The Los Angeles Times did a profile recently of gleefully greedy investor Kevin O’Leary of ABC’s popular business pitch show Shark Tank. Sarcastically dubbed “Mr. Wonderful,” he is the sharp-tongued dealmaker that audiences love to hate, the show’s “Wicked Witch of the West,” as one TV producer put it. His brutal honesty and cold put-downs (“You are a nothing-burger”) make O’Leary stand out as the Simon Cowell among the panel of other self-made multimillionaires. Too bad the LA Times didn’t look past the ratings-grabbing arrogance and profile a more exemplary co-star—O’Leary’s polar opposite, Canadian software king and nice-guy-who-finished-first, Robert Herjavec.
Robert is the elegant gentleman Shark, whose “brilliant blue eyes and expressive features seem particularly adept at telegraphing sympathy,” as one interviewer perfectly phrased it. Where Mr. Wonderful might dismiss a wannabe entrepreneur on the show with a curt “You’re dead to me,” Robert often delivers his honest assessment of a pitch—and even his rejection of it—with a compliment and encouragement rather than an insult. “Because of my mom, I learned never to be rude,” he says, exhibiting a politeness and respectfulness that sadly seem quaint in the attitude-filled world of reality TV.
The son of Croatian immigrants who arrived in Canada with just $20 when he was 8 years old, Robert once got emotional on the show—even choking up other sharks as well—when he referred to his now-deceased father’s quiet struggle to make ends meet for his family in the New World. His father hated living under Communist oppression in dictator Tito’s Yugoslavia, was repeatedly jailed for speaking out against it, and just wanted his only son to grow up free.
Robert’s dad got a factory job making $76 a week. Then his mom was swindled out of $500—seven weeks’ salary—by a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, and Robert swore his family would never be taken advantage of again. He pursued work and better opportunities single-mindedly, waiting tables, selling newspapers, even working for free on one occasion to impress an employer who wouldn’t hire him.
By 1990 he had risen to found an internet security software company, which he sold to AT&T Canada in 2000 for somewhere in the $30-100 million range (the figure is disputed). He subsequently became VP of Sales at a company that was soon acquired by Nokia for $127 million, and then in 2003, he founded and became the CEO of The Herjavec Group, a security software integrator and reseller. He went on to star in The Dragon’s Den, a Canadian predecessor to Shark Tank, and then in the America version, in which he has appeared since its premiere in 2009.
Asked by an interviewer whether his celebrity status has led to strangers bothering him, Robert replied, “I always take time to talk to people. I always spend time with folks because I remember what it was like on the other side when I was a nobody and nobody would talk to me or spend any time with me. I find the entire process incredibly humbling.” Difficult to imagine O’Leary copping to a quality like humility.
Corny as it may sound (funny how corniness so often applies to basic, enduring truths), Robert credits his massive success to simple perseverance: “I’ve never been the smartest guy; I’ve never been the tallest guy, the best looking guy, the fastest guy. But man, when I get knocked down, I just get up again.” That quality paid off. When his father saw his rags-to-riches son’s 50,000 square-foot mansion, he said, “I was shocked that something like this exists and my son made it.”
Kevin O’Leary’s love affair with money puts Wall Street’s Gordon “Greed is Good” Gecko to shame. By contrast, Herjavec says “money is good,” but “it’s never about the money for me. It’s always about constant improvement. It never stops. You can always do more. You can always be better.”
“And that’s the beauty of life.”