Kevin O’Leary discusses FTX collapse, his fondness for North Dakota and ‘no-go’ investment states
The man known as “Mr. Wonderful” said that North Dakota is a standout destination for investors. Meanwhile, he said he “would never headquarter a business” in Minnesota and that Moorhead “looks like Cuba.”
FARGO — “Shark Tank” star Kevin O’Leary was in Fargo Tuesday, March 21, to highlight his work with North Dakota’s Wonder Fund. As part of his visit, O’Leary sat down with the InForum Business Beat Podcast to discuss the fund, his personal investments in the state and what makes North Dakota stand out to investors.
Listen to full audio here, and read on below for highlights from O'Leary's appearance.
To lead the podcast, O’Leary addressed his role as a spokesperson for failed cryptocurrency exchange FTX and his recent criticism of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. O’Leary willingly admitted to losing $18 million on FTX, however he said a different standard will be applied while he is in charge of the Wonder Fund. “When I invest other people’s money, it’s a higher standard. I can’t take that kind of risk,” O’Leary explained.
The Wonder Fund consists of $45 million in taxpayer dollars used to invest in growing businesses that are based in North Dakota or plan to relocate to the state, O’Leary explained. The fund made its first deal in recent weeks, a $1.25 million investment in LandTrust, which promised to open a base of operations in Fargo.
O’Leary said his interest in North Dakota began on “Shark Tank.” On the show, he invested in Fargo’s PRx Performance . In the years since, he remarked that PRx Performance has been “one of the most phenomenal successes we ever had.”
Working with the company provided O’Leary with his first exposure to North Dakota. Since then, O’Leary said he has become increasingly interested in doing business in the state, an idea which was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If I look at my portfolio today of about 50 companies, 40% of the staff aren’t coming back to the office. It doesn't matter where I put the HQ anymore. I can put it anywhere I want. I don’t have to put it with AOC, I don’t have to put it with Elizabeth Warren,” he commented. “I just take the money out of Massachusetts and move it here, where you’ve got a governor and state that has policy and competitive taxes. What’s wrong with that? It’s a very simple economic decision.”
On March 3, O’Leary appeared on CNN and told the cable news outlet that California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are all “uninvestable” states. Warren is a senator from Massachusetts while Ocasio-Cortes represents New York City.
Shark Tank's Kevin O'Leary claims New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California are "uninvestable" https://t.co/HyuU3AgJLM pic.twitter.com/XkhqTmqvnw— CNN (@CNN) March 3, 2023
North Dakota, however, is a state that is open and willing to do business, O’Leary explained. “I've had some very bad experiences in states that don’t have stable policy or competitive taxes. I’m tired of that,” he commented. “This is a go-to state, those are no-go states. I’m just one person saying that and I’m going to keep my megaphone on full volume.”
O’Leary said that he does not take issue with politicians, rather he will speak out against policies he believes are harmful to businesses. He said that North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s business successes have helped in his governance of the state.
“My thing about politicians is very simple: If you’ve never made payroll, you shouldn’t be allowed to be a politician. Now that may sound aggressive, but you need to understand the core essence of what your mandate is. You are the trustee of your state’s wealth and welfare. I mean, you have to understand business,” O’Leary said when asked about Burgum. “That guy gets it.”
As to whether or not North Dakota’s neighbor Minnesota is a viable place to invest, O’Leary did not mince words. “Not investable, no-go state,” he asserted while pointing to the populations of Fargo and Moorhead to underscore his argument.
“What’s the difference? Only one thing: policy. They have no-go policy, they have unstable policy, they have unstable everything, unstable energy policy. You don’t. People aren’t stupid, they just moved across the river to here and you have a thriving city. They’re town looks like Cuba. Not my fault, their fault,” he remarked. “If they don’t get their act together, it’ll just keep getting worse.”
O’Leary added that he “would never headquarter a business” in Minnesota.
Another of O’Leary’s personal investments in North Dakota is in Bitzero, a company that is seeking to convert an abandoned missile site into a data center. He has a goal of raising $600 million for the facility and may turn to sovereign wealth funds — like those run by Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — to bring the project to fruition. “That could be the world’s most secure data center, one of the largest on Earth. That’s the vision I have for it and luckily your governor sees it that way too,” he said.
Asked how he would go about addressing the workforce shortage in North Dakota, O’Leary proposed dropping the state income tax to zero “tomorrow” in order to attract residents.
O’Leary owns a residence in Miami and said that Florida has successfully done the same thing. On the contrary, he felt that taxes for those living in cities like New York and San Francisco are too high and drive residents away. “People are moving out of places like that because the state taxes are punitive,” he said. North Dakota can afford to cut all of its income tax and it would help attract citizens fleeing such locales, he noted.
As for the origin of the Wonder Fund’s name, O’Leary confirmed it is indeed named after his “Mr. Wonderful” moniker. “I don’t know how anybody named me Mr. Wonderful. My wife definitely does not call me that, but it’s out there. It’s a brand. It means business. It means straight-shooting, honest truth business. I want that fund to have that kind of an aura of branding around it,” he said.
Ultimately, O’Leary’s goal with the Wonder Fund is to bring more outside funding to North Dakota, be it private or from other nation’s sovereign wealth funds. “The whole idea of introducing the state to outside capital is what this fund is all about,” he said. “It’s like a banner. It says, ‘Look, we’re starting with this and we’re going to make it much bigger.’”