Interview with Vincent Valeri, founder of Vedaera
Being born into a family business can feel like one’s life path is already laid out. To some that feeling is a great burden of responsibility, to others, it feels like a cushioned set up and leads to a sense of entitlement. Vincent Valeri got to know both these feelings throughout his life and career. As the son of a successful Italian-Canadian tech entrepreneur in the 1980’s and 90’s, Vincent embraced everything about the “rich-kid” lifestyle. He had the sports car at 16, the most expensive clothes, and travelled all over the world. What he came to realise a few years later was how ill-prepared for life outside that bubble of entitlement he was. So when his father decided to sell the family business, Vincent was faced with redefining a life’s dream.
His path has led him to where he is today – helping family business members like him avoid the pitfalls he faced. As a Toronto-based family business consultant, he founded his company Vedaera, and helps families define success as more than just financial statements and works with next-gen family business members to find their identity beyond just that of future inheritor.
Tell us more about your family business story.
I think like all of us, it starts with our parents. In my particular case, both of my parents are immigrants to Canada. They immigrated from Italy at two very different times. Why that’s important is it’s their differences as people and as immigrants to Canada that really shaped my upbringing and the challenges of that experience. My mom came over to Canada when she was a very young girl, at two-years-old. She grew up very Canadian, but in a very isolated Italian community where we’re from in Southern Ontario.
So, she grew up very Canadian in a very Italian way. It deserves a little bit of an explanation though.
Because she was two years old, she went through the Canadian educational system, and English became her first language. What happens a lot with these immigrants is when they land in these new countries, they often stay with their people. They work with their people. I make the joke that I have so many friends whose parents and grandparents still don’t speak English very well and they’ve been in Canada for 40 or 50 years. The reality is that they really sheltered themselves in their comfort zone. My family was a little different. Mom came over when she was two, grew up very Canadian. My dad came over when he was 22, so a very different experience. My dad was born in January 1944 so just at the very end of World War II. My parents are from the same town in Italy but obviously didn’t know each other. My father, like my mom, grew up very impoverished in Italy in a country that was decimated by World War II. Like a lot of men at that age, he left Italy to find a better life and my dad found himself in Canada in Hamilton. But my dad was a bit of a different character. He was lucky enough that his older brother took him to Rome in the early 60s where my father learned a trade. That trade was how to manufacture computer chips for circuit boards. A technology that was very advanced in Europe but from a North American perspective, especially Canada, it was very much a new technology. Dad arrives in Canada with no money, no ability to speak the language. But through serendipity I guess, he meets my mom at a local Italian dance. They get together and my mother was gainfully employed at the Royal Bank which is a big bank here in Canada. My father was dead set against working in the traditional industries which were steel mills in Hamilton. A lot of the Italians would find themselves working in heavy industries and steel factories but my father wanted no part of it. He came to Canada for a different reality so in 1974, with the blessing and the financial support of my mom, he started what eventually became the family business which was manufacturing circuit boards.
As the technology grew, the process became refined but what my father found was he was one of the only people in North America doing this type of heavy trade that he learned in Italy. As Canada and the US were leading that charge to grow the technology sector and my father’s small family business grew along with it. So much so that in 1988, he was approached by a German multinational company to partner with him to expand the operation. That really changed the family business from a small 20 or 30 employee family business into this international conglomerates in the late 80s, just in time for me to become a teenager.
Did your father ever tell you how he received that moment in time? What went through his head when he got that opportunity when everything changed so radically? Did he share that with you?
He did. My father was an immigrant to Canada but also an immigrant to wealth. As he started to make money, things changed for us. It’s something that people don’t understand unless you experience it. With the wealth comes a lot of responsibility and a lot of complexity. Stuff that he couldn’t handle. In the late 80s, things for him shifted personally. The business wasn’t going as well because of the recession and there were some investments made that didn’t go as anticipated. He had a partner at the time he went through a health scare, so he was met with his first real challenge. Do I buy out my partner or do I partner with this other German family? The idea for him was I’d rather be a smaller piece of a bigger pie then try to go out and continue to build this business on my own. By the same token, because it was a German family, there’s a lot of history between Germany and Italy that my father was probably still dealing with. But they happen to be a lovely family, lovely people. Frankly, the offer they made was too good to be true. He accepted it and it was the best business decision he could have made. But what it did for us as a family is it really expedited not only our financial growth but our reach within the community. The company went from 30 employees to 150 employees within a very short period of time. As for myself, because now I’m coming into my early teens, all I’m seeing around me is a big company, international travel, hundred-fifty employees, offices all over North America. I realized, wow we’re different than our neighbor because we have this business with people in a very small community.
At that time did you have an appreciation for how much your father went through the years before they get to that point in time? Did he talk to you about how hard it is been?
Not at that age. One of the passions I have for my work today is helping families get back to that storytelling. For my dad, he was still a young man, in his early 50s, making good money all of a sudden now opportunities are open that weren’t open in the past and you kind of get caught up in that storm. At that age, our family was very much exhibiting all of the stereotypical aspects of a wealthy family. We had the big house, we had the fancy car, we had the exotic vacations and travels and we really embodied that wealthy family image. That really trickled down to me. As a young man, now 16, 17, 18 I really started to develop that mindset of a wealthy inheritor.
Entitlement, that’s what you’re talking about here. A sense of entitlement.
To the fullest extreme. I was the poster child for that.
I’m not making him say it, ladies and gentlemen, he is volunteering this information and he still smiling. So how did that work out for you, Vincent?
When things were going well, it was quite the lifestyle. My late teens and early twenties was really filled with international travel. All of the materialistic things one could probably ask for. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, now 20 years removed from that experience, it was definitely too much too soon. But while we were rocking and rolling, it was the best of times and the worst of times if I can quote Charles Dickens. Externally, we were very strong, we had a very successful company, people knew who we were. We had access to capital, access to opportunities. But internally as a family, we were going through a lot of struggles at that time. My parents were going through a challenging divorce in my late teens. I have a twin sister and we were trying to figure out who we were as people. We became polar opposites. My sister very much rejected the wealth and rejected the persona of family success and just retreated from it and didn’t want much to do with it. Whereas at that age, I really embraced the role of being this son of a successful family.
Did that alienate the sibling relationship a bit? Did you have a difficult time getting along at that time?
Absolutely! Absolutely! Absolutely! What that does inside the family is the social classes became different. As you know, when you’re financially successful, you associate with other financially successful people. I really embraced that Playboy lifestyle of fancy clothes, driving nice cars, really trying to ride Dad’s coattails and embrace the wealth he was creating. But my sister and her group of friends were very much opposite of that. My sister was really ahead of her time. She really embodied that millennial mindset and it’s evident today with her Ph.D which focuses on food sustainability. Whereas at that time, I was thinking how we make the most amount of money. My mom was worried, and rightfully so, about the impact that the money would have on us. Specifically, me as a man and the things I was being exposed to early in my adulthood.
Your father watched this happen. He was there all this time and he was probably preoccupied with a business, preoccupied with a painful divorce but he must have noticed the polar opposites that you as siblings were moving towards. Do you remember him having a reaction? Do you remember him trying to talk to you about this?
I think for both my parents, it stressed them out. Here you are as a parent, trying to do the best you can do with what you know and with this new-found wealth. The problem is there’s no precedent for them to educate their kids. There’s no precedent for first-generation wealth creators to have this conversation. In my dad’s case, like in most family business cases, one parent is usually absent because they’re running the enterprise. I think his mindset at the time was let’s keep them close by giving them what I can give them. I can give them some money, an education and some access to travel and from his perspective, at least the kids are happy externally. It wasn’t until after when our situation changed where the conversations became deeper from a human perspective about hey how do we navigate the newfound choppy waters. Because when our situation was financially strong and stable, we kind of ignored the undercurrent of what was going on.
It’s easier, there’s a lot more for what’s going on.
I think with my dad, he had the immigrant mentality which was ‘provide, provide, provide’, for the family. In his mind he probably thought, I’m doing my job. And in that context, he was doing a great job. The family had a lot of financial wealth. But there was an underlying current of conflict, of mistrust, not only with each other but also with ourselves as individuals who are we as people. How do we now navigate to this system that we find ourselves in?
And you mentioned the choppy waters did come, things caught up with you eventually as it very often happens, of course. Entrepreneurship is a volatile thing and so is well that times. How did things change and what brought you from your youthful exuberance to the man that you are today with the perspectives that you’ve gained today?
Like a lot of businesses, nothing is a straight line vertical. If you look at the growth of the tech industry, in the 80’s and 90’s, the trajectory was a straight line up. But as you remember, in the early 2000s, specifically 2000 and 2001, the tech sector globally fundamentally blew up. It disintegrated before our eyes and a big chunk of our client base went away with that meltdown. As the family was accumulating wealth and building assets, we were over-invested in this sector. Nobody tapped them on the shoulder and said hey, maybe you should look at diversifying your money away from this industry. When that wave crashed, a lot of our wealth in the business went with it. Luckily for us, we had this very wonderful family in Germany who was helping us navigate these choppy waters. But I was being groomed to take over this business that my father had started. The consensus of the shareholders was that Vincent Jr was going to take over this company. Knowing this information early, I became entitled, lazy, and demotivated to really find out find my own path. I was just waiting for this role to be passed to me. Very much the prince waiting for the throne to be given to me.
I love it. What an analogy to use.
There’s a great article called The Essence of the Prince. I really experienced it, I wasn’t being tested in the right ways in terms of an adult. Of course, I worked in the factory, I was fortunate enough to get an MBA, but I never really applied myself because I was just checking the boxes of what I thought needed to be done and waiting for my opportunity to take over and inherit this job from my dad. So as the 2000’s came along, the industry fundamentally changed. Luckily for our business, it’s still strong, we had a 30-year foundation and we were able to muddle through the economic downturn that we were facing. But a funny thing happened to my dad. He started to age. My dad turned 65 and started to really assess his life. He came to the decision that it’s time for him to get out of this business. He correctly felt that this business was not sustainable enough for me to take over.
I was away at the time in school in Australia but a shareholder meeting happened, and my family made the decision to transition our remaining shares. That was his decision in 2006. I returned from Australia and I remember sitting down with my dad in July of 2006. I thought, okay I have my MBA, and I have some external experience living away from our little bubble.
The Prodigal Son returns basically.
The prince is home to claim his throne and my dad looked at me and said son, you’ve been gone for quite some time. As you know, I’ve kept you abreast of what’s been happening with the business but when I haven’t talked to you enough about is my decision. I’m out as of January 1st, 2007. I’m transitioning my leadership role. I’ve divested from the company. The Valeri family no longer owns this business.
Vincent, in that moment in time, honestly were you angry at him?
Angry is an understatement. Disappointed, frustrated, scared, I felt cheated, I felt betrayed. My definition of success at that time was if my father is able to come to Canada with very little foundation and build this international company, then I have to take what he has done and grow it by two times. How I was going to do that is by using his business as a platform from which to launch the next phase. But what was really going on was I had built a false persona of who I was as a person. For years, I had built this image of myself of being this extremely wealthy guy that has access to money and cars and travel. And now here I am at 27, 28 years old, and I was now a stranger in my own home. I was afraid to allow my friends and the people that had known me in a certain way to see this is who I really am. And by the way, I’m no longer part of this family enterprise. It was devastating.
What brought you to the next stage? What got you through that time of having to reassess all of your lights plans and life’s priorities? Once the first shock was over and you realize you have to make your own plans, how did you go about that?
The irony in all of this is the greatest thing that immigrants, entrepreneurs have is necessity.
We’re a very special club. I would like to highlight this, it’s true.
The necessity to get up and figure it out because there is no alternative for us. I was so fortunate to go through both experiences. Experiencing the wealth and travel and experiencing business and seeing business at a very high level with my dad. But I was also given the gift of necessity. All of a sudden, the universe says you need to pull up your socks and you need to figure this out for yourself. There was no alternative, I really needed to figure out who Vincent was going to be. How was I going to earn a living? How was I going to make an impact from my own life?
At the time it sucked. It was an ugly, ugly pill to swallow. But I’m so fortunate that I was able to go through it and really fail. It opened my eyes to see what’s required to be successful. You mean I have to do all of these things? That jolt of necessity really spearheaded the path that I went on.
Let’s fast forward to where we are today. I think the reason why it’s so important to understand your story is because you’ve literally converted all of that, all of those ups and downs, disappointments and converted that into a service you provide to other family businesses. To help the next-gen avoid some of the pitfalls that you’ve gone through or to be that sounding board that you were missing at the time. Tell us a little bit more about what you doing today and how you’re helping families.
The work I do today is really, as you articulated, has really been born out of my personal experiences and now a passion for really wanting to help and give back to family enterprises. The work that I do from a service perspective is all kind of different things but at the core of it is really helping the individuals in these family businesses understand, appreciate, and leverage who they are as people first. And how individuality is their greatest asset. Not only for themselves, but also for the family enterprise. Because for me, there was nobody in my peer group or network whom I could turn to. It wasn’t like it is today. There was nobody to help me understand what I was going through from a human perspective. And how that relates or interacts with the family and the community-at-large.
When you talk to family businesses today and you, it must happen to you all the time that you recognize yourself in someone or you recognize your dad that your mom your sister. It’s an advantage that you have that empathy there but is it still painful sometimes to re-live certain things? Do you sometimes get a bit of a jolt when you think oh wow that takes me back?
Definitely. Every client family I work with is some sort of extension of me or of my family at different phases of our experience. That’s one of the biggest challenges I have is staying absolutely client-focused when I work with families because I’m human, of course, I get triggered. Especially with fathers and sons because that’s my thing. Growing up and observing a successful businessman from a son’s perspective, there’s an interesting dynamic there. Time is a wonderful thing and where I am today with the family I’ve created with myself and the relationship I have with my parents today, it completely outweighs the negative stuff that happened in our transition. But it took us 12 years for us to get back to being a family. The real wealth of the family is the relationships. We need to build on a solid foundation of people, mother daughter, brother-sister, father-son, and really get to the core that we’re family and we really care about each other. That united front can withstand all types of things that come after. And I can also work together in different areas to create success.
And success in a much more wider definition than only of course financial.
Absolutely, we talked about the work that I talk about is the five capital areas. Financial capital is just one component. What we talked about with families is your human capital, your social capital. How strong are the relations in the family? How open and transparent can you be with your siblings, your mom and dad? Because as you know, when you have a family business, the other people who work in that family business often times becomes an extension of your family. That social capital is so important. It’s also your intellectual capital. The other thing that we really emphasize is your spiritual capital. Not in the religious sense but in who you are as a person. What is your individual purpose? What is your passion? What fuels you, the individual to live a life? And if we can tap into those different aspects of capital, then by definition the wealth of a family is greater.
You’ve become a father yourself recently. I guess it’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s done such a thorough analysis of everything that he’s gone through in his youth and he’s tried to turn things around and you’re even grateful for the negative events in your life. What do you think is the main thing you’re going to do differently and the main thing you’re going to do exactly the same as a father did with you?
I definitely think I’m going to challenge myself more. I’m going to challenge him to be him, but I’ll do it in a way from a very empathetic, compassionate perspective. I really want my son to embrace his own individuality and as a father, I’m going to be very aware of the opportunity that presents itself for him to figure it out. My wife laughs and she says it’s a fine line between protecting and also exposing them to real life. What I’ll do differently is really allowing him to fail. As much as it got me a lot of bonus points with my friends, I won’t be buying my son a sports car at 16. What I will do the same as my dad is really expose him to the travel and other things. My dad did an amazing job in he brought me along on his experiences. As a teenager, my dad included me in everything, boardroom meetings, high-level dinners, all types of different meetings with the shareholders at the company. I really got exposed to the business at a very young age. But the conversation will be different with my son. I want him to understand that there’s opportunity up there and be exposed to business and business etiquette. But by the same token, I’ll be sure to reinforce it with different conversations that Dad and I just didn’t have at that time.