Jim Treliving quit high school. Now he's reportedly worth $700 million

People may not realize how the Boston Pizza dynamo and ex-Dragon’s Den investor built up the courage to make bold choices and the fortitude to see them through

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities. 

Many Canadians will be familiar with Jim Treliving’s triumphs in the world of business: In 1968, with money borrowed from his dad, he quit his job as an RCMP officer to set up as the first Boston Pizza franchisee and then went on to buy the chain for $3.5 million and grow the company to hundreds of locations throughout North America.

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Jim’s net worth is estimated by some sources to be as much as $700 million, bu he doesn’t like talking about money.

What people may not fully appreciate is how a strapping young man — a high school dropout from small-town Manitoba — built up the courage to make these kinds of choices and the fortitude to see them through to fruition.

Jim, one of the original investor dragons on CBC’s Dragon’s Den, was honoured this week — together with five fellow Canadians — by the Horatio Alger Association of Canada.

The award celebrates individuals who “overcome adversity to succeed through hard work, honesty and determination.” If this sounds like a throwback to an early era, know the award is designed that way. Horatio Alger, Jr., the 19th century American author whose name the association bears, wrote rags-to-riches tales of poor boys whose unyielding perseverance and virtue led to their success. The other award recipients this year are Ryan Reynolds, Anthony von Mandl, Monique Leroux, Peter Gilgan and Amar Doman.

When I talked with Jim a few days before the award ceremony, held at Toronto’s Metropolitan Convention Centre on Tuesday, he was happy to reminisce about the formative experiences that shaped his character.

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Growing up in Virden, Man., (then, population: 5,000), a small town tucked into the southwest corner of the province, was fantastic, the 82-year-old Jim recounts. “Everybody knew everybody. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was the mayor of my hometown for a number of years, on the hospital board of the hospital I was born in. My father was the local barber, his shop was a meeting place in Virden for farmers when they came in Saturday nights to get their hair cut. My dad was named ‘the banker’ because he always had cash; he never believed in having a mortgage, you never did anything unless you paid cash.”

In 1951, oil was first discovered in Virden and the town nearly doubled in size with inflows of families from Texas and Oklahoma. Jim recalls going to school one September — into a classroom where he’d been with the same kids since Grade 1 and all of the sudden, there was five or six new kids and they all had funny accents. But everyone got along. Decades later, when Jim relocated to Dallas to launch Boston Pizza’s operations in the U.S. and Mexico, his experiences as a young boy remained relevant.

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In a small town, Jim explains, “you got to see the good and the bad and the ugly in society.” Some folks thrived but some folks didn’t. “My folks used to say, well, you’ve got to help them out,” Jim recalls. “My mom would give me rubber boots to give to kids who didn’t have footwear. That’s the mentality you had, from day one.” It’s that same duty of responsibility to others that underpins Jim’s philanthropy, including his support to the scholarships awarded to deserving students across Canada as part of the Horatio Alger mandate.

Jim chuckles as he recants his decision to quit high school in Grade 11, just as he was turning 18. “I didn’t graduate from high school; I thought I was smarter than that. I thought I could make more money out working.” A turning point for this sturdy young man was joining the RCMP.

“The RCMP, at the time, was the toughest training in the world,” Jim says. “We had 10 months of training. It was brutal training.” Like legions of RCMP officers before him, Jim travelled to Depot Division in Regina, Sask., as a new recruit. When he asked his instructor at the end of training, why is it so tough, the answer was: “If you think this is tough, wait till you get to the street.”

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“I was a big kid, six foot four,” Jim recalls, “what I think the RCMP did for me was it took the fear out of me. You weren’t afraid of anything, anymore.” Jim attributes that discipline — mental and physical — to his success and as these old memories bubble up, he goes quiet for a moment.

Decades later, Jim is still a champion of the RCMP and what it can offer to young people. “I have great conversations with the ex-commissioner of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki,” he says. While he’s not hearkening back for a revival of the brutal training he experienced, he is recommending RCMP training be a bit longer and a bit tougher. A lot of good people couldn’t take the physical challenge and we lost good people, Jim reports, but now we’ve gone too far in the other direction.

Jim’s first posting as an RCMP officer was in Prince George, B.C., a tough town, he recalls. From there, he went to Edmonton where the trajectory of his career was reset with his fated introduction to pizza. “The first time I’d ever eaten a pizza was at the one and only Boston Pizza in Edmonton,” Jim enthusiastically tells the now familiar story.

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I can’t resist asking: What about that name, Boston Pizza? People recognize Detroit deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style pizza, but Boston pizza?

Jim chuckles and shares the story: “Boston Pizza was the name chosen by the Greek family that started the company. They lived in Edmonton, on 101st Street and 118th Avenue. They had to submit three names to form a company; in those days, there was no such thing as a numbered company.

“Their first choice was Parthenon Pizza; that name was already used by another restaurant. They tried Santorini Pizza but that was gone as well; someone had a Santorini restaurant somewhere in Alberta.

“And Bill Boston lived upstairs; that was their third choice.”

We both laugh.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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Originally posted 2023-10-22 13:00:56.