You almost feel sorry for Kevin O’Leary. Almost.
For weeks now, the self-branded ‘Mr. Wonderful’ has been even more ubiquitous than normal, popping up everywhere to promote his new book, Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money & Life. It seems if you sit still long enough within the GTA, O’Leary eventually will sidle up beside you and talk about his latest venture.
And, admit it, you would listen because you cannot escape Kevin O’Leary.
He simply won’t let you.
“Look, the whole way this game of life works is you want to end up free. That’s the whole game; that’s the whole deal; that’s what matters,” O’Leary says during a telephone conversation. “You want to be able to take what time you have on this Earth and enjoy it. And the only way that’s going to happen is if you become wealthy.
“That’s the only way to be truly set free.”
Money equals happiness. Vintage O’Leary. You would expect plenty of nuggets like that from the man on his book tour. But they are few and far between.
In recent weeks, there seems to be something off. When he speaks about the book, he is stiff, overly rehearsed. He’s not the Gordon Gekko-styled tycoon you expect from shows like Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank. He is far more subdued, far more, well, boring.
If you read The Globe and Mail profile, watched him on the George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and then listened in on the Western News conversation, it would all sound eerily similar. Sticking snuggly to his script, O’Leary shapes different questions from different interviewers around writ answers.
Not that some of those answers aren’t interesting.
When he speaks about his family, his trouble in school and struggles with dyslexia, a real, three-dimensional man takes shape, replacing the flat cartoon persona we know too well. He admits those particular chapters, which come and go early in the book, were necessary for full context.
But that didn’t make them any easier to write.
“It was sort of cathartic, sort of a journey. It sometimes was very difficult to go back and look at my past,” O’Leary says. “It was painful to go there. But I also took stock of my life.”
And what lessons he realized from that introspection, he sprinkles throughout the book, which took a year and a half to pen.
He speaks about two of the coldest, hardest truths he has faced in his life.
The first came after a young O’Leary was fired from an Ottawa ice cream shop from refusing to scrape gum off the parlor’s floor. “It taught me in one second I never wanted to be an employee. Ever,” he said. “Because you are powerless, you don’t control anything.”
The second is far simpler, and perhaps more relevant for our turbulent economic times. “Everybody is replaceable. You put yourself in a position where you think you’re not and that’s the time you get whacked. It’s very simple,” he concludes, “if you are not creating wealth for somebody or some thing you are dispensable.”
He speaks in the book, ever so briefly, about earning his MBA from The University of Western Ontario in 1980.
He remains reticent about giving too much credit to the degree itself, instead saying it made him smarter without guaranteeing any success. Perhaps you would expect more of a ringing endorsement from a man who sits on the Richard Ivey School of Business Advisory Board.
“I don’t remember anything from those classes. But what I did get, which is very important, are the contacts I have today. Those I use every day,” O’Leary says. “I encourage anybody who is considering MBA to go there, but not for the technical skills you learn in the finance class or logistics or organizational behavior, because you are not going to remember them.
“What you are going to remember, and still have, are those contacts.”
Still, for O’Leary, the timing of his book tour couldn’t be worse.
His work, as Randian an ode to individual greed as you can find on the bestsellers list currently, rings quite tone deaf as unemployment swallows millions whole and thousands have taken to the streets in protest worldwide. It’s going to be a hard sell for a man who has built his brand not only on being an unashamed capitalist, but cut from the same cloth of many of the scoundrels who crashed the global economy.
When interviews veer off the topic of the book, O’Leary finds himself awkwardly defending the likes of Bank of America, even Goldman Sachs. Not the best place to be.
Social media lit up a few weeks ago when O’Leary was taken to task on his own show, Lange & O’Leary Exchange. (Funny, for a man who says “the only job worth creating is a private-sector job,” he seems to have a lot of programs on the publicly funded CBC.)
While interviewing/lecturing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges about the Occupy Wall Street movement, O’Leary came off as nothing short of a cranky, old man who couldn’t control his disdain for a different worldview. When he couldn’t mount a sensible counter-argument, he called Hedges “a left-wing nutbar,” relegating himself more to the rhetorical level of Don Cherry.
Maybe outbursts like that are why he’s sticking to the script for this book tour. You just don’t know what he’s going to say once he gets off it.
But isn’t that what makes O’Leary so irresistible?
“I think everybody knows I am sort of value-yield, honest (sometimes people think too honest), straight-shooter. That’s what I am,” O’Leary says. “And I think that persona, which is honest and what I am, I never thought what you see on TV is different from what I am.
“It’s the same person.”