Ready for his Close-Up
It was Peter Mansbridge's call that sealed the deal. Bruce Sellery was in his final year in Queen’s Commerce and didn’t have a plan. This was not Bruce’s natural state: Bruce always has a plan. While his classmates were fielding job offers, Bruce was torn between getting a journalism degree or industry experience before trying to break into TV news. Who better to advise him than his CBC idols Peter Mansbridge, anchor of The National, Valerie Pringle, then host of Midday, and Robert Scully, host of Venture and a fluently bilingual CBC and Radio-Canada interviewer?
Bruce wrote to all three asking for advice and was astonished when all replied: a letter from Scully and phone calls from Pringle and Mansbridge. “Valerie was very down-to-earth and Peter was very encouraging,” Bruce recalls. “He said not to worry about going to journalism school and that I should go out and get some experience in the world.”
Bruce took the advice. His next steps would take him from corporate Canada, to the anchor chair on CTV’s Business News Network (BNN), to his own personal finance training company as a speaker, consultant and author, to co-host of Million Dollar Neighbourhood on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
The kid who used to read newspaper stories aloud in front of the bathroom mirror has spent a lifetime preparing for the cue, “Lights, camera, action!”
Born and raised in London, ON, one of six siblings in a family that prized hard work and the value of a dollar, he remembers being bitten by the TV bug early. President Ronald Reagan had just been shot when ten-year-old Bruce sat glued to the TV, flipping channels to watch how each of the network anchors covered the story. “I knew then that TV was what I wanted to do,” he says.
By the time he was in Grade 8, he’d read the biographies of several broadcast journalism greats and was broadcasting basketball game highlights during morning PA announcements. “I had sound effects and music— the full deal,” he laughs. In his final year of high school, he considered a journalism degree, but decided business was a better choice, in part because it was such a difficult program to get into. An out-of-town school was a must (“just for the experience”) and Queen’s Commerce won out because it had the highest entry standards. “I’m a pretty competitive guy,” Bruce confesses. “I wanted to be challenged. I knew I’d be surrounded by very smart people in Commerce.”
He recalls an “amazing” Frosh Week experience, the exhilaration of competing in the Inter-Collegiate Business Competition (ICBC), and going on exchange to France in third year. Queen’s opened other doors, too. His TV debut occurred on Studio Q, a Queen’s program broadcast from the local cable studio. “I went for an interview in my second week of first year—a green, know-nothing kid. And they said, ‘Sure, you can be a reporter.’” Soon he was also assignment editor and news anchor.
Over the next four years, he covered a variety of campus news stories, including a presentation by Reform Party leader Preston Manning that was interrupted by protestors unhappy with his conservative policies. When a disruptive heckler was escorted from the hall by security, Bruce and his TV camera covered his ignominious exit. “That was Ali Velshi, BA’94, who tended to be a bit of a, ahem, disturber,” Bruce laughs. The two subsequently became friends when both were based in New York City, where Ali is CNN’s Chief Business Correspondent.
From the corporate world to TV
Post-graduation, Bruce accepted a job at Procter & Gamble in Toronto. He worked his way through the ranks, eventually becoming a Brand Manager for P&G’s Royale Facial Tissue. “I was challenged, well paid, and worked with bright, fun people,” he recounts in his book, Moolala: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things With Their Money (and what you can do about it). Five years into the job, while in a meeting to discuss new packaging designs, he had an epiphany: “It wasn’t a bad job. But it was the wrong job for me.”
It was time to come up with a plan and make the break. After clearing his debts and setting up a line of credit, he left P&G and “started networking up a storm.” Within six weeks, he landed an entry-level job at CBC Newsworld. Even though he’d be making one-third his prior salary, he’d finally landed where he’d always wanted to be: in television.
After learning the ropes and appearing on-air, he left Newsworld to become one of the founding staffers at ROBTv (the forerunner of BNN). He worked his way up to reporter, then anchor of his own daily busi- ness show before heading to New York City as Bureau Chief. It was a dream assignment to cover business news in one of the world’s financial capitals while living a life of adventure in The City That Never Sleeps.
When Dennis Garnhum, his partner of 12 years whom he wed in 2004, landed a position as Theatre Calgary’s Artistic Director, it was time to return to Canada. Bruce landed in Toronto as host of BNN’s workopolis tv and head of its documentary unit. Commuting between Toronto and Calgary worked for three years, but when the couple decided to become parents, living in the same city full-time became a prerequisite. Bruce left BNN and headed west in advance of daughter Abby’s arrival on the scene in 2010. “She has been a joy and a delight,” says the proud co-father, who chairs Friends of Adoption Options, the private agency that handled Abby’s adoption. He and Dennis agreed to an open adoption and travel with Abby frequently to Red Deer, AB, to visit with the birth mother and her family.
Settling into Calgary full-time, Bruce cast about for his next challenge. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” he explains, “so I had to find something to fill it. That’s how Moolala started.” He was inspired to enter the field of personal finance education by a classmate (“one of the brightest in our class!”) who asked him for advice on her personal finances. Bruce thought if this high-achieving, very smart woman felt incapable of managing her money, how many others feel the same way?
The answer appeared to be ‘a whole lot of people’ since the personal finance workshops he delivered under the cheeky banner ‘Moolala’ attracted crowds of individuals and several corporate clients. Within months, he was working on a book proposal. A Queen’s friend from his Studio Q days sent the proposal to a contact in publishing, who in turn sent it to three publishers, including McClelland & Stewart, who snapped it up. While the subject matter was dear to Bruce’s heart, he says writing the book was the hardest thing he’d ever done. “It nearly killed me,” he confesses. He persevered with the help of ‘terrific’ M&S Editor Anita Chong and his ‘Accountability Partner’ Marty Avery.
“Every morning, I’d email Marty what time I’d start writing, what I’d write that day. At the end of the day, I’d email her again and report how much I’d actually accomplished.” After 12 months of steady slogging, the book was finished and released in early 2011. Friends say its breezy and highly accessible style is pure Bruce: encouraging, funny and highly motivating. Its stated mission is “to inspire you to get a handle on your money so you can live the life you want—whatever that life may be.”
While promoting the book on a tour that included several stops at Queen’s Business Clubs, Bruce was approached by Vancouver-based TV production company Force Four Entertainment, producers of CBC- TV’s successful Village on a Diet. A new show, Million Dollar Neighbourhood, was in development and needed a financial expert to co-host. Its concept involved challenging 100 families to raise their collective net worth by $1 million in 10 weeks. In each episode, neighbours were to take on both a community and an individual challenge. To reach the $1 million goal, each family had to realize an average $1,000 net worth increase each week. If the community reached its goal, the families would choose one of their number to win $100,000.
The emphasis on community played to one of Bruce’s strengths. One of the four pillars of his book is the importance of community in helping individuals achieve their financial goals. “It’s not only what the book is about,” he explains. “It’s what I truly believe.”
Million Dollar Neighbourhood co-host
The producers believed, too. Bruce’s expertise in financial education, coupled with his extensive business journalism experience and engaging on-camera presence, made him the ideal choice. He joined co-host Dr. Joti Samra, a clinical psychologist who helped the families address personal issues and roadblocks to their success.
Taping began in August 2011 in Aldergrove, a bedroom community outside Vancouver, BC. In the show’s premiere, which aired in January on OWN—the Oprah Winfrey Network, Canada—Bruce and Joti emerged from an armoured truck into a crowd of the 100 chosen families. The families’ first task was to find hidden money—from income tax savings, by living without credit cards to forego interest charges, even by collecting spare change.
While many of the families were facing seemingly insurmountable mountains of debt, Bruce is adamant that there were no hopeless cases. “I was inspired by these people who tackled the tasks at hand. All the challenges had real-world applications—including getting rid of excess possessions, supporting local businesses, finding energy and transportation savings. I felt we were definitely making a difference in these people’s lives. It’s an entertaining show, for sure, but there are some serious messages here as well.”
The program garnered positive reviews and ratings in Canada and will be aired on OWN’s US network this summer. Now that a second season has been ordered, the search is on for another community to take on the next million-dollar challenge. Meanwhile, Bruce is hardly standing still. His Moolala “ministry” continues, with more corporate partners signing on and new opportunities to explore. He hasn’t met Oprah yet, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Exciting as that would be, Bruce has already encountered one of his other TV mentors. “I met Peter Mansbridge at an event hosted by Pamela Wallin when she was Consul General in New York,” he recalls. “I said, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but in 1993 we had a conversation that rocked my world.’ I was thrilled to finally be able to thank him in person for having been so supportive during our phone call so many years before.”
Visit Bruce's Moolala website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.