a second financial self-help guide comes out this fall, and a third is in the works. He’s started his own mutual fund and mortgage companies, gleefully admitting that he’s trading in on his TV celebrity to midwife new ventures.
“Absolutely,” he chortled when it’s noted that he probably wouldn’t find as many clients for O’Leary Funds if he weren’t so recognizable. “You’ll wish you had your money with us.”
And then there are the “Shark Tank” deals. He’s partnered with a U.S. Marine on a caffeine-free energy drink. The luthier whom O’Leary called a “nothing-burger”? They’ve cut a deal with Fender to make 150 folding-neck guitars as prototypes — with O’Leary poised to take a big cut if the idea takes off.
“If I were a young person today, I’d say screw all that and start my own business,” O’Leary said.
Look how well it turned out for O’Leary. Of course, prospective entrepreneurs have to “know their numbers,” as he frequently counsels on “Shark Tank.”
And what if they don’t?
“Thank goodness they meet me,” he said, beaming. “That’s wonderful. That’s why they call me Mr. Wonderful.”