Photo of W. Brett Wilson by Dean West Photo of W. Brett Wilson by Dean West

Calgary-based entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson is, by most traditional measures, very successful. A recent inductee into the Order of Canada, Wilson was co-founder of FirstEnergy Capital Corp., one of Canada’s most significant investment banking firms co-founded in 1993 in Calgary, AB. In 2007, on his 50th birthday, he left the firm in great shape—having participated in hundreds of financing and M&A projects now worth over $250 billion. Following his tenure as chairman and managing director, he stepped back from active duty in FirstEnergy.

His exit from FirstEnergy signifies Wilson’s completion of the second stage of entrepreneurship.

In my coaching practice, I’ve discovered that entrepreneurs evolve through three stages of growth to build a lasting legacy. The first stage of business is the startup. Startup is about survival: getting a footing in the world and then generating consistent cash flow. From there it can become a growth business worth something.

Entrepreneurs succeed at the second stage when they exit from management of a growing business with either substantial residual income, an IPO, a merger or acquisition or the sale of the business to staff, partners or family members. For many entrepreneurs, this is the crowning achievement of a life of commitment and innovation. For others, it’s only the start of a different kind of contribution.

A third stage enterprise is a legacy business. Few entrepreneurs succeed at growing a business; fewer still become icons and leave behind something of lasting value. The point of a legacy business is not to create cash flow or create wealth, although it may do very well at both of these. In Maslow-like thinking, it’s not about survival and it’s not about success. Or as Steve Jobs (perhaps the most accomplished third-stage entrepreneur) put it, “to make a dent in the universe.” It’s about significance.

Wilson is working on his third stage. Despite being a paragon of entrepreneurial success by many definitions—he has the money and the fame—he will tell you that he’s working on something much more significant than that.

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