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LEARNING FROM PREM WATSA

By : PANIIT |February 13, 2015 |Guru Funda

Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Prem Watsa

How did you first hear of IIT-Madras back in the mid-1960s?
It’s a funny story. IIT Madras was in its infancy, but was already getting very popular. I first heard of it in school. I wrote the first exam, and scored only about 8/20 in Math. Despite this, my dear aunt forced me to write the other papers as well, the second of which was English and the third Chemistry. I was pretty good at Chemistry, and that is why I decided to study Chemical Engineering.
In what way has the IIT Madras experience helped you in your future career, and what inspired you to follow a career in business and investing in Canada after studying Chemical Engineering at IIT Madras?
An engineering education allows you to get into virtually any field. I didn’t really take a fancy to engineering very much, so I decided to pursue a career in business and management. Business was not very valued in India in those days; it is a lot better now. I decided to apply to IIM Ahmedabad, as its graduates got good jobs, and  it had a great reputation even then. However, I didn’t make it the first time. So I worked at a pharma company called IDCL in Hyderabad for a year, studied harder, applied again and got it on my second attempt.
However, within a month of me joining IIM Ahmedabad, my elder brother had married a girl from England and had moved to Ontario, Canada. My father then asked me to follow suit and join my brother in Canada. I decided to  take his advice, quit IIM Ahmedabad after a month and moved to London, Ontario and joined the MBA program at the University of Western Ontario (later known as the Richard Ivey School of Business).
I was a poor immigrant in Canada then, with very little money for even basic expenses. I used to spend only 50 cents or so on lunch, and felt that people around me, who spent $3-4 dollars, were extremely rich in comparison. Also, I was a new immigrant, while everyone else around me were well established Canadians. I sold air conditioners and furnaces door to door to pay for my MBA. It is under these circumstances that I discovered opportunity – you tend to discover skills you never knew you had before. You tend to work harder, because you’re at the bottom and the only way to go is up. Canada is indeed a wonderful place and there are absolutely no limits as to what you can do and achieve. It is no wonder that lots of Indians, many from the IITs, do really well here.
Could you describe the beginnings and development of Fairfax Financial Holdings, which is among the world’s largest property, insurance and investment companies today?
After my MBA, I began applying for jobs, but as an Indian immigrant competing with established Canadians, I had a difficult time. Finally, I got into a company called Confederation Life Insurance (where I then worked for almost ten years), and that too only because out of the four applicants, the other three, never showed up for the interview! My manager there, John Watson, taught me all that I know today about investing, trained me for the job and became my mentor. He was one of the best people I ever knew, and exposed me to the world of Value Investing.
In 1985, which is 13 years after I came to Canada, I and three of my colleagues from Confederation Life started a company called Hamblin Watsa Investment Counsel Ltd, which soon developed into the firm currently called Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited.
It was the opportunities and exposure in Canada which enabled me to develop the company, something that was surely not possible in India at that time. I loved building the company, as it started from nothing to about $6 billion today. The share price was about $3.25 when we started; today it is about $475.
The work culture at Fairfax is terrific; we have always had very hardworking employees, and we have always treated them very well; and ensuring that what we do is good for the customer as well as the employee and the company. We donate about 1-2% of the profits back to the communities in which we do business in, today that is about 12 million and to put it into perspective our whole company was worth 2 million when we started in 1985.
Describe your day-to-day work as the CEO of Fairfax. What is it that you love the most about your work?
As the CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.; the Head Office has only about 25 employees. It is the subsidiaries in New York, Canada and around the world that generate the business in our Insurance and Reinsurance operations. All the float managed by the Investment Team at Fairfax, of which I am a member, is worth over $25 billion. Any acquisitions, positions we take and succession planning takes place at the Head Office.
I wouldn’t really call what I am doing “work”, it is what I enjoy and in fact, I plan to do this as long as I can. I have also been very involved in supporting other organizations like the University of Waterloo (which in many ways is like the IIT of Canada, and is very well-known). I am on the Investment Committee of the Hospital for Sick Children, the Advisory Board of the Richard Ivey School of Business (my alma-mater), the Investment Committee of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, and also the Investment Committee of the Royal Ontario Museum Foundation.
I have three children – two of whom are married now, and also two grandchildren. Although they are not working in or are involved with Fairfax, they are all doing really well.  I have told my children that all my shares as I control the voting shares will after I am gone go into a foundation so that Fairfax will continue to grow and employees can build their career with us without any fear that the company will be sold or broken up.
About what I love and hate the most in my work:-
I absolutely love all aspects of my work; building a great company from scratch, doing business as it should be done, in a free, fair and friendly environment.
The only negative aspect, according to me, is when I have to let someone know they aren’t performing very well. However, we do bear in mind that they have families and we treat them with respect and make sure that they are well taken care of.
You have often been called the “Warren Buffett of Canada”, for your excellent investing skills, and your accurate predictions of the global financial crisis of 2008. Have you ever met Mr. Buffett personally?
Yes, I first met Warren Buffett at an annual meeting in 1981-82, which was attended by less than 200 people. He is indeed a great builder of business, and one of the best value investors. Although my business is different from his, I have learnt a lot from him and his methods. I am indeed lucky to have had mentors like John Templeton, who was a big mentor in my life for over 30 years.
What advice would you like to give to current-day students of IIT Madras?
At your age, I was very much like all of you are right now. I would like to share one incident with you that changed my life:-
I was 21, travelling by train from Madras to Hyderabad in a third-class unreserved compartment after finishing IIT-M. I was sitting on the footsteps of the coach, smoking a cigarette (I later quit smoking), when I met a man, who gave me a book titled “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. It was one of the turning points of my life. Napoleon Hill wrote about the life of 500 Americans who had become financially successful, such as Andrew Carnegie. The phrase “what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve” convinced me that if you really want to be successful – in any field you might choose – then you surely will be. You are bound to have experiences and turning points like these in your life and when you do act on them.
As far as my personal life is concerned, I got married at 23 and been married, for over 40 years now. That is probably the single best thing that has ever happened in my life. Also, develop a strong faith in God, and practice your faith whatever faith it may be. It will give you a guideline on how to live your life, and will help you make all the right choices for a wonderful future. Once you are successful you should always remember to pay it back and help others who are less fortunate.  You will find that personally rewarding

 

Read full interview at

 

Short Bio:  Prem Watsa is the founder, chairman, and chief executive of Fairfax Financial Holdings, based in Toronto, Canada. He has been called the “Canadian Warren Buffett” by some during successful periods of investing.
 
He is a CFA charterholder, an alumnus of the Hyderabad Public School, Begumpet, a 1999 Distinguished Alumnus Awards Recipient of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras where he graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering and a holder of an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business of the University of Western Ontario.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prem_Watsa

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