A self-made billionaire isn’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of us, and Prem Watsa’s got the mettle to prove it. Popularly dubbed as “Canada’s Warren Buffett”, the entrepreneurial titan is best known as the founder and chief executive officer of Fairfax Financial Holdings, a Toronto-based financial services and investment company. Yet, even a rigorous education did not shield him from the travails of immigrant life when he first started out in Canada.
With a net worth of roughly one billion US dollars — according to Forbes — it’s hard to imagine Watsa having to ever scape his way up top. Despite hailing from a highly-academic family in India, his arrival in Canada was hardly smooth-sailing. “I was brought up on the Christian values of family, honesty and integrity, and doing the right thing,” Watsa was quoted saying when reflecting on his upbringing. So how did the son of a schoolteacher in Hyderabad come to be a prolific self-made billionaire in North America?
Prem Watsa moved to Canada in his 20s, and built a $12 billion insurance empire from nothing 📈
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 circulated around his father’s career as an English and mathematics teacher, who later became a principal in a boy’s school. The stamp of academic excellence runs in the family: Watsa’s father was a scholarship recipient and furthered his studies in a Jesuit school.
Academically-driven from an early age, Watsa naturally excelled in school, especially in science. Although he reportedly enjoyed his school life, he was burdened by his father’s expectations to pursue a career in engineering. Watsa acceded to his father’s wishes after completing his secondary education at the Hyderabad Public School, graduating with a degree in chemical engineering in 1971 from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, the country’s top engineering school.
“A culture of collaborative teamwork” is Prem Watsa’s secret. @aspercsa @umanitoba @UManAlumni pic.twitter.com/PX9lYZsWqw
— Asper School of Business (@asperschool) June 7, 2016
Still, Watsa couldn’t cast off his entrepreneurial bent. 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 the second time around after a year of hard work, his brother had immigrated to Canada, which opened up new possibilities that were previously closed to him.
Watsa’s beginnings in his new home country were anything but smooth-sailing. He arrived with only eight dollars to his person, selling air conditioners and furnaces door-to-door to support his education at the Ivey Business School in the University of Western Ontario, eventually earning an MBA degree through pure grit and determination.
“You develop qualities you never knew you had. You work harder because you’re at the bottom and the only way to go is up,” he was reported saying, when reflecting on his immigrant experience. Competing with native Canadians was another hurdle thrown in his path after graduation, but a serendipitous interview moment landed him his first job as a research analyst in a life insurance company.
Congrats to Prem Watsa, CEO of Fairfax Financial, on his appointment as the first Chancellor of Huron University College. #bizcouncilmembers https://t.co/h4rQRpHHNj
— Business Council of Canada (@BizCouncilofCan) October 25, 2017
The subsequent years saw him moving upwards in the world of insurance and finance, until he ventured out on his own in 1984 to set up the Hamblin Watsa Investment Council with several partners. He would strike a goldmine in the following year when his new firm took over a sinking insurance company that was renamed Fairfax Financial Holdings. Watsa’s business acumen steered the company towards positive growth, and its revenue reached US$19.3 billion in 2021.
A Member of the Order of Canada known for his philanthropy, Watsa also stepped into the role of a 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 about which you are passionate, then there is unlimited opportunity,” Watsa advises while musing on his success as an immigrant in North America. His journey from international student to self-made billionaire is proof that following one’s instincts could pay off handsomely when combined with drive and resourcefulness.