WESLEY J HALL, Amplifying the Call for Social Justice

Wesley J Hall has established an exceptional reputation through outstanding accomplishments in the business community, in corporate governance, and in handling strategic transaction . In 2003, he founded Kingsdale Advisors to provide services for Shareholders and manage investor relations communications.

Hall made history in 2021 as the first Black Dragon on the CBC hit reality TV series Dragons’ Den.

Over the years, Hall has been leveraging his business success to help various charitable organizations and communities.. These include service on the boards of SickKids Foundation, Pathways to Education, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), The Black Academy and more.

In 2021, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ottawa as an “established innovator, entrepreneur and philanthropist.” 

The supporting rationale included: “Wes has become one of the faces, hope, and opportunity for millions of people who look like him.” This recognition also points in the direction of being the founder and chairman of the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Racism and the BlackNorth Initiative — both organizations committed to combating anti-Black systemic barriers affecting the lives of Black Canadians.

You’re the proud recipient of the 2021 Ontario Business Leader of the Year, and The Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award for your outstanding work in philanthropy and entrepreneurship. How does this differ from your other awards?

I’m very proud to receive these awards and glad they didn’t say “Black Business Leader of the Year” but “Business Leader.” Someone took exception to that and said, “Aren’t you proud to be Black? Why wouldn’t you be happy if they said ‘Black Business Leader of the Year’?” That shows how limited some people can be in terms of their mindset. It doesn’t limit the achievement when you’re the business leader of the year, or the lifetime achievement award winner. The award meant I’d accomplished something transcending my ethnicity and immigrant story, and they didn’t put a caveat to that recognition. 

You came from humble beginnings in Jamaica and are now the founder and chairman of various companies, including Kingsdale Advisors. How did your entrepreneurship journey begin, and what was the main deciding factor?

For some time, I wanted to start my own business, but it did not come to fruition until after I met Tom Kusumoto, a good friend and client. One evening, we met at the corner of Cordova and Howe Street in Vancouver and engaged in deep conversations about my becoming an entrepreneur, and the long-term benefits to our community. We stood at the street corner, analyzing a plan, and what I should do next. We didn’t leave the street corner until Tom convinced me to take the first steps. He said, “You do this now and thank me forever when you do.” So, I went back to Toronto, wrote a business plan, and did it.

What are the core services of Kingsdale Advisors?

When I started the company 20 years ago, we didn’t have shareholder activism in Canada. Shareholder activism refers to an investor in a publicly listed company or trading on the stock exchange. A big part of what we do is, if you’re unhappy with how management is running the business you invest in, you can approach other investors and replace the entire board and management team.

We either advise activists on how to do that, or we defend companies to prevent it from happening to them. We also work with companies making takeover bids, referred to as mergers and acquisitions. Suppose you’re taking over company A or company B, or you do a deal to take over your competitor or to expand your business; in that case, you go to the CEO and say, “Hey, I want to buy your company,” and if the CEO says, “Yeah, let’s do it,” that’s a friendly takeover.

But suppose you approach that competitor CEO to buy their business, and they say no, but it’s a publicly listed company; you can still do so by going directly to its shareholders without the management’s support. That’s called a hostile takeover. So, I advise companies on hostile takeovers as well.

Can you give us a snapshot of Kingsdale’s general organizational culture regarding diversity and inclusion? Does any area reflect your cultural heritage?

People would come into my office and say it looked like the United Nations because I have employees from all ethnicities. In the company’s initial stages, I put my photo on the website, and people came to me looking for jobs because they saw that a Black man ran the company on Bay Street. However, new immigrants faced many barriers because employers would tell them they had no Canadian experience or had problems with their accents. As a result, they weren’t hiring Black people or people of colour in positions of authority on Bay Street. Fortunately, I was able to attract and retain many of those people who are still working in my company. 

We operate about six companies in Canada, and they are the most diverse in our sector and the number one firm by far. For example, one of our companies, QM Environmental, has 660 employees, and over 50 per cent of those employees identify as Black, Indigenous, persons of colour, and persons with disability. That statistic is right across the board, including upper management.

What strategies have you implemented to navigate your business operations amid the recent high-interest hikes?

We’re not susceptible to interest hikes because we generally don’t borrow or rely on debt to build our businesses. But sometimes, when we want to grow a business, we look for additional capital from various financial institutions. The bottom line is that we’re doing better in Canada than in some other countries. For example, in Canada, we stalled at 6.9 per cent in October. But if you look at the UK, they are at 11.9 per cent. They have a four- to five-year high in their inflation rate. 

However, many people overextended themselves when the interest rate was low and money was cheap over the last few years. Seeing the hikes we’re having right now, they’re in trouble in many ways and have to divest their assets to deal with the rising rates. 

Innovation and technology are top-of-mind for many investors and manufacturers. How do you, personally, keep abreast of what is new in your organizations?

Regarding innovation, the company I worked with before Kingsdale did not innovate or change how it did business. As a result, some of these companies went out of business within a few years because they did not see the market’s direction and adapt their business. 

The assets I have have gone up and down the elevator daily, at least in Kingsdale’s business model. I frequently review the complement of my people and analyze who and what will take us to that next level. That’s where innovation and disrupting your business model come into play and help you remain relevant.

To what extent has the current labour shortage impacted your businesses, and do you think it’s a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — or other factors?

Labour shortages are wreaking havoc on all businesses and affecting every sector. It is a dichotomy between saying we’re going into recession or in a recession. Usually, when you go into recession, it starts with massive unemployment. We don’t have that today. You hire people, and they don’t show up to work. That never happened in our economy previously, but it’s happening today. That’s not sustainable and escalates the problem that we’re seeing with rising interest rates and inflation due to this massive shortage in unemployment.

We believe one factor is immigration; new immigrants are coming to Canada to fill these positions, but they’re not getting hired. Doctors are driving taxi cabs; engineers are driving Ubers. You name it. There is a shortage of nurses and doctors, yet those people are walking the street and not practicing their trade. We must change how we handle immigration to help deal with the labour shortage.

You started the Black North Initiative in 2020 to help combat racism during a highly racialized period. What can you tell us about it?

The purpose behind Black North was to assert our influence in different places. I am not a social activist. I help activist investors in terms of corporate activism. However, when they murdered George Floyd in 2020, I was personally affected. So, I decided to use my influence within corporate Canada to rally a group of executives and CEOs across the country. My goal is to encourage them to adjust within their organization so it’s more friendly to people of colour. Doing this will give them more opportunities at higher levels in some companies. However, in some cases, they lack representation and are not visible in their positions. So, in politics, not-for-profits, or corporate Canada, in senior positions, the perception of Black people and their contribution to Canada is minimized. 

Some major players are working with you on the Black North Initiative; how important is it to have this level of influence and support?

Well, it’s critical. The CEO of a company should determine who gets hired or fired in their organization. They must be intentional about who comes into the organization because it reflects people you’re comfortable with, and that’s a problem, especially in a multicultural society. As the founder of Kingsdale Advisors and all the businesses I run, I determine who comes in. If I approach that responsibility with an inclusive lens, my businesses will be naturally inclusive.

Have you observed any industry shifts since the launch, and what are some of the challenges?

Like anything, people jump on a situation that’s top of mind or topical. Once that situation is no longer topical, some people move on. There’s no question that people’s enthusiasm for social justice related to the Black community in 2020 is very different today. 

That’s what happens with the news. But for the Black community, it’s not news. It’s not our 15 minutes of fame; this is our lives. So, we must continue the conversation because unless other people are affected, we shouldn’t expect them to keep talking about it. 

In 2020, many people were concerned about the Black community’s injustice. Now we’re dealing with inflation and recession. That’s where the fire is today. We appreciate that we’re fighting this fire, but we must deal with social justice issues.

There’s an old saying that “timing is everything.”  How does this relate to your business ventures and planning for the future?

When I started Kingsdale, it was the perfect timing. Had I done it ten years before, I wouldn’t be successful. It would’ve taken a lot of money to keep the business going and to appreciate what I was bringing to the market. So I hit it almost perfectly; it was in perfect strides. Then mergers — hostile mergers, in particular — started to happen in the mining sector in Canada. 

The CEOs of mining companies wanted to grow their business, and they began acquiring different companies. There was a frenzy of mergers and acquisition opportunities, and I was in the middle. The perception wouldn’t be the same, and the competition level would be very different. So, timing is critical in everything, whether starting a business or otherwise. You can’t be too early because some people may not understand what you’re doing, and you can’t be too late because you could miss an opportunity.

You’re the first Black Dragon on CBC’s hit reality series, Dragons’ Den. What is that experience like for you?

It’s fantastic, first of all, being the first Black Dragon on the show. There should be other Black entrepreneurs considered for the show, but they have not been until now. My time on the show will be partly due to my performance. It’s about ratings; if we’re not adding value, the hosts will move on. My responsibility is to open doors for other Black entrepreneurs and support diversity to ensure that Black entrepreneurs are coming to pitch and showcase their products. I also hope they look at other Black folks as alternatives or options in the future.

What lessons have you learned from your colleagues on the show that you could apply to your business?

Everyone on the show is professional and operates different types of businesses. I’ve learnt some strategies from my colleagues because they’ve been doing the show for much longer. How they communicate partly demonstrates how it would be to work with and get mentored by them.

Can you take us back to the most significant landmark in your first year of business? What was your lowest point during that year?

I worked on a colossal proxy fight that year. It was great, but I didn’t win the proxy fight, so that was not fun, but working on it was exciting. It was my first. Within three weeks of my company starting, I got a mandate for $250,000. At the time, that was a significant figure. I worked on a deal, and it didn’t pan out as planned. 

I was very disappointed because I didn’t want to be collecting money and not winning. Winning means everything because you’re defending someone from an activist investor, and if the activist wins, that’s not a good thing. I was not in a good space when that happened, but over time I realized that if you do 110 per cent on a mandate, you’re not going to win everything. So, it would help if you learned to take a loss graciously.

How critical is having relevant knowledge about your investments? What is one secret to convincing a potential investor?

You need to know what you own and how long to hold it. Some people watch their investments grow and get excited and emotional when things are up and may not dispose of the asset at its peak. Those same investors watch their investments go to zero instead of cutting their losses and moving on to another opportunity. Investors must choose their partners wisely. The opposite is also true.

In today’s unpredictable business climate, how do you sustain growth and profitability through thick and thin?

These are times when you must grow your business and remain opportunistic. Several businesses have overextended themselves because of access to cheap capital and investors throwing money at them. Now interest rates are up, capital is scarce, and it is time for well-funded companies to take advantage of these opportunities.

One of your most admirable qualities is your consistency in giving back to your communities and various groups across Canada. How rewarding is that?

I learned the art of philanthropy from my grandmother. She didn’t have much money but always found ways to give. I grew up and adopted the same principle. I’m more privileged than my grandmother 

because I can write a cheque and provide mentorship and support to others. I can give speeches and encourage people to be their best selves. It should become part of your DNA.

Your book No Bootstraps When You’re Barefoot gives us a look into your life while growing up in Jamaica. Which chapter is the most profound to you and why?

There are a few shocking chapters. For example, chapter one describes how my mother abandoned me and left me in the house alone. I also talked about the physical abuse I experienced when I left my grandmother’s house and went to live with my mom. 

Those were profound moments because I had to relive them, and I caution anyone going through similar situations to be careful while reading because those are triggering events. It continues to be traumatic, and I acknowledge the bad and good people in the world. Unfortunately, some of those same people are part of your family, but I’ve learned to deal with the trauma that I suffered during my childhood.

Do you have any words of wisdom for entrepreneurs who are struggling economically?

Hang in there and stay strong! Find mentors and supporters that will help you ride out the tough times.

Jennifer M. Williams | Editor-In-Chief



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