A self-made billionaire is not cut from the same cloth as the rest of us, and Prem Watsa has the guts to prove it. Popularly nicknamed “Warren Buffett of Canadathe entrepreneurial titan is best known as the founder and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings, a Toronto-based financial services and investment firm. Yet even a rigorous upbringing did not shield him from the hardships of immigrant life when he first came to Canada.
With a net worth of around US$1 billion – according to Forbes — it’s hard to imagine Watsa ever having to fight his way to the top. Although he comes from a very academic family in India, his arrival in Canada was not smooth. “I was raised with the Christian values of family, honesty and integrity, and doing the right thing,” Watsa was quoted saying thinking about his upbringing. So how did the son of a Hyderabad schoolteacher become a prolific self-made billionaire in North America?
Prem Watsa moved to Canada in his twenties and built a $12 billion insurance empire from the ground up 📈
now he’s back to disrupt the insurance game in India.
newly minted unicorn, Digit Insurance.
– Filter Coffee ☕ (@FilterCoffeeHQ) February 15, 2021
Prem Watsa’s educational journey to becoming a self-made billionaire
Watsa’s childhood and upbringing in Hyderabad revolved around her father’s career as an English and maths teacher, who later became headmaster of a boys’ school. The hallmark of academic excellence runs in the family: Watsa’s father was a scholarship and continued his studies in a Jesuit school.
Directed to school from an early age, Watsa naturally excelled in school, especially in science. Although he would have enjoyed his school life, he was burdened by his father’s expectations of pursuing a career in engineering. Watsa granted his father’s wishes after completing his secondary education at Hyderabad Public School, chemical engineering graduate in 1971 from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, the best engineering school in the country.
— Asper School of Business (@asperschool) June 7, 2016
Still, Watsa couldn’t get rid of his entrepreneurial spirit. He then set his sights on the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, but failed to gain admission on his first attempt. When he was finally accepted for the second time after a year of hard work, his brother had immigrated to Canada, which opened up new opportunities for him that were previously closed to him.
Watsa’s start in his new home country was anything but smooth. He arrived with only eight dollars to his person, selling door-to-door air conditioners and furnaces to support his studies at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario, eventually earning an MBA degree through his courage and determination.
“You develop qualities that you didn’t know you had. You work harder because you’re down and the only way to go up is to go up,” he said. was reported saying, reflecting on his experience as an immigrant. Competition with native Canadians was another hurdle thrown in his way after graduation, but a chance interview moment landed him his first job as a research analyst at a life insurance company.
— Business Council of Canada (@BizCouncilofCan) October 25, 2017
The following years saw him evolve in the world of insurance and finance, until he ventured out alone in 1984 to create the Hamblin Watsa Investment Council with several partners. He discovered a goldmine the following year when his new company took over a failing insurance company that was renamed Fairfax Financial Holdings. Watsa’s business acumen has steered the company towards positive growth, and its revenue has reached US$19.3 billion in 2021.
A member of the Order of Canada known for his philanthropy, Watsa also served as Chancellor at the University of Waterloo and Huron University College, a nod to his father’s vocation. “As long as you are willing to work hard and do something you are passionate about, the possibilities are limitless,” Watsa advises while reflecting on his success as an immigrant to North America. His journey from international student to self-made billionaire is proof that following his instincts can pay off big when combined with drive and ingenuity.