Robert Herjavec may be a technology tycoon now starring in Dragon's Den on CBC and Shark Tank on ABC, and living in a mansion that reportedly set him back $10 million but he well remembers his Mississauga roots. Herjavec still chokes up when he tells the story of how, when he was eight years old, his family moved here from Croatia to escape communism.
His dad got a job in a Mississauga factory, making $76 a week. Herjavec remembers the uproar in the household when a travelling salesman persuaded his mom to buy a $500 vacuum cleaner. That was seven weeks' salary, spent on a vacuum cleaner. Herjavec swore his family would never again be taken advantage of. He went on to pursue wealth with a single-mindedness that made him rich beyond his childhood dreams.
He made much of his money by selling the company he formed, Brak Systems, to AT&T Canada in 2000. In 2003 he launched The Herjavec Group (THG), an internet security company that he says had $35.6 million in revenues in 2009 and employed 56 people.
These days, he's focusing on his public image. Dragons' Den is a hit for CBC, but the future of Shark Tank, which airs in the more lucrative American market, is not assured. Herjavec has a ghostwritten business book coming out in September, called Driven. He recently launched a new personal website. The homepage features a picture of him that makes him look like a religious icon.
"I am much more of a builder than a pure hands-off investor," he replied via email when asked how many contestants he's invested in on Dragons' Den and how those deals have worked out. "In the few cases from the show where the investment has worked out, I try to get involved and mentor as much as possible. Grease Monkey (as an example) is experiencing phenomenal growth since airing and we try and have conference calls at least every two weeks. Very tough to make the time but often, these small businesses need advice much more than they need the money."
The Herjavec home in Toronto is a magnificent property. It was this house that started Robert on the road to celebrity status. Before he bought it, he was just another unknown millionaire businessman living with his family in Mississauga. In the past two summers, he's rented it to Bono and John Travolta.
Herjavec, 47, has brilliant blue eyes and expressive features that seem particularly adept at telegraphing sympathy, one of the reasons that Dragons' Den producer Tracie Tighe was drawn to him. Another producer at CBC had seen a news story about Herjavec and his wife throwing a charity ball at their mansion for the Princess Margaret Foundation. Herjavec's immigrant-makes-good story is irresistible. "All of our dragons were self-made," says Tighe. "And he's got those blue eyes. He has a very striking face. He just looks great for television, too. He's a good performer."
Herjavec's father is a charming and roguish former mechanic in his 70s who effortlessly steals the spotlight from his son. Vladimir talks about how much he hated living under Communist rule in Tito's Yugoslavia, and how he was repeatedly jailed for speaking out against it. Vladimir's father died when he was three, leaving a family of 10 children. "I was hungrier than a pig," said Vladimir. "When I came to Canada, I couldn't eat enough bread." He still lives in Mississauga and travels often to Croatia. He still cannot believe his son's success. "When I saw for the first time this room," he says of the ballroom, "I was shocked that something like this exists and my son made it."
In the brief biography of Herjavec that will air tomorrow on Dragons' Den, he visits his uncle in Croatia, who apparently still lives in the humble home in which Canadian star grew up.