Fairfax Financial Ltd Chief Prem Watsa Tells His ‘Horatio Alger’ Story

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Fairfax Financial Ltd Chief Prem Watsa Tells His ‘Horatio Alger’ Story by Peter Kuitenbrouwer, Financial Post

Horatio Alger, the 19th century American author, was famous for his novels for children — Ragged Dick, Tattered Tom, Luck and Pluck, and Strive and Succeed — that shared a theme: with hard work and the right attitude comes prosperity.

In Alger’s 1909 novel Telegraph Boy we meet a 15-year-old sitting on a bench in New York. An orphan, he has arrived from Hartford by boat. He is flat broke:

“‘Twenty-five cents to begin the world with,’ reflected Frank Kavanagh, drawing from his vest pocket two ten-cent pieces and a nickel. ‘That isn’t much, but it will have to do.’”

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This past Tuesday at a lunch on Toronto’s Bay Street, after the operatic group, The Tenors, sang the anthem, Prem Watsa, chief executive of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., took the podium. He wore a navy pinstripe suit and baby blue tie. He had his own Horatio Alger story to tell. It was his own.

“I was an immigrant myself 43 years ago,” Watsa, 64, reminded a crowd that included Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, astronaut Chris Hadfield, Issy Sharp, the chairman of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and John Tory, the mayor, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, and Rick Waugh, retired CEO of Bank of Nova Scotia. “I benefited myself from a good education,” he added. The event, after all, was to award scholarships to business students — the association, with a $10 million endowment, delivers 80 annual scholarships of $5,000 each and another 10 of double that. Fairfax also sponsors 45 scholarships of its own, which the association will be administering from now on.

Watsa has long been known as a reticent business leader in Canada, despite being one of the most prosperous in the country. But he spoke to the Financial Post this week about his own story and his passion for the association that helps open opportunities for hard-working kids.

Watsa says he’s never read Telegraph Boy; but he credits his success to two vintage American books of capitalist wisdom. And to his mother Irene, who raised four children, and his father, Mnohar Clarence Watsa, an orphan himself, who worked his way up to become the principal of a top boys school in India. Much of Watsa’s life has been influenced by his father’s tenacity, and the advice he passed to his son: “Work as hard as you can, as though everything depended on you. Pray as hard as you can, as though everything depended on God.”

“I won the ovarian lottery,” Watsa says. “A billion people in India and I have two great parents.” Today he is a billionaire with homes in Toronto and in Caledon, north of the city. A contrarian investor, he is most well known for shrewdly betting a chunk of his insurance empire’s assets that the U.S. housing market would crash in 2008. That move netted $2 billion. Watsa himself is estimated to be worth $1.2 billion.

Born near Hyderabad, India, Prem Watsa’s father’s position won him free tuition in private schools. Later, studying chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, he played field hockey, ping-pong, tennis, and chess; as sports secretary, he led his school to its first sports triumph over the other IIT schools.

“With a lot of hard work, coaching, practice, we won that inter-varsity meet. The idea of winning came into your head,” he said. At the school he met Nalini Loganadhan, now his wife.

At age 20, he remembers catching a train from school in Chennai on the Bay of Bengal to home in Hyderabad.

“It was third class,” he recalls. “I was sitting on the steps of the carriage, because it was full, holding on for dear life, and this guy sits down next to me, and he says, ‘Have you ever read Napoleon Hill’s book, Think and Grow Rich? You gotta read it.’ It had a huge impact on me. It was a Horatio Alger book in a sense.”

See full article here by Financial Post

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