Introduced by Fred Mifflin as “the Warren Buffett of the North”, Prem Watsa took the Canadian Club of Toronto podium on May 18th, 2017.
Watsa is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive of Fairfax Financial Holdings, a financial holding company that boasts $60 billion in assets, with a market cap of $14 billion. Immigrating to Canada nearly 44 years ago, he revealed that he came with no money, but with a love of education that sprouted with his father’s encouragement. Struggling to find a job after 18 months in Canada, he was afforded the opportunity to interview at Ivey Business School at University of Western Ontario. From there, he made 2 important contacts that urged him to forget everything he thought he knew about business; this would prove to work very well for Mr. Watsa.
After 10 years at a life insurance company, Watsa said he left to pursue a career that started with purchasing a company close to bankruptcy. At the age of 35 and with little experience, he used his contacts and personality to secure $3 million. He was then able to pay this loan back in 9 months.
On top of its tremendous financial success, Watsa was sure to emphasize Fairfax’s dedication to doing business with integrity. He was proud to say that in 31 years, Fairfax hasn’t had a single hostile acquisition (Fairfax’s name comes from “fair, friendly, acquistions”). To him, a thriving business looks like one that fosters a healthy, positive culture. This means focussing on outstanding customer service, looking after employees, and putting money back into the community. Fairfax’s guiding principles follow a similar line of thought: always think of the long term, always do the right thing, never accept success at the expense of their families, never compromise their integrity and always foster good relationships. Watsa asserted that business can be someone’s calling if they look after the needs of clients, employees and the community, and make a return for shareholders.
He shared that he felt his life was an entrepreneurial tale that has been repeated time and time in Canada, but one that he was “blessed mightily” for. He ended by thanking his wife and children, and attributing his successes to them and to God.
In the Q&A portion of the luncheon, President Donald Trump seemed to be a running theme. He praised Trump’s commitment to lowering corporate taxes, but admitted that the President was tough to predict. His advice to Trump? Get off Twitter and be quiet.
Prem Watsa was able to live out the “Canadian Dream” by living his life in all aspects with integrity, and being a “calculated risk-taker”, as said by Fred Mifflin. His unwavering commitment to keeping things friendly and familiar in a corporate environment has proved him to be a natural leader, and without a doubt, a legendary Canadian.
He closed his address to the Canadian Club with a quote from the Bible that he holds dear to his heart. Matthew 16:26 says: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
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Special thanks to Prem Watsa for being a guest of the Canadian Club of Toronto. Thanks extended to President Fred Mifflin for hosting the event.