BUSINESS ECONOMY

Asper on the rebound

DOUG SMITH May 19 1986
BUSINESS ECONOMY

Asper on the rebound

DOUG SMITH May 19 1986

Asper on the rebound

Israel (Izzy) Asper is a garrulous workaholic and a chain-smoking visionary. And his career as a Winnipeg entrepreneur has mirrored the boom-bust cycle of the Western economy. Starting in 1977, Asper, along with his partner, Gerald Schwartz, a Winnipeg lawyer, used $20 million of investors’ money to create a $2.5-billion conglomerate. But during the 1982-83 recession Asper and Schwartz had to sell most of the companies they controlled in order to pay back investors. Now, Asper is making a comeback. His goal: to build a new, Western-based media and financial empire.

Asper has already scored several victories. Last fall Asper, who owns Winnipeg’s CKND-TV and 60 per cent of the Global Television Network in Toronto, signed an agreement to buy CKVU-TV in Vancouver. And last month Asper won a difficult battle for a coveted prize—licences for new television stations in Regina and Saskatoon. Asper also says he wants to help rebuild confidence in Western Canada’s financial institutions after the collapse last year of two Alberta-based banks. He says he will expand tiny Vancouver-based Discovery Trust Co. of Cana-

da—a trust company that he purchased last March—into a major new concern. And despite continuing nervousness about the strength of regional institutions, some experts say they believe Asper’s plan will succeed. Said Jack London, a professor at the University of Manitoba and a former law

partner of Asper’s: “He can turn a cynic into a believer.”

Still, Asper faces a major hurdle to his plan. He is being sued for allegedly failing to complete a complicated deal with his partners in Global Television, Paul Morton and Seymour Epstein. According to legal documents filed in Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in Winnipeg last month, in late 1984 Asper’s Can West group of companies agreed to sell 22 per cent of its interest

in Global’s parent company, Global Ventures Western Ltd., to Morton and Epstein for about $20 million. As a result, Morton and Epstein would have increased their share in Global’s earnings to 56 per cent. But in July, 1985, Asper refused to close the sale. If the sale does not go through, the plaintiffs want $50 million in damages.

Earlier this month Asper filed a defence and a counterclaim. According to court documents, Asper claims that Morton and Epstein misrepresented the financial condition of Global Television with the intention of convincing him to sell his interest in Global Ventures for a lower price. In the counterclaim, Asper is seeking damages plus the breakup of Global Ventures.

Despite the legal squabble, Asper is moving quickly to reconstruct his lost empire. As a major first step, he spent about $6 million to buy Discovery Trust, which has $150 million in assets and offices in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Discovery was owned by Vancouver-based Teacher’s Investment and Housing Cooperative, which was declared insolvent last year after suffering heavy real estate losses. Said Asper: “Many people are concerned about investing in Western financial organizations. We aren’t, so we became the buyer.”

At a meeting with Teacher’s Co-op

He is a chain-smoking workaholic who wants to help rebuild confidence in Western Canada's financial institutions

shareholders and creditors scheduled to be held in Vancouver this week, Asper said, he will seek to more than double Discovery’s assets to $350 million by acquiring the mortgage and real estate portfolio of the Co-op. If the takeover succeeds, Asper says that Discovery will be on its way to becoming a major company. Declared Asper: “Maybe that is difficult for someone else to see—but I can see it now.”

During his 29-year career, Asper has never shied from tackling new ventures. When he was 26 he started his own law firm, specializing in corporate and tax law. In 1970 Asper was elected leader of Manitoba’s Liberal party. But in the 1973 election, won by NDP Premier Edward Schreyer, Asper held his own seat by only four votes. He resigned two years later.

Asper’s business career began to flourish in 1975 when he purchased KCND-TV in Pembina, N.D., moving it to Winnipeg and renaming it CKND-TV. Said Asper: “We brought the equipment up on a truck and were on the air the next day as a Canadian station.” The next year Asper teamed up with lawyer Schwartz. Together they raised $20 million from investors such as the Canada Development Corporation to launch CanWest Capital Corp.—and they immediately embarked on an ac-

quisition binge. By the early 1980s CanWest’s major interests included Global Television, Crown Trust Co. of Toronto, Monarch Life Assurance Co. and the Macleod-Stedman Inc. department store chain, both of Winnipeg.

But the 1982-83 recession forced Asper and Schwartz to dismember most of CanWest’s $2.5-billion portfolio. Many of the company’s cashstrapped partners—including the nowdefunct Nu-West Group Ltd. of Calgary—needed the profits from their investment in CanWest for their own businesses. Most of CanWest’s companies were sold, and over $104 million was paid to shareholders.

By late 1983 the lucrative partnership between Asper and Schwartz was over. Schwartz left to form a Torontobased investment firm, Onex Capital Corp., taking CanWest’s interests in two firms—Macleod-Stedman and NaChurs Inc. of Ohio—with him in exchange for about $7 million.

Asper was left in control of a diminished CanWest, whose major interest was the 60 per cent of Global and CKND-TV. But Asper says that he is well on the way to rebuilding CanWest. Declared Asper: “I am deadly serious about building a major company.”

DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg