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“Normality is overrated”: Vince Guzzo of Dragons’ Den talks politics, entrepreneurship and the Alberta advantage

By Kristy Koehler, November 25 2019—

The Haskayne School of Business hosted an Evening with a Dragon, featuring Vince Guzzo on Nov. 20. The Gauntlet spoke with Guzzo ahead of his visit to Calgary about politics, entrepreneurship and the Alberta advantage.

Probably most well-known for his eccentric personality on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Guzzo is a central figure in Canada’s business landscape. Known as Mr. Sunshine, he is president and CEO of Guzzo Cinemas, Québec’s largest chain of independent movie theatres. Guzzo turned his cinema chain into a formidable empire that includes the construction, real estate and hospitality sectors. 

The son of Italian immigrants, Guzzo had planned to join the family business and worked in his father’s cinema as a youngster. With a perpetual desire to learn more about the business world — and how to manage the challenges that come with it — Guzzo earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Western University, followed by a law degree from Université du Québec à Montréal.

Guzzo recalls a potential entrepreneur who entered the Dragons’ Den with a plan to put his education on hold should he leave the Den with a deal. Guzzo had reservations, believing that education is paramount to entrepreneurship.

“I went to Western for economics — I thought it was an important degree for me to have for my entrepreneurial journey,” he said. 

He went on to law school for the same reason, to be able to speak to the particulars of his business from a legal standpoint and to be able to walk into any negotiation armed with knowledge. His education allowed him to take on large theatre chains — like Cineplex Odeon — over film purchasing rights that were central to the success, and expansion of, Guzzo Cinemas. 

“I would tell you, I think it’s a must,” said Guzzo of the necessity of a post-secondary education. “It may be contradictory to certain realities — guys like Bill Gates never finished their university degrees and became the richest men in the world, but they are, for all intents and purposes, the true exception. Most people will tell you that having the appropriate academic knowledge will help. If nothing else, it builds resilience.”

That resilience comes from being treated like an adult, according to Guzzo. Universities expect that students will rise to the occasion, unlike high school where teachers keep pupils on track.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got to build the skills to cope with whatever program you’re in,” said Guzzo. “If you have the possibility [to go to university] it’s an added test and an added benefit for you.”

Guzzo’s visit to Calgary ties in with his desire to expand his empire out west. Even though Alberta might not seem like the most economically prosperous place at the moment, Guzzo stands by the province as an advantageous place to set up a business.

“On the one hand, you know, the economy is hurting a little, but when the economy does do well, it does really well,” he said. “The other advantage is the taxation level — it’s a real benefit to being in Alberta if you can be.”

Plenty of students ask Guzzo his advice for becoming an entrepreneur. What does he tell them?

“I tell them ‘Don’t do it. Be a lawyer, work nine to five then go home,’ ” he laughed. “I tell them ‘You don’t want this life.’ ”

In all seriousness though, Guzzo recommends the life of an entrepreneur — if you’re cut out for it. 

“I’d probably ask them if they really know what they want,” he said.

He says that most people, when considering a career, look at the positives. They see the lifestyle, but none of the drawbacks.

“The truth of the matter is, there’s a lot more sacrifice, there’s a lot more to give up to actually achieve that success,” said Guzzo. 

In order to be successful in business, he says, there are two things that need to be embraced — failure and loneliness. 

“Through facing failure you’ll be able to build enough resilience to be able to weather all the storms,” he said. “Some storms are real storms and some storms are made up in your mind — they’re called insecurities, they’re called anxieties.

“You will be very lonely in success. As an entrepreneur who succeeds, what you’ll realize is that you’ve got very little in common with people because you don’t fit the normal. As you go up that pyramid, you’ll realize that there’s less and less people at your level. You’ll have less and less people that share your concerns, your worries, your insecurities. You end up talking to yourself a lot more often and trying to convince yourself that it’s okay. It’s probably the thing that people least expect to get from success.”

Still, Guzzo says he’d do it all over again — without a doubt.

“Normality is way overrated,” he said. “Everybody on the one hand wants to be normal but on the other hand wants to be an entrepreneur or wants to be successful or wants to be exceptional. You can’t have it all, so you’re either normal or you’re not. If you want to live a normal life, you can’t be an entrepreneur. You just can’t.”

Another piece of advice that Guzzo gives would-be entrepreneurs is to enjoy the ride instead of concentrating on the finish line. While it might sound cliché, Guzzo has a practical reason for it rather than something metaphorical. It’s simply because the finish line moves all the time, he says.

“The example I always give is, ‘If I only had a million dollars I would take life easy.’ You get a million bucks and you say ‘I don’t know if a million bucks is enough — maybe 10 million would be enough.’ Then you get 10 million and you say, ‘Let’s not be greedy, but I think at 100 million, I’ll be good.’ Then you realize that because the one million or 10 million doesn’t come instantly to you, but comes progressively, what happens is your lifestyle also changes. Success for an entrepreneur will evolve and will change but for sure, it starts out as monetary.”

Guzzo says that people like Michele Romanow, his colleague on Dragons’ Den, have moved on from monetary success to trying to impact the entrepreneurial space. Guzzo has been able to impact the health care space as well. His philanthropic pursuits are well known — his family started giving money to children’s causes because his parents had lost children. As his parents aged, they had bouts with cancer and he shifted his philanthropy to match his personal connection.

The research he funded was instrumental in helping to hold Big Tobacco responsible for smoker’s ill-health. After that, he set his sights on helping those with mental health issues, again using his own family as the catalyst for needing change. Learning that mental health encompassed a range of issues that included anxiety and depression, Guzzo says his efforts shifted to these causes, specifically geared toward youth.

“We’re trying to get them to build resilience and to protect themselves from the impact of a negative mind or an anxious mind,” he said. “We do it because there’s a connection, sometimes a personal connection. But other times we do it because that’s how we feel we can impact society in a positive way. It’s very frustrating sometimes to deal with governments and try and get them to understand what you want to do. The amount of wastage there is in government and government spending and how complicated it all is bothers me sometimes. I’d rather invest myself directly in the cause.”

Speaking of governments, Guzzo thinks the entrepreneurial climate in Canada will be quite stable over the next four years as a result of the last election and isn’t destined for any large shake-ups, either for good or for ill.

“I think the Liberals are going to tread very lightly. I think they got a lesson. Even though they got the highest number of seats, I think they realized that they came very close to losing power,” he said. On the flip side, Guzzo says the Conservatives have also realized that they “really dropped the ball on this one.”

One thing that needs to happen in the next few years he says, is that the conversation about the environment needs to change.

“We’re gonna have to stop the scare tactics when it comes to the environment,” he said. “I think the entrepreneurs in that space have to step up to the plate. I think there’s going to be a huge opening.

“The last election has shown me that young people need to ask more questions. I think they need to realize that not everything is black and white. Maybe to make an analogy to a book — there’s 50 Shades of Grey in there somewhere. It’s not as clear cut as it seems.”

Guzzo says the future of entrepreneurship should lie in figuring out how to deal with some of the large environmental problems society faces, giving the example of recycling as just one example where entrepreneurship can have an impact.

“Now that we know we can recycle plastics, we need this young generation, call them entrepreneurs, call them environmental entrepreneurs, to find something to do with this recycled material. Then, I think one of the policies that the government needs to adopt is it needs to not tax essentials, but I think it needs to tax stuff that does have a substitute.”

“Instead of oil, where we don’t really seem to have a substitute, it would be better to maybe tax white, plain, first-time use paper so that it becomes way more expensive to use brand new paper versus recycled paper,” he said. “If you’re not taxing the new raw material products, why would I buy the recycled material? It’s more expensive — that’s the problem. The reason why we have so much recyclable material that we’re not being able to use is because it’s economically more advantageous and cheaper to buy the new stuff that hasn’t been used yet.”

Today’s world, he says, is centred around rhetoric and shaming people, rather than asking the right questions and coming up with actual solutions. 

“First of all, everybody likes to call Alberta oil ‘dirty oil.’ I don’t know if you know, but if you take oil from Saudi Arabia or you take oil from the US or Brazil, and you pour it on your hands, it’s dirty — you’re gonna have dirty hands,” he said. “So, let’s stop trying to make it appear that it’s a different form of oil than any other oil, first of all. Second of all, a lot of people in Québec believe that if the oil in a pipeline does not go through Québec, that means that Alberta oil will never get to Québec and ‘Hey, you know, we’ve done a good thing for the environment.’ 

“I like to remind people that the oil does get to Québec either way. It just gets to Québec through trains and through trucks. Trains and trucks are higher carbon-emitting means of transportation than a pipeline, and if the environmentalists would want to really be logical and consistent in their way of thinking, they’d realize that pipelines actually drop carbon emissions.” 

Guzzo is certainly no denier of climate change, citing the polar ice caps melting away and calling it hard fact. He reiterates though, that the youth of today need to ask more questions. The prime minister and his two campaign planes were a moment of hypocrisy he says didn’t receive nearly enough attention — and buying carbon offsets was no excuse.

“The carbon credit program was not made for you to double your pollution,” he said.

Asking questions, and diving deeper into issues rather than reciting buzzwords or listening to everything you hear, is vital both for being an entrepreneur and for fixing the major problems of the world. For Guzzo, these seem to go hand-in-hand. 

“As an entrepreneur, the more questions you ask, the more likelihood you’ll come up with the idea or the solution,” he said. “It’s in a time of great crisis that you must remain calm and analyze properly and ask the right questions.”

Guzzo cited his own experience in the movie business as Netflix came onto the scene. While other cinema owners were spending millions retrofitting theaters to suit a new “VIP” style of watching movies in a desperate attempt to draw customers away from the streaming service, he didn’t panic, but instead stayed the course and reaped the rewards.

For his final piece of advice on succeeding as an entrepreneur, Guzzo draws on a common refrain from the one industry he says he’ll never invest in — drugs. 

“Don’t get high on your own product,” he said. 

For the record, his lack of investiture isn’t due to any kind of moral outrage — it owes more to the fact that cannabis hasn’t been as lucrative as promised.

“Some entrepreneurs are so high on their own stuff — they’re so in love with their product, but the reality is it’s absolutely, unequivocally worthless as an idea. But then, on the other side, you’ve got guys with amazing ideas and the fear or the anxiety or just the lack of drive put them in a position where they think its not a big idea.”

“The biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make, they’re at the extreme ends of the pole — either they’re dreaming way too big that it’s almost a delusional dream or their dreams are just not sufficient. You’ll get guys who have a billion dollar idea that will sell out a half a million — they just don’t see it, and somebody else did, and somebody else just went there and nabbed the idea and vice versa. Then you have guys who, you know, think that the widget is the best thing ever invented.”

Viewers can see Mr. Sunshine in action on the 14th season of Dragons’ Den, Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

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