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UVic’s Entrepreneur of the Year urges young people to set realistic goals

Dennis Washington’s love of machinery — the sound of engines running — led him into the business stratosphere, where his wealth is counted in billions and his empire encompasses B.C.
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Dennis Washington, founder of the Washington Companies, is in Victoria with his wife Phyllis, to be recognized Wednesday as Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year by the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business.
Dennis Washington’s love of machinery — the sound of engines running — led him into the business stratosphere, where his wealth is counted in billions and his empire encompasses B.C. shipyards and railroads, plus mines, construction and more in the U.S.

Washington, 79, is in Victoria to be honoured today as the University of Victoria’s Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year.

He came to know the capital region after boating here with his wife, Phyllis, 35 years ago. “It’s a special place,” he said Tuesday.

Washington, who is also known for his philanthropy, was encouraged to accept the honour by his long-time friend, Dave Ritchie, co-founder of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers and a past UVic Entrepreneur of the Year.

The Washington Companies include Seaspan Marine, owner of Victoria Shipyards in Esquimalt, and Vancouver Shipyards and Vancouver Drydock.

A self-made businessman, Montana-based Washington moved many times as a child, eventually finding stability with his grandmother in his high school years. “She was a real rock. … She was just a good grandma. She made $1 an hour cleaning hotel rooms.”

Washington’s companies date back 50 years to when an established businessman loaned him $30,000 to launch a construction company. He was 29.

“I was terrified when I went into business. I had ulcers because I never had to owe money before.”

He did not start with big ambitions. “My goal was to survive and provide my family a living. But I was doing something I love and I think that’s the main thing. … You have to look at goals that you really feel are achievable.”

Money is secondary, he said. “If you are looking at a good business, you know the money is going to follow.”

He urges young people to look at goals that they really feel they can attain.

“I’ve heard so many stories in my life about people talking to kids and they always tell them, ‘Dream big. Raise your sights. You can be anything you want.’ And I just don’t believe in that at all.

“I believe it’s like a baby — you’ve got to learn to crawl, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run.”

All businesspeople get knocked down and it shakes your confidence, he said.

That’s when it is time to gather your thoughts, analyze how you failed, and what went wrong, so that it doesn’t happen again. Take a clear look at yourself … and decide how much you are prepared to risk.

“Risk for one person is not risk for another. In my case, I knew the business I was in because that’s all I ever worked in.”

Holding his forefinger and thumb close together, Washington said business deals “are won by this [much]. … It’s just that little edge you get when you really know more than the next guy. And it’s a little luck.” When it comes to business acumen, “I think it’s something you have or don’t have. I always knew what I was doing with machinery.”

Washington, who is semi-retired, said his biggest joy in business comes when looking at the whole organization. “I put together a lot of good people and people don’t realize how hard that is to do. That’s why these companies will go for another couple of generations,” he said.

Satisfaction comes from buying something, improving it and making it work. The Washington Companies buy and hold on to companies.

Washington calls himself, “the luckiest guy on the planet. … I love to hear the noise of engines. I love machinery.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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