Kevin O'Leary, a Canadian entrepreneur, venture capitalist, investor,… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
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."
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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).
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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."
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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.
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