Sara Waxman: You’re a very public risk taker, an “original” on Bay St.
Michael Wekerle: In general terms I am a risk-taker, I’ve been like that since I was a kid. Often times you have to balance risk vs return, and coming from, say, small beginnings, I tend to take more risks. I have taught myself to accept risk. DIFFERENCE CAPITAL is a merchant bank focused on technology, health and content media. We’re a public company.
SW: I always thought that big money likes to be quiet, but you’re very flamboyant and frankly, it makes the general public love you.
MW: They either love me or hate me. There’s a lot of jealousy in the world, it’s what I can Schadenfreude. People like to gloat over someone’s misfortune—especially the Bay Street crowd. I’d say Main Street loves me, Bay street is “concerned” about me.
SW: Now, you’re a TV personality on Dragon’s Den. The camera doesn’t lie; it shows in a flicker of an eye, honesty, fear, fakery. Do you ever think you made a mistake?
MW: I am who I am, whether on TV or in person. I make my decision and stand by it. I think it’s often times if you go back and ruminate about whether you could’ve, should’ve, would’ve, that is a mistake. You have to accept your decisions, honour that decision and be accountable for that decision.
SW: It seems that you, more than the other “Dragons,” go with your gut.
MW: Everyone has a different style. If I feel an opportunity exists, I’ll pass on some of the criteria that I use. Is it profitable or not profitable? What are the overhead costs? Am I funding a lifestyle or is it a business?
SW: Tell me about your wardrobe. Your jacket is a knock out.
MW: It’s a Tom Ford jacket. They took us to Harry Rosen and I tried a number of different outfits, but when I saw that jacket, I said, “that’s perfect, that’s the one I’ll take.” It really caught my eye and my favourite colour is blue.
SW: You are fond of creative people, and you have many musical instruments in your home. Recently you purchased the El Mocambo, an iconic music venue in Toronto.
MW: I think artists and athletes are very much under appreciated in this country. I’m very supportive of a lot of the endeavours of sports for kids, and also of the arts, music, opera and rock and roll bands. We as Canadians need to support our Canadian music scene, need to put more capital and create more visibility for our Canadian artists to help get them to the next level, to a global marketplace.
SW: You have also invested in the restaurant business.
MW: Yes, I bought Centro [in Toronto] in 1997. It was a great restaurant. Sometimes change is not necessarily a good thing. In New York City, for example, there are restaurants that have had the same pictures on the wall, the same waiters, the same menu, the same seats, some for 100 years. Restaurants here always want to keep changing the menu. I backed out about three years ago. A restaurant has to reinvent its personality every five years, but that does not mean it has to lose its identity. I have an interest in Wahlburgers and, given the clearance, I can build an extra floor on the El Mocambo and put a seasonal rooftop barbecue there and some stone fired pizza ovens as well.
SW: So you have an interest in food…
MW: My favourite restaurant is Harbour 60. To me, service is as important as food. I started bussing tables at 12, and I always feel a connection with the people in the service industry. I was not a very good waiter—got fired after three shifts. I was terrible. I have a lot of time for the industry, because I know it is hard work.
SW: If one of your children wanted to go into the business you are in, what would you say to them?
MW: I would say to start from the beginning like I did and learn the ropes. Kids come in here and say, ‘I want to be the Wolf of Wall Street.’ In our business here, you start from the bottom. The way to get 32 years of experience is 32 years. You don’t get it in three months.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.