BUSINESS

THE VALUE OF TEAMWORK

Debt forces a scion to share power

CHRIS WOOD October 16 1995
BUSINESS

THE VALUE OF TEAMWORK

Debt forces a scion to share power

CHRIS WOOD October 16 1995

THE VALUE OF TEAMWORK

BUSINESS

Debt forces a scion to share power

CHRIS WOOD

The remark went all but unnoticed amid the chest puffing at last month’s gala reception to mark the opening of Vancouver’s newest attraction, the $160-million General Motors Place arena. Champagne flowed, and smoked salmon and lobster canapés vied for the attention of such West Coast luminaries as B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt and Pat Quinn, president of the Vancouver Canucks hockey franchise—which, along with the new Grizzlies NBA basketball club, will be a prime tenant of the arena. But the event’s

undisputed star was its host, Arthur Griffiths, the 38-year-old younger son of broadcasting tycoon Frank Griffiths Sr., who died in April, 1994. A short, improbably youthful figure in a dark charcoal suit, Arthur Griffiths was the principal architect of the deal to build the dazzling new arena. Not only to build it but to ensure its status as, in Griffiths’ own words, “the first privately financed stadium in Canada in nearly 65 years.” Oddly, though, Griffiths added that, from a personal standpoint, the extraordinary achievement had also entailed “a little loss of stature along the way.”

Speaking later to Maclean’s, Griffiths in-

sisted that he had meant only to acknowledge his wife, Joanne, and his two sons, who “reminded me I am still a husband and a father.” But it was tempting to read more into the remark. True, Griffiths has parlayed the once-lacklustre hockey franchise that he inherited from his father into the country’s most opulent pleasure palace, itself the crown jewel of an ambitious new entertainment empire. But along the way, the younger Griffiths was obliged to cede his family’s majority stake in the enterprise to an outsider. After injecting an undisclosed amount of cash into the project last March, Seattle billionaire John McCaw emerged as the largest shareholder, with an estimated stake—never officially confirmed, but not denied by either family—of 60 per cent.

For the Griffiths clan, the sale to McCaw was not the only setback this year. Until recently, brother Frank Jr., 44, seemed destined to take his father’s place at the helm of the family’s most valuable holding, Vancouver-based WIC Western International Communications Ltd. WIC’s eight television and 12 radio stations, together with other assets, are valued at more than $700 million; the company’s annual revenues exceed $390 million. But, in July, as part of an ongoing rivalry with Edmonton’s Allard family for control of the company, Frank Jr. relinquished the WIC chairmanship, a post he had shared with an Allard nominee. Meanwhile, the latest in a convoluted series of legal actions involving the Griffiths and Allard families is scheduled to return to the B.C. Supreme Court in December.

For all the uncertainties hanging over Griffiths Sr.’s legacy, there can be no quibbling with the excellence of the imposing

new arena that his younger son has planted at the eastern edge of downtown Vancouver. With its 19,056 seats for hockey, 20,004 for basketball and as many as 22,000 for concerts, the arena is a dazzling showcase of technology. The facility’s food concessions run from sushi to gourmet hot dogs; soon, fans in many of the pricier sections will be able to place orders without leaving their seats, using computer keypads. As well, fibreoptic cables link 38 camera locations inside the arena to satellite dishes on the roof. Asserts Griffiths boldly: “I’m not aware of any arena in the world that can rival this place.” For fans, however, the state-of-the-art facilities come with state-of-the-art prices. Eightyeight corporate boxes, fully subscribed for as much as $170,000 a year, and 2,200 premium-price “club seats” cater to the wealthy at up to $3,900 per season. And even those in the cheap seats—$23 for hockey games—can expect to part with $2.50 for a soft drink. But

despite facing sharply higher prices for refreshments than at the Canucks’ previous home—the Coliseum at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition Park—diehard hockey fan David Marchak, president of the team’s booster club, expresses admiration for the new facility. “My season’s tickets in the cheap seats in GM Place,” says Marchak, a librarian, “are as good as some of the really expensive ones at the Coliseum.” Griffiths, for his part, dismisses criticism that the arena’s pricing smacks of elitism. “Hiere is a huge market for club seating,” he says, adding that premium services subsidize many of the arena’s hightech features. “If we don’t offer them,” asserts Griffiths, “we can’t afford the $7-million scoreboard that benefits all the fans.”

Such tradeoffs are critical to the success not only of the arena but also its corporate parent—Orea Bay Sports and Entertainment. Although Orea Bay’s total indebtedness is a closely guarded secret, the company paid a $170-million fee to the NBA for its Grizzlies franchise, in addition to the cost of the new arena. Supporting that financing, Griffiths says, will be cash flow from ticket sales, concessions, broadcast rights, underground parking, rentals to concert promoters and the undisclosed sum that General Motors is paying to have its name exposed every time the arena is mentioned in public

GRIFFITHS FAMILY HOLDINGS

• Western International Communications Ltd., Vancouver.: Frank Griffiths Jr. controls 62% of voting shares,

7% of total equity

BCTV (Vancouver), CHCH (Hamilton), ITV(Edmonton),

CKNW Radio (Vancouver), CHED Radio (Edmonton), CHML Radio (Hamilton), Q107 Radio (Toronto), 50% of The Family Channel, 53% of Canadian Satellite Communications Inc.

• Orea Bay Sports and Entertainment, Vancouver: Arthur Griffiths controls 40% (est.)

General Motors Place, NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies, 87% of NHL’s Vancouver Canucks

(a predicted 400-million occasions in the first year, insists one company spokesman).

Orea Bay’s strategy relies on common ownership of the glitzy new arena and its anchor tenants, the Canucks and Grizzlies. But pursuing that dream ultimately cost Griffiths control over the venture. Initially, he recalls, “the franchise was pledged against the lending” for the new arena. But it soon became evident that the hockey team’s revenues were insufficient to support the building; in fact, the team lost money over the subsequent two seasons. At the same time, Griffiths knew that the NBA considered Vancouver a promising market for expansion. The younger Griffiths saw that as an opportunity to add a third leg to his existing plans for arena and hockey revenues. In late 1993, he approached McCaw—a longtime friend whose family sold its cellular phone business

to AT&T in 1993 for $15.5 billion—about investing in an expansion basketball team.

Most of the other members of the Griffiths clan—including Arthur’s parents, Frank Sr. and Emily Sr., who held the largest stake in the Canucks’ holding company, Northwest Sports Enterprises Ltd—were cool to the idea. They believed that adding a basketball franchise would severely overextend the company’s finances. “My mother,” Griffiths told Maclean’s, “said to me yesterday, You were nuts. I’m not so sure you still aren’t’ ”

Even so, Griffiths’ parents agreed to support a restructuring that delivered Northwest’s key assets, the hockey club and the then-partially completed arena, to Arthur and his sister Emily Jr. That opened the door for them to join McCaw in chasing a basketball franchise. The campaign scored a slam dunk when the NBA awarded the partners a team in April, 1994—20 days after Frank Sr.’s death.

But the elder Griffiths’ concern that the deal might overtax their son’s pockets proved to be well-founded. “As March [1995] rolls around,” Griffiths recalls, You start to say Wait a minute, this is much bigger than I ever imagined’—the cost of the franchise, the dollar transactions for the building, the hockey team losses.” Once again, Griffiths called on his well-heeled connections in Seattle. Only this time, when the dust settled, McCaw emerged with a reported 60-per-cent stake in 453333 B.C. Ltd, leaving Griffiths and his sister with a minority 40-per-cent holding. “I am the hands-on owner, the one that’s here every day,,” says Griffiths. Still, he admits that he has asked his mother what Frank Sr. would have done in the same situation. Her reply: “He would have done it a lot sooner.” Indeed, Griffiths notes, his father, too, once brought in a partner to finance growth. Short of assets to expand WIC, Griffiths Sr. forged an alliance in 1990 with Edmonton’s Allard family.

As the Grizzlies prepare for their home opener on Nov. 5, Griffiths is facing yet another headache, a legal challenge to the 1994 restructuring that gave him and his sister control of Northwest Sports. Lawyers for minority shareholder Art Rennison were before the B.C. Supreme Court last week to ask leave to pursue a case claiming that Griffiths and other directors of _ Northwest had failed to act g in the company’s interest. If z the case is successful, it could call into question the entertainment group’s ownership structure.

Griffiths shows little concern for that possibility. Nor does he acknowledge any concern over his diminished ownership role in Orea Bay. Instead, he says that he takes satisfaction from the positive reviews that the new arena has received—and from his belief that his father’s ideals live on in the family company. “When everything is said and done,” he says, “it is relationships that are essential.” Stature, he implies, lies in the eyes of the beholder, not in file thickness of the stock portfolio. □