- Jim Treliving
2023 Horatio Alger Award Winner — Chairman and Founder, Boston Pizza International
“We’re put on this earth for more than just earning a living and enjoying life. I think you have help people.”
Jim Treliving was born in 1941 in Virden, Manitoba. Growing up with his two younger sisters in their mother’s hometown, Jim’s idyllic childhood was surrounded by ranches and farms and filled with train trips to see his grandparents, church on Sundays, and visits to his father’s barbershop. “Everybody knew everybody,” Jim says. “When you walked down the street, there wasn’t anybody you didn’t know.”
His father’s ten-seat barbershop was Virden’s “meeting place” where locals could catch up on what was happening in town. “It was a great town to grow up in. Fantastic,” Jim says. “You couldn’t really step out of line because somebody would talk up to your parents really quickly.”
What was most notable for Jim about growing up in such a small town is that “your values are set, in a way, by your family”. For Jim, those values instilled at a young age clearly served him well. His mother was active in charitable organizations like the Lions Club since he was a young child. His father taught him the values of hard work, respect, and the power of a helping hand. Jim also credits much of his audacious spirit to his Irish grandmother’s forbidding of the use of the word “can’t”.
In Jim’s teenage years, Virden changed dramatically as a result of the discovery of oil just west of town. The population doubled nearly overnight from 2,500 residents to close to 5,000. The new locals brought with them a Texas southern drawl, a welcome cultural change, and a boost for the local economy.
When “the boom” began in the early 1950s, many jobs became available in Virden. Eager to work, Jim lied about his age and got a job on the drilling rigs when he was only 16. He enjoyed the work and the well-paying job, but found himself wondering, “Is there more? Is there something else I could do?”
At the time, there were eight RCMP officers stationed in Virden. The notion of being transferred and stationed all around the country appealed to Jim. “You could see all of Canada,” he says. That, combined with a pension and the ability to retire at the age of 45 was enough to convince Jim to join. He describes the steep learning curve for a young RCMP officer, having to learn to ride a horse English-style and to learn the entire Criminal Code and all the statutes of Canada. Not to mention, as Jim notes, “the training was the toughest in the world at that time.”
The toughness of the job and the comradery, however, was pivotal for Jim. “It was so tough to make it through, you helped one another. And those were the first images of what I eventually learned was the way to live – that it’s not all about you,” says Jim. “You’ve got to help people. We’re put on this earth, I think, for more than just earning a living and enjoying life. I think you have to help people.”
One night after working on a serious case in Alberta, Jim and his partner went out for dinner in Edmonton. While Jim wanted to eat at their “old favourite haunt,” his partner suggested they try something else, a pizza place called the Boston Pizza and Spaghetti House. Jim reluctantly agreed and tried pizza for the first time in his life. Jim recalls saying, “Oh my God, this is good.”
They quickly became regulars. Over time, Jim built a relationship with one of the owners. About a year and a half later, after learning of an impending transfer which would have him stationed in Toronto, Jim decided to leave the RCMP and go into the pizza business.
While admittedly knowing nothing about the food industry, in 1968, Jim took a leap of faith. Using $5,000 from his pension payout and $5,000 he borrowed from his father (though his father cleverly disguised the payment as a bank loan, with the help of the local bank manager, to teach him a lesson), Jim opened the very first Boston Pizza franchise in Penticton, British Columbia.
Jim says he was guided in part by his fearlessness, “The Mounted Police took all the fear out of my system when I went through training.” He also benefitted from the absence of the word “can’t” in his family dictionary, as he became an expert at identifying problems and solving them. Fairly quickly, Jim opened a second location, and then a third.
The word “can’t” is powerful for Jim. When he was told, “you can’t make it” in the GTA after a failed first attempt at a restaurant in Toronto, the word motivated Jim to learn from his mistakes and try again. He realized he had moved too quickly, without fully understanding the territory or the culture and habits of prospective GTA customers. Jim notes, “And I’d done that in the police force. When we did a raid, we didn’t go in full blast and jump it because we thought it was a good idea. We took our time. You plan every detail.”
In 2006, Jim began starring as one of the dragons on CBC’s reality TV show, Dragons’ Den, where aspiring entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas to the dragons to try to secure a financial investment. The show was especially meaningful for Jim, as he knew what it was like to be in their position, to make a pitch when you have nowhere else to go. Jim described his time on the show as “a great experience – 15 fantastic years,” and added “I still think it’s one of the best shows in television.”
Jim Treliving has since grown the business to more than 430 restaurants across Canada, the United States and Mexico. Boston Pizza International Inc. has been named one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies by Deloitte and one of Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures. Jim was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada and has been inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame in recognition of his leadership, and the indelible mark he has made on Canadian business.
What I’ve Learned
When Jim’s business success allowed him to give back, he learned quickly that when you start helping people, you can make a profound difference in their lives. “If you give them a chance, you’d be surprised at what they can do,” Jim says.
He also notes that, “when somebody gives you a break, you’ve got to accept it and do something with it.”
Jim has been a director of the Boston Pizza Foundation since its inception in 1990 and has helped raise and donate more than $35 million to Canadian charities over that time. Jim has also dedicated his time serving on a number of volunteer boards. He is currently a director for the David Foster Foundation and an advisor to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
Jim is thrilled to have been invited into the Horatio Alger Association of Canada has been inspired by the work of the organization, specifically their ability to change the trajectory of the lives of young, inspiring Canadians. “That’s what I like about this group – it’s that they’re thinking of the people that are young. All they need is a little bit of help,” Jim says.
“Everybody needs help. I needed help to get into the business. There isn’t one person that I have met, through business or otherwise, that didn’t need a hand somewhere.”