Changing up the cast of "Dragons' Den" is nothing new. The hit CBC series has seen its share of Dragons throughout the years, but with the departure of original cast member Kevin O'Leary, along with three-season vet Bruce Croxon, the latest quintet could've been a major flub. Thankfully, Season 9 of "Dragons' Den" will be anything but and, like Taylor Swift's stranglehold of Top 40 radio, it seems the reality show -- in which aspiring entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists in the hopes of securing business financing -- is the gift that keeps on giving. If the show's success continues, CBC will keep on reaping the rewards.
The loss of O'Leary in particular could've been a huge blow to the broadcaster, but CBC shot and scored with the new dragons. Vikram Vij and Michael Wekerle are the latest investors to give up swimming with sharks -- part-time, at least -- to snap on a set of Dragon wings. And boy, oh boy, do they breathe some new life into the show.
"To be honest with you, I think I bring a little spice to the den," Vij told me during a visit to a taping of the show. "I bring that angle where I think things slightly pragmatically, from a practical point of view. It doesn't come across as 'What are the numbers? How am I going to get my money back?' Of course it's business at the end of the day, there's no question about that, but there's a lot of entrepreneurship and creativity that is coming out of this."
Vij has built a food empire. He launched his first restaurant (called Vij's, of course) in Vancouver in 1994, and he and wife Meeru have gone on to open Rangoli and My Shanti. He also runs a state-of-the-art production facility to keep up with the demand of his gourmet pre-packaged frozen foods. And if you thought that was enough on his plate, he also appears on "Recipes to Riches," as well as judging gigs on "Chopped Canada" and "Top Chef Canada."
Life has come full circle for Vij, who was once the guy who had to go to investors for help. Now people pitch to him.
"I still remember to this day, when I was working as a chef and I wanted to do more than Indian food," recalled Vij. "I went to a guy and asked for $18,000 because that's what it took to get my pots and pans and stuff that I needed. And he kind of said, 'Well, let me think about it, I'm not quite sure.' And as soon as the door closed behind, I heard him say, 'What does the kid think of himself? That he's going to create this modern Indian bistro style of a restaurant? I'm an Indian and nobody would ever buy that stuff.'"
It was enough to knock anyone down and Vij admitted that he cried and thought that maybe he had it all wrong, and the idea of "a modern Indian restaurant with a great wine list and great food served French style wasn't a good idea." But he recalls spending two days down in the dumps before calling up his father who then travelled from India to Vancouver to give him the money. A year or so later, he saw that man who shot his idea down -- waiting in line to eat at his restaurant.
"I went up to him and said, 'Remember me?' And he had no clue. He had totally forgotten about it," laughed Vij. "So that's how sometimes ideas can come and go. He didn't even remember meeting with me! I reminded him, 'You told your friend as soon as the door closed that this was a silly idea that I was going to do and now you are waiting to eat at my restaurant.' He laughed but I think he felt a little bit bad."
Vij may be the definition of the Canadian success story, but so is Wekerle -- just louder. Where Vij enjoys zen and quiet time, Wek is a rock star who got his start on the trading floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange at the age of 18, was a multi-millionaire before his 21st birthday. He's also the founder and CEO of merchant-banking firm Difference Capital. He's a risk-taker, a moneymaker, but not a faker; he's a rebel with a cause: a tattooed ("32 to 35-ish," by his estimate) single father of six who gives millions of dollars to charity every year. He might live and party hard, but he also works hard. Why shouldn't he enjoy the spoils?
"I don't have any fear," Wekerle stated. "I'm unembarrassable. I just say things from the top of my head." He admits that he can be a bit crude at times, blaming it on his start at the trading desk and the floor. "I might use the odd ... vernacular."
But as far as Wek's concerned, he lives by three rules that are what he calls his way of life: "Honesty, reciprocity and generosity." The perfect way to live, no?
Wekerle is edgy, might not have a filter and is as straight-shooting as they come -- all three qualities that not only make for a great Dragon but also great entertainment. Some might say CBC is taking a risk by letting Wek run wild into Canadian living rooms, but both he and Vij add excitement and smarts, so it looks like it's going to be a crazy, fun season.
As for being the new kids on the block, Vij likens sitting alongside Dragons Arlene Dickinson, David Chilton and Jim Treliving like "staking on ice with Wayne Gretzky, Jarome Iginla and Mario Lemieux. You have to learn to shoot the puck, you have to learn to get some ice time, try to score a goal. You don't have tired legs though in this case, [but] your legs are not tired but your mind is tired. Because your mind is working all the time, you're always thinking about the numbers. I really feel that it's a great experience for me as well to learn from these top guys here." They may be playing with the big dogs but give 'em a season; they'll be barking and howling in no time.
"Dragons' Den" premieres Wednesday, October 15 at 8 p.m./8:30 p.m. NT on CBC.