World-renowned businessman and infamous shark Kevin O’Leary hosts CNBC’s new six-episode series Money Court (premiering Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 10/9c). In this series, O’Leary will settle financial disputes between families, friends and business partners that include their companies. Judge Ada Pozo and trial attorney Katie Phang assist with his decision, but O’Leary makes it clear the final determination is his and the participants must comply. No surprises there. We caught up with O’Leary for some behind the scenes looks at Money Court and to gain some insight on who the notorious “Mr. Wonderful” is.
Could you walk us through any of your difficult decisions/cases? I’ll give you a good example, an interesting situation. Let’s say you started a business with a partner and it was wildly successful. When I see a business like the one you will see on Money Court, and you see the income statement, this is a huge success. When you have that kind of success, you often have two paths. One is you keep building these businesses yourself, and the other, because you want to move even faster, is you franchise so that other people’s money builds them for you and you just take a fee. These are often decisions companies make, way back to McDonald’s, that kind of thing. These two partners, out of wild success, were suing each other. Now, how crazy is that?
Do Judge Ada Pozo and trial attorney Katie Phang influence your verdict? What you find happens is they bring up things that I never even thought of because they understand the nuance of the law in these cases. They’ve been through so many different litigations or court cases. Ada is very interesting because she has this incredible sense of when someone is bullshitting her. She just has this radar. I can sense when her radar goes up, and she hates that. The one thing she can’t stand is when people lie to a judge. That is a really stupid idea because she ferrets it out.
She doesn’t stop and she won’t let you get away with it. She just keeps going and going until she gets the real answer, which I think is powerful. You’re going to see it happen. Once you get her radar up, she’s not that flexible. She’s tough is what I’m trying to say. Don’t lie to her. Tell her the truth. They don’t see the cameras anymore, Katie and Ada. They’re not making television, they’re listening. It is a reflex emotion for them that they’ve been doing their whole career.
What has been the most preventable financial mistake from a case you’ve ruled on? One of the biggest challenges, and where businesses get into trouble, is they forecast great upside and they don’t consider what happens if their plans don’t work out, which happens all the time in business. You have to be able to pivot and where you see these horrific situations is they saw the train coming down the track.
They knew they had to pivot, but they didn’t, and they basically got financially run over. We saw plenty of cases like that. They just didn’t make the moves they needed to because they couldn’t agree. It’s always two partners, or it’s family members, or it’s a landlord/tenant, or it’s whatever. Dispute is a human reaction to a misunderstanding. That’s basically what it is. And if you don’t have the flexibility to see it from the other person’s perspective, then you end up in a situation where you lose money.
What was your first job, and what’s something you will never forget about it? I got hired as an ice cream scooper in a store and I did it because a girl I was interested from my class was working at the shoe store across the mall. I was hoping when we both got off work we could hang out together. When people sample ice cream, they take their gum out and throw it on the floor before they try the sample. The owner of the store said to me, “Listen, before you go, you got to scrape the gum off the floor.” I said, “Well, wait a second. You hired me as a scooper, not a scraper. I don’t want to get on the floor.”
The girl across the hall was waiting for me to get out, so I then said, “I have a specific job here.” She said, “Listen, you’re my employee. I own the store. You do whatever I say.” I said, “No, I’m not going to do that,” and she fired me. That moment I learned there are two types of people. There are the people that own the store and there are the people that scrape the floor, and you must decide which one you are. That was my moment of entrepreneurial desire to control my own destiny.
When you’re not working, how do you enjoy your free time? Well, I believe in the whole concept of yin and yang. I’m very interested in the arts. I’m a photographer. I’ve sold my work for charity. I’m a guitarist. I was a shareholder of Fender for a while. I’ve got dozens of guitars; all the music in our social media is what I record in my studio. I’m a giant watch collector. That keeps me very, very busy. I’m way out there on watches. I work with all the manufacturers and I’m a big collector in that space. I have many unique pieces, but that’s an asset class.
With such a successful career, you must have a favorite asset — could you tell us about one? There’s a watchmaker in Singapore named Ming, M-I-N-G. He’s very famous as a micro brand and it’s very hard to get one of his watches. I contacted his head of manufacturing because he’s a photographer and artist who designs the dials and watches that are made in Switzerland. He told me that Ming made a Ming for himself and he had not seen it yet. It turns out this guy was a huge Shark Tank fan, so he sold me Ming’s watch before Ming got it. Ming knows this. I wore it last year when we were taping Shark Tank. So, it’s one of a kind and obviously priceless. He never made another. So, I have Ming’s Ming, and that’s sort of the joke in the watch industry.