Fans of CBC’s business reality show Dragons’ Den are no stranger to Arlene Dickinson, the funky-haired marketing maven frequently seen sparring with fellow Dragon Kevin O’Leary. After six seasons in the Den, the mother of four and grandmother of three is hitting the road as a mentor, coach, and yes, investor, in the second season of CBC’s The Big Decision.
In each episode of Big Decision, Dickinson or franchise baron Jim Treliving (also of Dragons’ Den) goes into two fledgling small- to medium-sized businesses and assesses each company’s assets and shortcomings, as well as those of its management and ownership. At the end of each episode, Dickinson or Treliving can invest in one, both or neither of the companies based on their hopefulness (or lack thereof) in the entrepreneurs’ abilities to change their ways and rebound.
Unlike in the Den, however, instead of basing investment decisions on first impressions and a rehearsed pitch, entrepreneurs will have nowhere to hide as Dickinson looks at all aspects of their business, from the front office to the warehouse and everything (and everyone) in between before deciding whether the business is worth her hard-earned cash.
For viewers, Arlene says this is a more realistic look at the investment process.
“Some of the biggest questions we get from Dragons’ Den viewers are ‘What happens next?’ ‘What’s the due diligence process?’ ‘What does it look like when you actually go in and talk to people in the business,” Dickinson revealed. “It’s really informative because it helps people understand the process and what we as investors are looking for, and what we care about when we’re doing due diligence when we have the opportunity to turn around businesses that are in trouble.”
Coming out of a recession, the economy has hurt small businesses the most. Dickinson believes that these very businesses are the “backbone of the economy,” which is why she loves being able to work with them in such a close way.
“To be able to spend time with these businesses really does help entrepreneurs see their businesses in a different light. Another perspective is always good,”, she said.
With the number of areas a small business can be steered off course, a second look isn’t a bad idea.
“Sometimes the entrepreneur themselves is headed the wrong way. Sometimes it’s the business itself–the management isn’t strong or has made some wrong choices. Sometimes they’re financially not on solid footing and can’t weather the storm. There are so many things that can go right or wrong in business and it’s often a combination of all of that.”
Being on the front-line of a small business going through tumultuous times carries its own burden, however, Dickinson explains.
“Business is emotional. I have this debate often on Dragons’ Den and in Big Decision you really see it. You’ll see that emotion makes it hard. You know these people; you get attached to them. You can see the stress and the struggle that you’re under,” she said. “These are people who have sometimes put 20 years of their life towards something. How do you not become emotionally attached?”
When push comes to shove, however, “You have to think with your heart and ask with your head and it’s usually a combination of the two that makes the final decision.”
Despite Dickinson’s success in transitioning from being a single mother on welfare to a business mogul with a net worth of $90 million, some struggling business owners just don’t want to heed her advice.
“Sometimes business owners are holding on for all the wrong reasons. Either they don’t want to accept failure or they think they can just change course a bit and move forward. There’s blind passion and there’s passion. Blind passion that can lead you into a dark alley. It’s not realistic and it doesn’t allow you to see what the issues really are. You need to be passionate about your business but you also have to be realistic.”
Big Decision allows her to separate those willing to change from those clinging to old ways.
“I look for businesses that are trying really hard to look at themselves in a whole way,” she said. When an entrepreneur is stubborn and tells me, ‘Well, this is how we do it, this is the only way to do it,” then I know I’ve got somebody who’s not going to change. You need someone in a team that wants change and recognizes a problem. The first step is recognizing a problem.”
She understands why entrepreneurs want to cling to old habits, though.
“These are hard things that we’re asking people to do sometimes–change the direction of their business. Change the way they do business. Change the people they do business with. These are difficult choices, and it’s where the rubber hits the road. Either you can do these things or you can’t. Sometimes people just don’t have the heart for it.”
With those ready and willing to change, Dickinson lays all the cards on the table.
“I come in and I take an honest, objective view of [the situation], bringing my experience to the table. What I’ve found doing this show is that for the most part, everybody says, ‘We knew it and understood it, but we just couldn’t face it,’ she admits. “I’m not revealing the ‘A-Ha!’ but I’m making them face their fears. When that happens, it’s funny how people can rise to the challenge.”
Watch The Big Decision tonight at 9 p.m. ET (9:30 NT) as Arlene heads to St-Laurent, QC, to meet the owners of Pak Tek, a family-owned packaging manufacturer with marketing and management problems. Later, she travels to Davidson, QC to see Espirit headquarters, a formerly successful whitewater rafting business struggling to get back on its feet following a series of disasters.