Canadian Billionaire Prem Watsa, the chairman of Fairfax Financial Holdings, has his own rags to riches story. The tale officially begins in Hyderabad, India, and includes a solid education with a degree in chemical engineering, but real story began when Watsa arrived in London, Ontario in the winter of 1972 with just $8 in his pocket.
Watsa came from India in 1972 to live with his brother David and his wife, and to study at the University of Western Ontario (now the Richard Ivey School of Business). In order to pay his way through school, Watsa sold stationery and small gifts door to door.
“It was in the snowbelt,” Watsa recounts in an interview with the Financial Post. “And it was cold. I thought I’d not survive that. Oh my goodness. Lots of snow.”
Prem Watsa credits his success to his upbringing
Prem Watsa gives the lion's share of the credit for his success to his mother Irene, who raised himself and three siblings, and his father, Mnohar Clarence Watsa, who worked his way up to become the principal of a top boys school in India. He noted that the only reason he has come as far as he has is his father's advice: “Work as hard as you can, as though everything depended on you. Pray as hard as you can, as though everything depended on God.”
Making his way from nothing in Canada
During his first summer in Canada, Watsa switched to selling Lennox air conditioners. He started to work for an immigrant, Ihor Horich, from Ukraine.
Prem Watsa recalls trying to negotiate with his boss for gas money, and how a bigger commission motivated him. "So Ihor put his arms around me and said, ‘Instead of giving you a three per cent commission I’ll give you a five per cent commission.’ Then I started selling. I sold a lot of air conditioners.”
In 1974, his master’s degree in hand, Watsa had an interview at Confederation Life in Toronto. “You know why I got that job? Because I got a call for a second interview, and the other three didn’t show up.”
Prem Watsa exemplified his boss Ihor's blunt style in recounting one of their final conversations. “I said, ‘Well, you know, I got a job, Ihor.’ And he said, ‘How much are they paying you?’ And I said, ‘$11,000 a year.’“ He said, ‘$11,000? You’re not worth that.’”
At Confederation Life, Watsa’s boss gave the young man a classic business book that would be a major impact on his life: Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis, first published in 1934.
A little more than 10 years after joining Confederation Life, Prem Watsa and a few other entrepreneurs left to found the company that would eventually morph into Fairfax. The insurance conglomerate today has a market cap of more than $13 billion, and owns companies in Canada, the U.S. and almost a dozen other countries worldwide.