Live & Learn: Jim Treliving

The owner of Boston Pizza talks business, family life, reality TV and the need in Canada for a "China policy."

Jim Treliving • Born May 12, 1941, in Virden, Man. • Reality TV star • Owner of Boston Pizza Intl. • Former RCMP officer

My father was a big influence. He had been through the Depression and never believed in having any debt. I asked him one time why he got married so late. He said, “Cause I couldn’t afford to.”

I wanted to join the RCMP from the time I was a young man, and I did that right out of high school. There was a prestige to it. You had to be the best there was. In those days, you had to be a certain height, certain weight. You couldn’t have any acne. You couldn’t have any glasses. You had to be single. The world was a whole different place.

When I was stationed in Edmonton, a friend took me to this place called Boston Pizza and Spaghetti House. There was a scrap that night, and I helped separate some people. That’s how I met the owners. I was being moved back east, and I didn’t want to go. The owners gave me the opportunity to open a store.

As we evolved as a business, I realized I didn’t want to be the guy pounding dough for the rest of my life. I wanted to expand. I thought in my lifetime I’d probably get two or three of these stores. I never dreamed we’d get to 330 in Canada.

The hardest part of shifting from being a policeman to owning a restaurant chain was that everyone is a suspect when you’re a policeman, so everyone coming through my restaurant doors were suspects. They weren’t customers. It took me a couple of years to realize that.

You can’t be in the restaurant business if you think you might like people. You have got to love being around people.

I look at the business now, and I have done everything the long way, as I call it. It was by deduction more than anything else. When deals were complicated, I knew I was not the most talented guy when it comes to that because I didn’t have the education. What did I do? I hired the best people you can get.

Business has given me opportunities that I would have never got had I stayed in what I was doing. I’ve met Gorbachev. I’ve met Clinton. I took up golfing when I was 47 years old and yet I got to play with Nick Price. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be on television.

The producer for Dragons’ Den asked me to come down to CBC and shoot a pilot. I said, I’m not interested. My wife said, “The profile for your company is going to be unbelievable,” and convinced me to do the pilot. I like the profile the show’s given us as a company. Have I gotten to like television? Yeah, to a point.

The biggest mistake people make on Dragons’ Den is they don’t come as well prepared as they should. The second thing is the valuation side is just so out of whack.

Canada in the next two years better have a China policy for major companies, because that’s going to be our No. 1 customer. If you’re a businessman and you’re focused on this country and peering down to the south, you’re making the biggest mistake of your life.

I went through two divorces. I’m on my third marriage. My son made a comment: “I guess you like the song they play at weddings.”

I said to all of my kids, I want you to have the best education in the world. You can go to any university in the world. I’ll fly you first-class there, put you in great accommodations, and fly you back first-class. But if you screw up, you get your own way home.

You’re going to be dead longer than you’re ever alive, so you better get as much done as you can.

I love golf. It’s another frustration for me, because I want to do better and better, but I just get older and older. That’s doesn’t work so well.

A while ago, we had three stores in Toronto and lost all three. A banker told me I should go back west and be a nice little restaurant chain there. I got on the plane back to Vancouver, turned to my partner and said no one kicks my ass out of town. We now have 118 stores in Eastern Canada.

The secret to good customer service is walking up to someone and talking to them like it’s your home.

I went out for dinner and had a light-coloured jacket on, shirt and tie. I was explaining something and touched my wineglass. I stopped it from heading toward my wife and pulled it toward me and got covered in red wine. The bartender came over and took off his shirt, and we exchanged shirts so I could sit there for the rest of the night. That’s good customer service.

The hardest thing is to become No. 1. The second hardest thing is staying there. That’s what I wonder every day. Can we stay there? Can we keep up? Do I influence people that work with me enough that they want to do that?

Entrepreneurs are made by the experiences they go through. Anybody can take something on, but you have to learn to handle the pressure and be very organized.