TV's Shark Tank Guru: In Real Life, No Business Whiz

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Phil McCarten / Reuters

Kevin O'Leary from the show Shark Tank answers questions during a press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

Kevin O'Leary stars on ABC's new business reality show Shark Tank as one of five executives who vet business ideas pitched by would-be entrepreneurs. O'Leary often delivers the harshest of the business critiques. On a recent show, he called one small-business owner "radioactive." On another show he told a woman who said her products spread happiness that her business was worthless.

That take-no-prisoners toughness is certainly entertaining, but behind the ego and bluster, O'Leary's real-life business performance is spotty. All four of the funds run by O'Leary's asset-management company are trailing the market this year. Shares of the company's oldest fund, O'Leary Global Equity Income Fund, which was launched in 2008, have plunged nearly 24% in the past year. Next, there's the truth-in-advertising problem: O'Leary calls himself an "eco-preneur," but many of the funds' investments are in coal companies and other large polluters. An O'Leary Funds representative declined to comment on the performance of the funds.

To be sure, O'Leary is not the only famous investor who has struggled to stay above water in the market recently. But O'Leary's Global Equity Income Fund has sunk more than most. The average stock fund is down 12% in the past year, according to research firm Morningstar. Compared with other equity-income-fund managers, O'Leary has done even worse. Those funds, generally considered to be safer investments, on average have fallen 10%, or less than half the plunge of O'Leary's fund. And O'Leary is not doing any better since the market turned up in early March. The average equity income fund has rebounded sharply, up nearly 49% since stocks reached their low in early March, according to Morningstar. Even with dividends, shares of the O'Leary Global Equity Income Fund are up less than a third of that, or 13%.

It's not the first bit of unpleasantness for O'Leary. For most of the 1990s, he was the president of educational-software company Softkey, which he co-founded with fellow Canadian entrepreneur Michael Perik. O'Leary and Perik sold the firm, which they renamed the Learning Company, to Mattel in 1999 for $3.6 billion. But almost immediately the deal turned sour. The Learning Company lost $200 million in the second half of 1999 alone. O'Leary and Perik, who joined Mattel after the merger, left the toy company six months later in a management shake-up. In 2001, Mattel disposed of the Learning Company by giving away most of the division to a private-equity firm for free.

Anyone who can pick a corporate pocket for $3.6 billion is a pretty cool customer, but there are many lingering questions about the business that O'Leary and Perik delivered to Mattel in return for that money. "It was an ugly mess," says Bernard Stolar, a software-industry veteran who was brought in by Mattel to take over the Learning Company from O'Leary and Perik. "There had been an awful lot of mismanagement at the company."

Shareholders sued Mattel over the Learning Company deal, naming O'Leary and Perik, along with other members of the toy company's management, as defendants. In the complaint, the shareholders alleged that under O'Leary and Perik the Learning Company used "accounting manipulations" to gain market share and drive up the company's stock price. According to the suit, a sales manager at the Learning Company at the time of the Mattel merger told employees that he "suspected the 'Learning Company is broke' and is 'cooking the books.' " Mattel paid shareholders $122 million to settle the suit. O'Leary and Perik settled as well. O'Leary did not return multiple calls for comment. In the past, O'Leary has blamed the problems at the Learning Company on the technology meltdown and a culture clash between the management of his company and Mattel.

Where O'Leary has had clear success is on television. He started his career as a television producer before venturing into the software industry. For the past few years, he has been a staple of Canada's Business News Network, co-hosting a show called SqueezePlay. He is also one of the stars of the popular Dragon's Den, the Canadian show that served as the model for Shark Tank. When producer Mark Burnett, who also created Survivor and The Apprentice, acquired the show for American airwaves, he imported O'Leary along with another Canadian cast member, Robert Herjavec.

Shark Tank airs on Sunday nights. It premiered in early August to weak ratings but has been picking up viewers recently. ABC's website says the show gives individuals the "access to the means to live out their dreams." Each week, entrepreneurs pitch their business ventures to the five "Sharks," who in addition to O'Leary include real estate executive Barbara Corcoran and Daymond John, the founder of clothing brand FUBU. Both ABC and Mark Burnett Productions declined to comment on O'Leary's past business dealings.

Over the years, O'Leary has often been an outspoken critic of fund managers who underperform the market. He launched his first fund in May 2008. In the prospectus he wrote, "The recent market sell-off has provided an attractive entry point in a variety of high-quality public securities." Since that time, stocks in both Canada and the U.S. have plunged. O'Leary told Canadian business magazine Profit in June 2003, "There are a lot of idiot fund managers out there who add no value to the process at all." If O'Leary doesn't turn things around at his funds, he can add one more manager to his list.