BUSINESS

A modern odyssey

Christopher Ondaatje discovers new values

JOHN DeMONT October 16 1989
BUSINESS

A modern odyssey

Christopher Ondaatje discovers new values

JOHN DeMONT October 16 1989

A modern odyssey

BUSINESS

Christopher Ondaatje discovers new values

Christopher Ondaatje, the six-foot, twoinch patrician Toronto financier, lay motionless while a hungry lioness pawed at his tent in the secluded campsite on the rugged African plain. As the grunting beast moved closer, Joshua Mbowe, Ondaatje’s Tanzanian guide, shouted at him from his nearby tent to keep still. Then, leaping into their jeep, Mbowe started the motor and roared towards

the lioness and her five cubs, which slinked away into the night. The year was 1988. And Ondaatje, now 56, one of the most exotic figures in Canadian finance, was thousands of kilometres from the towers of Bay Street where he made his fortune. Ostensibly, he was on safari in Tanzania to find and photograph leopards, the most dangerous and elusive cats in Africa—a quest recounted in a new book, Leopard in the Afternoon: An African Tenting Safari, published last week. But the journey was also a personal odyssey.

For more than 30 years, Ondaatje says that he was driven by a single, searing ambition: to rebuild his family’s shattered fortune. He has

succeeded, but at great cost. In the end, the lean, greying financier says that he resolved his inner struggle on the wild plains of Kenya’s Serengeti National Park. As Ondaatje recalled to Maclean’s, “When I died, I did not want someone to carve ‘Chris Ondaatje was a great financier’ on my tombstone.” Instead, he said, “I decided I was going to devote myself to things that could do something for the world—

literature, publishing and education—rather than just the greedy, selfish world of corporate finance.”

Since his sojourn in Africa, Ondaatje, with his rebuilt family fortune worth well in excess of $100 million carefully protected, has acted like a man with a renewed and bold vision. In July, 1988, within days of returning from his safari, he sold his stake in Loewen, Ondaatje, McCutcheon & Co. Ltd., the prominent Bay Street investment firm that he co-founded in 1970, for just under $15 million. Later that year, his company, Pagurian Corp. Ltd., purchased the small but distinguished literary publishing house of Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd.

Then, last December, in a share exchange worth $40 million, he sold control of Pagurian Corp., the complex—and sometimes controversial—private holding company, to Hees International Bancorp Inc., Peter and Edward Bronfman’s aggressive merchant bank. Said Ondaatje: “I had to simplify my life. I wanted to leave someone else responsible for the running of the Pagurian empire.”

While his sudden retreat from Bay Street startled many of his friends, others who know the financier said that the shift was less puzzling. Indeed, he has always moved to a different rhythm than the rest of the financial establishment. In 1964, at the Innsbruck, Austria, Winter Olympics, he was part of the Canadian bobsleigh team that brought home Canada’s only gold medal. Later, in 1985, his love of

adventure led him to sponsor a Norwegian team’s climb to the top of Mount Everest.

In return for the sponsorship, Norwegian financier Ame Naess, the leader of the expedition, dutifully carried the 1984 Pagurian annual report to the summit and had his picture taken. The dramatic photo then appeared on the cover of the 1985 report. As well, Naess was appointed to the Pagurian board of directors, and appeared at the Pagurian annual meeting with his wife, the glamorous Detroit rhythmand-blues singer Diana Ross.

Even the location of his corporate headquarters is a sign of Ondaatje’s independence. Instead of locating with colleagues and compet-

itors in a glass tower on Bay Street, he put the offices of Pagurian, which holds investments in various companies, in a renovated Victorian townhouse in Toronto’s chic Yorkville district. In the introduction to Leopard, in the Afternoon, Ondaatje’s brother Michael, a novelist and poet, tried to capture his brother’s unconventional spirit. Wrote Michael: “I think that my brother is still a nomad in some way. ‘Over there!’ you tell him, pointing, ‘the new world!’ And he will be off.”

But some Bay Street denizens hold less flattering opinions. Some investors and analysts say that they have been mystified by the complexity of Pagurian’s corporate structure. That has led to allegations that only Ondaatje, himself, really made money on Pagurian, and that shareholders were often left uninformed.

Meanwhile, Ondaatje’s stubborn independence and sometimes-stormy temper have made enemies of some colleagues and business opponents. Said one former business associate, who declined to speak publicly: “Let us just say that Chris has his share of detractors.”

Ondaatje’s relentless ambition can be traced to his roots in Sri Lanka, where his family ran tea and rubber plantations. When the country, then known as Ceylon, won independence from Britain in 1948, a Socialist government took over and almost immediately nationalized a number of plantations, reducing his family to penury.

When he arrived in Canada in 1955 at the age of 22, he had just $12 in his pocket. But he said that he was burning with ambition to rebuild the family fortune. In pursuit of that goal, he worked as a clerk for a stock brokerage firm and sold advertising for newspapers before landing a job selling stocks and bonds with Toronto-based Pitfield Mackay Ross & Co. He excelled in that field, and in 1970 Ondaatje, another Pitfield stalwart, Charles (Chuck) Loewen, and a third partner, Fred McCutcheon, left to start their own brokerage house—Loewen, Ondaatje, McCutcheon & Co. Ltd.

But even before he started his own brokerage firm, he was building the foundation of a second career. Money was not the driving force: instead, Ondaatje pursued publishing and the arts, a love he says that he has always placed above high finance. In fact, his Pagurian financial empire was actually founded as a publishing company in 1967 with $3,000 in money borrowed from friends. Its first project was to publish a book that Ondaatje wrote called The Prime Ministers of Canada-. 1867-1967.

Within eight years, Pagurian was publishing as many as 60 new titles each year—including the best-selling Black Donnellys. In 1974, he wrote Fool’s Gold: The First $1,000,000, a semi-autobiographical novel, written under a pseudonym, about the rise and fall of a stock speculator— his last book until the just-released story of his African quest. Throughout, he had been investing in Canadian art by such pioneer painters as Fredrick Arthur Verner and Cornelius Kreighoff. Now, Pagurian’s early-Canadian art collection includes more than $10 million worth of painting and sculpture.

Still, it was in merchant banking that Ondaatje made his biggest and most lucrative mark—first through Pagurian and then through its international arm, Canadian Express Ltd. In 1983, he even managed to buy 20 per cent of Edward and Peter Bronfman’s Hees International Bancorp Inc., an action that even-

tually led to even closer links with the wealthy brothers.

In 1984, he moved to London to open the offices of Loewen, Ondaatje, McCutcheon in that city and to oversee Pagurian’s foreign expansion. But within three years, the globetrotting Ondaatje says that he began to doubt the direction that his life had taken. He said that, although he had millions of dollars, some-

thing fundamental was missing. Added Ondaatje: “The lustre of all this gold had become tarnished. Money had become the only yardstick, not just for me, but for everyone I dealt with.” He and his Latvian-born wife, Valda, maintain a number of homes around the world and are officially residents of England and Bermuda.

Confused and disillusioned, he left for Tanzania in February, 1988. When he returned to Toronto, he sold his interest in his brokerage firm, bought Lester & Orpen Dennys and solidified his links with the Bronfman empire through a complex set of transactions that left Hees with 50 per cent of Ondaatje’s Canadian Corporate Services Ltd., which has voting control of Pagurian.

In less than a week after closing the deal with Hees, he was back on an airplane to the Serengeti to begin researching in earnest for Leopard in the Afternoon. Said Louise Dennys, publisher of Lester & Orpen Dennys, which has published the book: “Christopher is a very passionate individual when he decides what he wants.” Ondaatje concedes that his writing falls far short of that of his brother, Michael, author of the best-selling In the Skin of a Lion. Still, Leopard in the Afternoon tells a compelling story. Ondaatje, along with his guide and bearers, moved among hyenas and lions to take the 150 striking wildlife photographs in the volume. The marauding lioness was the most precarious moment during the safari. Recalled Ondaatje: “The cat was so close that I could smell its wet fur. But all I was really frightened about was not finishing the book. I was wondering if anyone would find the manuscript if I was killed.”

Ondaatje calls the book “the hardest but most satisfying thing I have ever done.” He promises that all profits and royalties will be donated to the World Wildlife Fund. And he says that he is already thinking about writing other books, including one on his native Sri Lanka.

Despite his musings in the wild, Ondaatje, who remains a vice-chairman at Hees and chairman of Pagurian, says that he still wants to expand the family fortune. But he adds that the only deals he really wants to pursue in the future involve publishing. Indeed, he made an unsuccessful bid

earlier this year for the Financial Times of Canada newspaper. And among the ventures that he says he wants to start is a new investment paper in Canada similar to Barron’s, the New York City-based financial weekly. Ondaatje’s latest journey is surely just beginning.

JOHN DeMONT