The Nation’s Business

Fidel Castro's special Canadian friend

Peter C. Newman September 9 1996
The Nation’s Business

Fidel Castro's special Canadian friend

Peter C. Newman September 9 1996

Fidel Castro's special Canadian friend

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

While the entire Western world is having a nervous breakdown over the U.S. Helms-Burton trading-with-the-enemy act, a former Doukhobor from the Kootenays is busy building 11 hotels in Cuba, exploring two significant gold-silver mines on the forbidden island, entertaining Fidel Castro in Canada— and enjoying every minute of it.

Walter Harold Berukoff is one of those rare Canadian entrepreneurs who operates on the principle that taking risks is fun, and taking big risks is even more fun. He believes that you are what you do, and having tried just about every trade except piracy, he is now very comfortable as a big-time mining executive. His properties in Yellowknife, Nevada, Cuba and Argentina boast proven reserves of more than three million ounces of gold, held through Miramar Mining Corp. and Northern Orion Explorations Ltd. On paper, the two companies are worth $1 billion; his various enterprises employ more than 1,000 people and his annual revenues top $100 million.

That’s a long way from the scrub of a hidebound life when Berukoff was born, 51 years ago. Wally, as everybody calls him, simmered up in Salmo, B.C., a tiny Kootenay settlement betweenTrail and Nelson, where he attended high school. “Being a Doukhobor was my main education,” he told me during a recent interview. “My family was expelled from Russia because, according to our religion, we were pacifists. It was very tough for me growing up because there was a local breakaway faction called the Sons of Freedom who set their houses on fire, didn’t believe in taxes, and whose wives kept taking off their clothes in public as a form of protest. That reflected on all of us. I used to be asked by taunting kids, When is your fat mother going to take her clothes off?’ and stuff like that. I thought very carefully, even at the age of six, what opportunities I wouldn’t have because I was Russian. So, I grew up feeling very much like à second-class citizen—and that’s what has made Wally run ever since.”

After graduating from the University of British Columbia, he joined a Vancouver brokerage house run by Ward Pitfield where he set new sales records. “I was a millionaire twice by the time I was 23,” he recalls, “and broke three times by the time I was 24.1 figured out how business works, especially how to use leverage, which means borrowing from the banks, something my family had frowned on almost as a religious belief.” He bought a series of farm implement plants on credit, which together became the largest independent agricultural machinery manufacturer on the continent.

Berukoff sold out at a profit in 1971 and bought a steel fabricating plant in Kelowna, which he still owns. He then spent most of a decade buying about 50 bankrupt businesses from receivers, re-

building them, and spinning them off. His next stop was the real estate business, mainly buying hotels, shopping centres and warehouses. “I owned a lot of businesses that people didn’t even know were mine, because I’ve always tried to keep a low profile, and still do,” he says. “Mainly, I work hard. I tell my kids, life’s a trade-off. If you want to have a whole lot of leisure time, don’t expect to have a lot of money. For me, it’s been Wally Berukoff Inc. from the day I could walk.”

He worked his way through college as an underground digger and fell in love with the industry. He got into mining when he bought the Golden Eagle Mine, near Reno, Nev., in 1986 and in 1993 acquired the Con Mine in Yellowknife. He purchased the property for scrap value; last year it earned $26 million. His Cuban venture consists of two mine sites where open pit operations are being planned. (Neither property has been the subject of U.S. expropriation claims.) In addition, Berukoff has a $600-million contract with a Cuban state corporation, which will be his 50-per-cent partner, to put up 11 hotels with 4,200 rooms. The deal will include new cruise ships, shopping centres and, says Berukoff, earn spectacular returns.

In his dealings with the Cuban government, Berukoff has enjoyed the advantage of a personal friendship with Fidel Castro, who has ruled the island for 37 years. The two men met three years ago at a Canadian Embassy reception in Havana. “I’ve met him many times since, privately and publicly, and after I got more and more involved I kept getting messages from him,” says Berukoff.

Last December, Berukoff learned that Castro wanted to meet him in Vancouver en route home to Cuba from a trip to Japan and China. Neither Ottawa diplomats, airport officials, nor anybody else in authority was willing to officially greet Castro, although he was a visiting head of state. “Despite the Canadian government telling me to stay away because Washington would be very upset, I moved,” he recalls. He leased a fleet of stretch limousines, paid for 90 rooms at the airport Delta hotel to house the Cuban entourage, rented a platoon of freelance bodyguards and supplied them with cell phones, and did everything to make el hombre feel welcome, except hire a mariachi band.

The morning after Fidel’s arrival, Berukoff went to the hotel, pretending to the media that he was part of the security net, and the two men spent a day together that included a tour of downtown Vancouver. “Fidel is very intelligent, highly intuitive, very much a man who sees himself in control, yet pretends he’s humble. He outsmarts the Americans because he knows exactly what they’re doing and how they’re going to react to his every move.”

How does Castro keep that well informed? “He watches CNN,” confides a grinning Wally Berukoff, “and gets The Wall Street Journal, just like everybody else.”

Mining magnate Wally Berukoff, 51, was a millionaire twice and went broke three times by the time he turned 24