Noranda's sporting CEO is taking corporate defeat in stride
A sidelined quarterback
PROFILE: ALF POWIS
Noranda's sporting CEO is taking corporate defeat in stride
The scene was typical. When every other captain of the Canadian mining industry had declined to take part in a CBC TV debate with Eric Kierans, former federal postmaster - general - turned - renegade - economist and author of a 1973 report to the Manitoba government recommending that mineral resources in the province be nationalized, Alf Powis agreed to take Kierans on. Alf Powis: chief executive officer of Noranda Mines Ltd.; victor of a 1974 battle with the Ontario government to change a proposed mining tax. Powis, his laser-green eyes red-rimmed from late-night last-minute study of the Kierans report, gamely sank his six-foot frame into a chair opposite Kierans and the cameras rolled. Soon his good-looking face was flushed and glistening with sweat. The klieg lights were hot, the Kierans verbal fire hotter. Naturally, the report’s author knew his subject better and, besides, Noranda didn’t even have mining interests in Manitoba. Yet, as Powis argued and bullied and shouted his way to a gallant defeat, at times he laughed aloud. After the show, a TV researcher, impressed, asked, “Why’d you do it?” Powis grinned amiably, “If someone hadn’t, he might be believed.”
“An ardent debater,” observes a friend, former deputy finance minister Simon Reisman. “A street fighter” is Powis’ description of himself. In response to wage and price controls he helped found a super-lobby of the country’s 150 most powerful CEOs, called the
Business Council on National Issues (BCNI). At a BCNl-sponsored dinner this April, nose to nose with Energy Minister Marc Lalonde, he dismissed the entire National Energy Program as “outrageous” and “perverse.” For years the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility has been turning up at Noranda’s annual shareholders’ meetings to urge the company to cancel its planned copper mine venture in Chile—only to be told: “Gentlemen, we would have pulled out if not for you people. We have investments in many countries which Amnesty International says have repressive regimes. Why get uptight over one?” So utterly does the man embody the business community’s values that he has become one of its leading spokesmen. Besides, in the grey flannel ranks of bland Canadian businessmen, Powis has always been more charismatic, more willing to stick his neck out than the rest.
Today Powis recalls past contests with a shrug; there’s a fresher defeat on his mind. Two years ago, Powis met Trevor Eyton, lawyer to Edward and Peter Bronfman and CEO of the Bronfman’s holding company, Brascan Ltd., in Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel. The point of their meeting was to discuss Brascan’s sudden acquisition of a large chunk of Noranda shares. “He’s a jock,” Eyton realized right away. “You can imagine how our first meeting went: two jocks in a bar saying T can match you.’ Alf ordered a double martini and
so did I. We were talking about big issues, billions. By the third round, I nearly forgot what we were talking about, heh heh.” But for Powis, the game was simple: to defend Noranda’s $4.5-billion empire of zinc and copper mines, forests and paper mills, cable manufacturing plants and natural gas fields, against a Brascan take-over. The corporate contest that ensued ended only last month when Powis conceded that Noranda could no longer prevent Brascan and its partner, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, from acquiring 37 per cent of its shares, nor deny the pair proportionate representation on the exclusive Noranda board. Now, when reached at his farm outside Toronto, Powis glumly asserts that despite Brascan’s professed admiration for his skills, he’s unsure he will stay at Noranda. He kills time bashing balls around his private tennis court.
It’s as hard to imagine Noranda without Powis as it is to imagine Powis without Noranda. No tiger stalking the striped light of the jungle was ever more perfectly adapted to its environment. He is an authentic Corporate Man. The bulk of his wealth is his sixfigure salary and 70,000 shares of Noranda stock. His first marriage fell apart, says a friend, “because his wife demanded equal time with work.” He remarried—his secretary, Louise Finlayson, who knows almost as much about the company as he. His private pleasures are disarmingly unpreten-
tious: tennis, a “wine cellar” which he confesses is a case of screw-topped Kressmann, whodunit reading and cars—a rusting 1973 BMW and the free new Thunderbird he received when he joined the board of Ford Canada. Clearly he’s no high roller, though he’s almost as young (50) and dynamic as the oil and real estate moguls who flash their private jets around Western Canada. “Powis’ style is old-guard WASP,” notes Toronto special situations analyst Avner Mandelman of Bache Halsey Stuart Canada Ltd., who has come upon Powis queuing for lunch in the basement of Noranda’s office-tower home.
Taking such single-minded pleasure from business, Powis has inspired almost legendary loyalty in his senior management. Most of his executives have worked with him so synergistically for the past two decades that they communicate by in-joke—doggerel telegrams, memos that rhyme financial strategy options—and, at times, by osmosis. “Bids are often ready before I even ask for them,” says Powis happily. “Noranda’s got the kind of team where you don’t have to walk down the hall with your back to the wall.”
Yet he claims he never meant to be a businessman but rather a jazz pianist; trouble was, he didn’t feel he was good enough. Some of his relatives were financiers, but the Powis household, on Montreal’s Metcalfe Avenue, wasn’t affluent—“compared to, say, the Bronfmans, where I delivered newspapers as a kid.” His American mother, who raised him while her husband, an insurance company manager, was away at war, thought he might be a doctor like her father. It was only a career counsellor’s advice that finally steered him from pre-med to business school.
The man who hired him at Noranda at the age of 25, and who anointed him his successor as CEO at 37, was J.R. Bradfield. He now terms his protégé “a genius.” It was Powis who personally met with two penniless gas explorationists, who later called themselves Canadian Hunter Exploration Ltd., and gambled $12.5 million on backing them. Today Noranda has 75 per cent of Hunter’s trillion cubic feet of natural gas—a sizable piece of what is thought to be the largest field in Canada. The Calgarybased Hunter’s executive vice-president, Jim Gray, says, “If there were more men like Powis in Canada there’d be fewer East-West problems; he understands independence.” It was Powis and his senior executives who last April outmanoeuvred the British Columbia Resources Investment Corp. to gain control of forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel. Darcy McKeough, a former Ontario treasurer who sits on the Noranda board, says, “This board’s got so much faith in his judgment, if Alf
said the best thing for Noranda would be for us to throw ourselves out of the 45th floor of the Commerce Court, most of us would be killed in the stampede to the window.”
However, Noranda’s corporate manoeuvring leading up to Brascan’s August victory has inspired less than loyalty from minority shareholders and has raised some Bay Street eyebrows. One of the artful strategies Powis dreamed up to dodge Brascan’s initial grab for his company—selling Noranda to its own subsidiaries and so diluting all shareholders’ shares as well as Brascan’s —was aptly termed “a trampling of shareholders’ rights” by Brascan and, by investment counsellor Andy
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