Dragons’ Den star and entrepreneur Michael Wekerle recalls the valuable lessons that his mother taught him at school and the high returns he’s enjoyed because of them.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: Mike Ford
On the night of May 11, 2012, the walls of the Royal Opera House at the Palace of Versailles echoed with the cheers of a Parisian audience saluting Canada’s Opera Atelier, which had just made its dazzling debut of the 1686 Baroque opera classic, Armide. And while the company beamed with justifiable pride, the largest smiles in the theatre belonged to a teacher and her pupil, who also happens to be her son.
One of those smiles belonged to Hermine Wekerle, who surveyed this triumph from the prestigious Royal Box — customarily reserved for royalty and where Marie Antoinette once sat. This was a moment she could only dream of as a child, as she’d watch productions from the back row of the Vienna State Opera — the only seats her family could afford.
Her son, CBC’s Dragons’ Den star Michael Wekerle — one of the most flamboyantly successful Canadian entrepreneurs — was the reason Hermine was there. He had a dream of his own — to see his mother enjoy such glory, since taking him and his high school classmates to see the Canadian Opera Company’s The Merry Widow.
Much has happened since Wekerle’s school days. After dropping out of university and taking a job at the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1982, he soon became the stuff of financial legend. Within a decade, “Wek” swiftly made a name for himself as one of the country’s best institutional traders, fast tracking his way through the investment world. Since then, the ups and downs of this multimillionaire’s dealings have kept Bay Street buzzing, especially after being a key player in the early financing of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) and its IPO.
As much as the television personality is known for his financial wins, and occasional high-profile antics, his philanthropic support of artistic and youth organizations is just as noteworthy. When asked about his life achievements, Wekerle claims that “everything good about me came from my mother.”
Hermine was a German and history teacher for many years at Michael Power/St. Joseph High School in Etobicoke, Ont., before becoming an influential guidance counsellor there. Looking back, what she and her students remember best is what she called “The Culture Club” — a series of outings she devised to broaden the scope of their lives. “She’d take us to the opera, ballet, theatres and museums,” recalls her son. “We even wound up at a disco once; she wanted us to enjoy every type of cultural experience.”
“I can still see her sitting, writing out lesson plans — it helped me realize that you can’t succeed without real effort and preparation."
“My European background had a lot to do with it,” the retired teacher admits, sitting at a dining-room table in her son’s baronial home in Markham, Ont. “My parents had always taken me to the ballet and opera as a child and I wanted my Canadian students to enjoy the same experiences. The school thought it was a wonderful idea and so did the parents.”
Hermine immigrated to Canada in 1952, sent by her parents who were determined that she know a better life than what postwar Europe could offer. She landed at Halifax’s famous immigrant destination, Pier 21, and was taken under the wing of the Sisters of Service of Canada, which helped hundreds of newcomers.
“They had a residential home in Toronto for young Catholic girls,” she recalls, of the historic Mary Perram House where she stayed.
Shortly after, she met a tradesman in the import-export business, whom she married and had four children with. Hermine devoted herself to motherhood but when a friend discovered she was fluent in German and English — and suggested a career in teaching — her path in life changed dramatically. She soon became certified at the University of Toronto’s Ontario College of Education in 1971.
“I never thought of myself as a teacher,” Hermine recalls, “but once I began, I realized that it was a job I was born to do.”
When her children reached high school age, the resourceful Mrs. Wekerle found a way for them to attend the same school where she was teaching. Even though it was a good distance from home, she’d drive them in with her each day. “I remember it being a long ride,” says Wekerle, “but Mom believed in keeping the family together.”
It wasn’t until Grade 11 history that Hermine and Wekerle’s academic paths crossed but this didn’t mean any special privileges. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time she was great, but if I got her mad — watch out for that one per cent! It could get awfully quiet in those car rides home.”
Being a particularly good read of others, a skill that served her well in guidance, Hermine noticed something about Wekerle: he had a penchant for daydreaming. “The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary.” This was one of his mother’s favourite sayings, which Wekerle still recalls fondly. She also stressed the importance of customizing systems that work for you: “Develop your own process and stick to it.”
For a charismatic entrepreneur whose career has known dizzying highs cut with stomach-turning lows, Wekerle has found much inspiration in another of her zingers: “Failure is not an option.”
When asked what he gained from having a parent who was also his teacher, Wekerle’s eyes light up. “I think the most valuable thing was watching my mom prepare each night for the following day. I can still see her sitting there, writing out lesson plans — it helped me realize that you can’t succeed without real effort and preparation.”
Hermine shares a happy memory of her own. “Sometimes, I’d keep students later and help them with their work; Michael would often stay and lend a hand. He cared about others, even then; I knew he would go far.”
In fact, it was that love of helping others — along with his mother’s rich cultural influences — that brought Wekerle and Opera Atelier together.
Co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski recalls a special moment at an Opera Atelier event he was speaking at: “I hadn’t even gotten back to my table when someone handed me a cheque for $25,000. It was from Michael Wekerle, and I had never even met him!”
Since, Wekerle has donated more than $1 million — assisting youth and young artists with education and outreach opportunities. He has even funded productions and taken shows abroad.
“I’ll never forget that opening night,” says Pynkoski. “Michael flew his mother in his private jet so that she would arrive on time; he didn’t want her to miss a thing.”
Although Wekerle may have one of the most remarkable careers in Canadian finance, he is quick to attribute credit elsewhere: “It’s all thanks to my mother, and what she taught me in and outside of the classroom. My interest in history, in the arts, in helping others — it all came from her.”
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.