Business

A family of billionaires

Brenda Branswell July 1 2000
Business

A family of billionaires

Brenda Branswell July 1 2000

A family of billionaires

Business

Special Report

People still refer to the elegant grey-stone building with its distinctive turrets as “the casde.” Built in 1928, Seagram’s Montreal headquarters is now merely a nominal head office with about 60 employees. But the building is steeped in history. The mezzanine-level executive offices, once the haunt of patriarch Samuel Bronfman, remain largely intact. And so does the Bronfman family’s impact on Canada, even though Seagram long ago moved its real operations to New York City. “Mr. Sam” built up the company with his younger brother Allan, then froze out his sibling’s sons from the business to pave the way for his own sons Edgar and Charles, currently co-chairmen. Yet even Allan’s sons Edward, 72, and Peter, who died in 1996, built up their own multibillion-dollar empire, the Toronto-based Edper Group, now known as Brascan. To call the main Bronfman family fortune considerable is almost a ludicrous understatement. Given the merger price announced last week of $77.35 (U.S.) per Seagram share, the family’s 106.5-million shares— held mainly in trusts named for Edgar and Charles— are worth about $12.4 billion (Can.). Family members also possess a vast array of private holdings.

The legacy of the philanthropic Bronfmans is palpable in Montreal: from the Samuel Bronfman Building at McGill University to the theatre named after his wife, Saidye. Of their surviving three children, only Phyllis Lambert, 73, the founder and chairwoman of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, still lives in the city. Edgar became an American citizen in 1959, while his brother Charles, 69, the founding owner of the Montreal Expos, now divides his time between the United States, Israel and Montreal. Although he has remained active in Seagram’s, he also holds a controlling interest in Claridge Inc., a privately owned Montreal-based investment company, and set up the CRB Foundation, the charitable organization behind TV’s Heritage Minutes, which re-enact key moments of Canadian history.

In Montreal, the spodight has recendy shone on Charles’s son Stephen, 35, who invested in the beleaguered Expos baseball club in December. With the team’s future in Montreal uncertain, speculation has been rife that the team’s minority owners asked Bronfman to buy out new managing partner Jeffrey Loria.

“I think as a person he would do it in two seconds,” says friend Andy Nulman. “As a businessman he has to be a little more reserved.” (Friday’s La Presse newspaper, however, reported that the Canadian owners plan to sell their shares to Loria, increasing fears that the team may leave the city.) A billionaire thanks to his Seagram shares, Stephen devotes most of his time to his private investment company, Claridge SRB Investments Inc. “His business interests lie in making deals where he’s going to have fun,” says Nulman. “It’s that simple.” Or as simple as life gets for a Bronfman.

Brenda Branswell in Montreal