5 unexpected things hoteliers can learn from Kevin O’Leary


After advising countless entrepreneurs on Shark Tank and making a name for himself in the world of finance, there’s a lot to learn from AAHOA’s 2016 Convention keynote speaker Kevin O’Leary.


Kevin O’Leary, a featured speaker at the AAHOA 2016 Convention in Nashville is known for speaking his mind while making millions.

Many in the financial world have studied him, some have tried to copy him. But there really is only one “Mr. Wonderful.’’

He’s respected for being brutally honest, but at the same time O’Leary is almost like an actor or an athlete. His strategy in life has made him someone who many have learned to love, but others can’t help but get worked up over his tactics.

In his book, Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money & Life, O’Leary tells the story about being called a vulgar name after he was recognized in a bathroom at an airport in Canada. The fellow traveler took pride in the fact he thought he had been mean to someone on television.

O’Leary tried to defend himself, but the man continued his criticism and continued to use profanity. He says in his book that he’s been called worse since.

“And I’ll tell you why it has never bothered me: because I speak the truth,’’ O’Leary says in the book. “Not just because I’m a nice guy and want to do the right thing, both of which are mostly true. I don’t like to lead people astray or waste time. Money’s great, money’s the point of everything, and I can always earn more. But time is a scarce commodity. It is the true universal currency, because you can’t invent, manufacture or buy time… Therefore, I have no time for people, places or things that waste it.’’

That’s one of the traits those attending AAHOA’s convention will no doubt get to know well the more he speaks. What you see is what you get with O’Leary.

O’Leary was born in Montreal to a middle-class family in 1954. His mother’s family were merchants and his mother, Georgette, a small businesswoman and investor, gave him business and financial insights at an early age.

He would refer back to lessons learned in the family over the years. His father, Terry, was Irish and a salesman and passed away when he was young.

His mother later re-married an economist who worked with the UN’s International Labor Organization. Due to his stepfather’s international assignments, O’Leary lived in many places, moving frequently. He spent time in Cambodia, Tunisia and Cyprus, where he learned about world cultures.

He still credits an incident in his youth as forming many of his attitudes. In high school in Ottawa, while working at a Magoo’s Ice Cream Parlour, he was told on his second day of work to get on his knees and scrape gum off the floor. He refused and was fired.

O’Leary rode his bike home ashamed of the incident and vowed never to let anyone else control his life.

He began his career as an assistant brand manager in the early 1980s for Nabisco, where he successfully increased market share for Nabisco’s biggest cat food brand. In 1986, he co-founded SoftKey Software Products, which became a leader in the educational software industry during the late 1980s and 1990s. While acquiring other companies along the way, it eventually grew to annual sales of over $800 million, 2,000 employees and subsidiaries in 15 countries.

The name changed to The Learning Company and was bought by Mattel in 1999, and O’Leary became a multimillionaire.

He also eventually gained worldwide fame through television, appearing on Discovery’s Project Earth, CBC’s Dragons’ Den and ABC’s Shark Tank. He has also founded successful ventures through O’Leary Funds, fine wines and a best-selling book series on financial advice.

After all of his journeys, starting from being a fired ice-cream salesman to being a huge success in his own wine business, O’Leary has a lot to offer for anyone willing to learn. How he has molded his life and attitudes got him to where he is today. Here are five things that hoteliers, or really anyone in business, can learn from him.

Honesty is policy… and good business.

Perhaps one of the things that gets O’Leary a lot of attention is he doesn’t believe in leading anyone down a path where he thinks they will fail. And he will tell them even if it hurts.

Anyone who has watched Shark Tank on TV realizes if O’Leary thinks you have a bad idea, he will tell you up front. And that extends from years of trial and error, realizing being nice doesn’t really get you anywhere if an idea is going to fail.

Thus he doesn’t mind when someone tells him off every now and then if they don’t like being told their plans to riches won’t work. He’ll stop you on a dime.

That often brings emotional reactions like the guy in the airport bathroom. But O’Leary doesn’t mind making people mad. He’d rather be honest.

On the way up, forget about working 9 to 5.

O’Leary is known as a tireless worker, despite his ice cream store incident, who has said successful ventures must “consume your life for a period of time’’ to make it as an entrepreneur. He has issues with those who don’t understand the focus that he requires.

Those who are willing to pay the price, and invest the time, are the people he wants to be associated with. Those who get tired or have excuses? He just forgot your name.

Debt is a 4-letter word.

O’Leary often talks about his maternal grandfather, Joseph Bookalam, who came to Canada from a small village in Lebanon at 16.

Bookalam had “no issues’’ with religion, ethnicity or race as a roving salesman.

“If you wanted what he had, he’d sell it to you: cooking and hunting utensils, supplies for the fur trade, all of it for cash,’’ O’Leary said in his book. “The man didn’t do credit.’’

Debt is not a word that O’Leary embraces. Like his grandfather, he believes in the solid foundation.

Passion can make you rich.

O’Leary does what he loves. As an entrepreneur thriving in the rough world of finance, it was important to not get distracted by things that weren’t of interest to him. O’Leary strives to do things that truly interest him.

One of his goals in life was to not be awakened by the telephone ringing. It’s his own thrill of the hunt that gets him up in the morning. Helping others get to where he is today is one of his main interests, and it has made him a TV celebrity without really any great effort. He simply reflects those interests so easily to the viewers.Regardless of O’Leary’s Shark Tank persona, one thing we can all recognize is his passion for focusing on what he feels strongly about. And that’s a great example for everyone to follow.     ■

David Jones is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer who resides in Florida with his wife.

Cold Hard Truth

Released in September 2011, Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money & Life was O’Leary’s first book. In it he shares his secrets, experiences, insights and lessons on entrepreneurship, business, finance, money and life, as well as advice for budding entrepreneurs. Available on Amazon for less than $14.

 “[Kevin O’Leary] is a master at relaying the cold, hard truth to people, even when it makes them cry and stomp their feet. That’s why the title of his memoir, Cold Hard Truth, cuts to the heart of his philosophy of life and money, which really boils down to one thing: focus on making cash or get out of business.”  —Chatelaine editorial review on Amazon.com


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