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Business Person of the Year 2008: Brett Wilson, FirstEnergy Capital

Brett Wilson has broken the mould of the blue-suited business leader. Still in his deal-making prime, the co-founder and chairman of FirstEnergy Capital continues to cut a new path. His edge? An affinity for people, in business and beyond

You can look back and chuckle now, but it’s not entirely surprising that, as a young engineer with Imperial Oil Ltd., W. Brett Wilson failed a management aptitude test. Even today, he fits few people’s image of corporate leadership material. Though he’s now a regular panelist on Dragons’ Den, CBC-TV’s entrepreneurial reality show, producers were originally reluctant to put him on the panel because he seemed “too nice” during auditions.

Then there’s Wilson’s casual-Friday fashion sense. As though determined to present a contrast to his razor-cut, sharp-suited colleagues, Alberta’s Business Person of the Year is likely to burst into a board meeting several minutes late wearing jeans, black designer sneakers, his trademark chin stubble and uncombed hair.

A Calgary-based super-entrepreneur who started building FirstEnergy Capital Corporation into one of Western Canada’s most successful private investment banks back in September 1993, Wilson is a bit like Walt Whitman, the 19th century poet: He contains multitudes. That includes apparent contradictions. He’s also a bred-in-the-bone philanthropist who has helped funnel millions of dollars in donations – his own, as well as those of his friends and colleagues – to worthy causes across the West as well as beyond. Energetic to extremes, Wilson is a determined individualist. Yet he builds business and social relationships almost compulsively, recruiting employees, allies and friends to share his corporate successes and to help him realize his philanthropic goals.

From a distance, the public image may seem self-scripted, as though Wilson himself had set out to perpetuate the myth of the sneaker-shod, western investment wizard with a heart of gold beating beneath his denim shirt. That’s open to debate. But even a short time spent in conversation with Wilson tends to dispel notions that there might be something intrinsically false about the persona. Certainly he speaks in the same swift, staccato sentences used by the majority of Calgary’s adrenalin-driven corporate achievers. But a visitor can’t help but be impressed by Wilson’s straight-shooting brand of Prairie sincerity. There may be no other Canadian whose daily public behaviour more effectively refutes the prevailing stereotype of the selfish, grasping corporate mandarin.

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