Obituary

THE RISK TAKER

Throughout his life, media mogul Izzy Asper confounded expectations

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 20 2003
Obituary

THE RISK TAKER

Throughout his life, media mogul Izzy Asper confounded expectations

JONATHON GATEHOUSE October 20 2003

THE RISK TAKER

Obituary

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Throughout his life, media mogul Izzy Asper confounded expectations

IZZY ASPER was not the sort of man who hesitated at those inevitable forks along the road of life. He was the kind of guy who barrelled right through the stop signs. Look back over the career of the founder of CanWest Global Communications Corp., who died suddenly at age 71 last week, and the pattern is clear. Nobody deflected him from his course, and in business at least, few obstacles stood in his way for long.

A martini-quaffing, jazz-loving, chainsmoking, serial-litigating corporate juggernaut, Asper rose from small-town roots to ownership of one of Canada’s biggest media empires—a classic tale of scrappy, bootstrapping capitalism. The son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants who ran the local movie house in Minnedosa, Man., Asper had a lifelong delight in confounding expectations. After high school, he bucked his parents’ wishes and abandoned the family business in favour of law school. Established as one of the country’s top tax lawyers, he gave up his practice for a far less successful stint as leader of the provincial Liberal party.

Then came the gamble at the centre of his myth—a quarter-century-long, uphill slog to create a third national television network. Can West Global, which had its roots in a North Dakota TV station that Asper and his then partners purchased in 1974 and moved lock and stock to Winnipeg over a Labour Day weekend, has since grown into a multinational communications giant with interests in New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. In 2000, having finally secured his network ambitions, Asper made what turned out to be his most audacious move, a $3.2-billion takeover of the much larger Southam newspaper group, giving him and his family an unprecedented slice of the Canadian media pie.

“He had this incredible capacity for risk,” recalls Peter Viner, a longtime friend and associate who stepped aside as president and CEO of Can West in 1999 to make room

for Asper’s younger son, Leonard. “If Izzy was convinced that he was right, the risk of failure was never an issue. It’s that crucial difference that separates true entrepreneurs from the competition.” But that very public zest for the cut and thrust of business often obscured the deeper qualities of the private man, says Viner. “He was a very collegial guy, and very much a democrat. He

‘HE was the ringleader, but he listened very carefully to everyone’s opinion and he was very inspiring in that sense’

was the ringleader, but he listened very carefully to everyone’s opinion and he was very inspiring in that sense.”

His funeral drew a blue-chip crowd of 1,600 mourners in Winnipeg, where Asper, a chauvinistic westerner, maintained his home and corporate headquarters. Among those in attendance; Jean Chrétien, Paul

Martin, Stephen Harper, and many of the country’s corporate titans. In a city where the family and corporate name grace everything from community centres to ballparks, many paid tribute to Asper’s passion for philanthropy, including the project he left unfinished—a museum celebrating human rights.

Listening to the heartfelt tributes and reading the paeans in his own and competing newspapers, however, it was easy to forget that Asper was also a figure of controversy. His television stations, which earned big audiences over the years by snapping up rights to such American hits as The Love Boat, Seinfeld and Friends, were often accused of a lukewarm commitment to Canadian programming. And despite the owner’s personal affinity for politics, Global, unlike its competitors, has been loath to interrupt its prime-time schedule to cover provincial elections, such as the Oct. 2 Ontario vote.

Asper, famously litigious with regards to coverage of his own business dealings, was at the same time an outspoken critic—a family trait inherited by his sons, Leonard and David. Among his favourite targets were

the CBC, and what he deemed to be widespread bias in the media’s treatment of Israel. But CanWest’s efforts to put its stamp on its recently acquired newspapers have not always gone smoothly. The company was forced to shelve centrally written editorials for its major dailies after negative public response, while some of its journalists have bristled at attempts to make their stories conform to the owners’ opinions.

Christopher Doman, director of Carleton University’s journalism program, says Asper ruffled feathers, but he wasn’t exactly breaking new ground. As the American critic A.J. Liebling long ago observed, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. “Why do business people buy newspapers instead of widget factories?” asks Doman. “Print media is one of the last remaining vehicles for serious debate on substantive issues. It attracts people who have strongly held opinions. I may fault the Aspers for what they argue, but I don’t fault them for speaking out.”

Although Asper officially retired from his

position as executive chairman of CanWest last January to spend more time with his wife of 47 years, Babs, most observers believe his hand remained firmly on the tiller. “I always get the last word in,” Leonard joked at the time. “Which is, ‘Yes, dad. Yes, dad. Whatever you say, dad.’ ” Industry watchers are already anticipating changes over the next few months as Asper’s sons and daughter, Gail, strive to emerge from their father’s sizable shadow.

The company’s $3.4-billion debt remains a significant drag on its balance sheet and a concern for investors. There is already speculation—or in some quarters, wishful thinking—that the company may address the issue by shedding overseas assets, or shutting down the perennially money-losing National Post. “I see several sorts of subtle possible changes,” says one Canadian analyst who asked not to be named. “I think the company may be perceived as easy to partner with by others now that Izzy is no longer involved. I think it also may not be wedded to

the newspaper strategy as it was under Izzy’s reign.” But Barbara Komjathy, an analyst with Standard and Poor’s rating service, doubts there will be a significant departure from the plans already in place, especially given the sluggish global market for media properties. “They’ve done a number of things to increase their financial flexibility,” she says. “There’s no need to start selling off these assets below their true value.” Leonard Asper is already on the record with his ambitions to grow the company into a top 5 world media player. It’s consistent with his late father’s vision, says Glenn O’Farrell, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and a former CanWest employee. “Izzy used to describe himself as a ‘pathological Canadian.’ He really believed that as technology evolves and borders shrink, it was important for this country to have a strong presence on the international media scene, to preserve and assert our values.” The Izzy legend is already in place. Viewers will have to stay tuned for the legacy. HVI