Living up to Izzy: How dad's dreams are still the Aspers' biggest problem
Don’t empire build.
No empire has survived —Izzy Asper
THERE’S A SIGN sitting on the desk in Leonard Asper’s Winnipeg office that reads, “Quiet: World Domination in Progress.” The joke is obvious to those who know the unassuming 43-year-old president and CEO of CanWest Global Communications. Although it’s tempting to ask if it used to belong to his late father. Down the hall, the company boardroom is still decorated with framed copies of some of Izzy Asper’s favourite lawsuits. (As a serial litigator, he had a lot to chose from.) Although it’s not clear what has happened to his cherished reprint of the Magna Carta—a slightly odd keepsake for a man who was never that keen on the idea of relinquishing power. On paper, Izzy’s youngest son took over the Asper family empire in 1999. But there was never a question as to who was calling the shots when the old man was alive. “I always get the last word in,” Len quipped at the company’s 2003 annual meeting. “Which is: Yes, Dad. Yes, Dad, whatever you say.”
Izzy has been gone for four years now, but he haunts the company—and his three children—still. Most of Len’s term at the tiller has been spent managing the fallout from his father’s biggest deal, a $3.5-billion boaconstrictor-eating-an-elephant acquisition of 149 newspapers, including most of the country’s large city dailies and half of the National Post, from Conrad Black’s Hollinger International Inc. The 2000 spending spree turned CanWest into a dominant media player overnight, but it also saddled the company with more than $4 billion in debt, just as the high-tech bubble burst, sending markets and advertising revenue into a tailspin.
Earlier this year, however, there were hopeful signs that Izzy and Babs’ youngest, the one he called “Farfel,” might finally be stepping out from dad’s oversized shadow. After
years of debt-induced inactivity, CanWest was suddenly being remade at a dizzying pace. The company helped its balance sheet by selling off its New Zealand media assets for $314 million, and revenues for its core Canadian TV business were on the rise. (Although a planned sale of its interest in Australia’s TEN Network, which was supposed to free up another $1.5 billion, had to be called offwhen the buyers failed to materialize.) It also spent $495 million to buy back the 26 per cent interest in its city dailies that it spun off into an income trust in 2005, paying $55 million less than it raised from the fund’s original investors. And most audaciously, CanWest launched a $2.3-billion takeover of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., in partnership with New York investment bank Goldman Sachs.
The deal, which promises to give CanWest control of 13 of the country’s most successful specialty television channels, including Showcase, the Food Network and HGTV, is Len’s alone. (When everyone else was acquiring niche properties in the late 1990s, Izzy overruled his son’s specialty wishes and kept the company focused on turning Global Television into a national network.) The markets however, don’t seem to have much sympathy for people playing catch-up. After climbing up to the $12 range when news of the Alliance Atlantis deal broke last January, CanWest shares have steadily slid. On Sept. 12 they hit $7—a 52-week low. Investors have been spooked, it seems, by the CRTC’s abrupt decision to delay hearings into the takeover, originally scheduled for early September, until mid-November. And there are concerns that the convoluted agreement might not meet foreign ownership requirements.
The deal calls for all of Global and Alliance’s TV assets to be combined in one pot. But CanWest is contributing just $262 million for an initial 36 per cent stake in the partnership, with plans to gradually work its way up to a controlling equity and then buy out its American partner in 2011. A broad coalition of arts groups including ACTRA, and the
Directors and Writers Guilds of Canada, is calling on the CRTC to reject the formula, saying it is simply U.S. ownership hidden behind “smoke and mirrors.” If the commission does demand that CanWest increase its stake to at least 50 per cent, it could end up costing the company $300 million to $400 million more. Money that it may have difficulty accessing given the current credit crunch, and its failure to find a buyer for TEN. CanWest’s debt already stands at $2.6 billion, almost five times the company’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). Tim Casey, a BMO media analyst, has predicted the Alliance deal could end up forcing the debt to eight times EBITDA, awfully high for a traditional media company that isn’t growing especially fast. By comparison, Quebecor’s debt is roughly 3 Vz times
EBITDA; Torstar’s is close to six.
Could Len’s signature accomplishment as CEO, a takeover analysts were uniformly bullish about only a couple of months ago, suddenly be so wrong? Or does it reflect a potentially bigger problem, an impatience u
among investors who have grown tired of waiting for Asper to grow into the job? (Leonard and his siblings declined multiple requests over several months for interviews by Maclean’s.) The last few years have been difficult for most media companies, but Can West’s stumbles—the shuttering of Dose, its abortive foray into the free tabloid market, the shelving of plans to build a flashy new corporate headquarters in Winnipeg, this summer’s loss of the broadcast rights for NFL football to rival CTV—seem to somehow resonate more deeply. “Len’s been a little snakebit. He needs some good luck,” says Jim Sward, who headed Global Television from 1993 to 2001. One difficulty may be that he doesn’t have the same oversized personality as his late father, a figure who radiated confidence, says the former broadcaster. “Izzy wasn’t a typical o owner. He never panicked when the shit hit
the fan, or shot the wounded. He would say ‘Don’t worry, go back to work.’ ”
The comparison is probably as unfair as it is unavoidable. “To think you can be an offthe-shelf clone of your father is the impossible dream,” says Kevin Shea, another former CanWest exec, who now chairs the Ontario Media Development Corporation. While Len may not have the same panache as his dad, he’s still young, says Shea, and has his own strengths. “To me the most impressive thing about him is that he really doesn’t have an ego. He’ll go down to the shipping department to pick up his own packages.”
In fact, for a high-flying corporate titan, Len does seem like an admirably regular guy. “The thinking man’s hoser,” jokes his brother David. An unapologetic heavy metal fan, he still likes to bang out Rush and Styx songs on the piano, and has a basement rec room filled with pro-sports memorabilia. He’s an accomplished water skier—placing fourth in the master’s slalom category at the national championship in Calgary this past Augustand former captain of the Brandeis University hockey team, who still plays weekly pickup games with the boys. (Although Len recently
told Winnipeg Men magazine that he’s sworn off punch-ups because the shiners don’t look good in the boardroom. A decision that may have something to do with a story that made the rounds in Winnipeg about Len getting laid out on the ice by a local lawyer.) Greg Gilhooly, a University of Toronto law school buddy who went on to work for CanWest, says Len was always “natural,” even though he had to cope with some remarkable pressures at a young age. The only extraordinary thing about him might be his RainMan-esqne head for numbers. “I gave him my Aeroplan number once and he could still tell it to me 20 years later,” says Gilhooly.
The open question is whether those selfeffacing, good-old-boy qualities are what CanWest needs at this troubled point in its history. Market watchers are asking if it might be time for an outsider to take over the company. “Lenny is trying hard and Bay Street admires his integrity, enthusiasm and stamina,” Eric Reguly wrote in his Report on Business column last fall. “But he seems to think that deal making will lift CanWest out of its rut. Maybe an easier way to grow the family fortune is to let an outsider take a crack at
the top job.” And Asper’s anonymous critics are even harsher. “There’s a kind of emptiness to Len. There’s not a lot of layers. He’s smart, but not in a very deep way,” says one former senior CanWest employee. Where Izzy was a sometimes ff ustratingly hands-on manager, his son has developed a reputation as being a little too detached for his own good. “Delegating is everything when you run a big company,” says an ex-member of the management team. “But a CEO can never say, ‘He was supposed to take care of that,’ or ‘Talk to him. I don’t know.’ ” It might just be that Leonard has a lot on his mind: rebuilding the company, salvaging his own reputation, preserving his father’s legacy.
Izzy’s funeral in October 2003 was one of
the biggest ever seen in Winnipeg. More than 1,500 mourners crammed into the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, with hundreds more left standing outside. Many of Canada’s corporate titans were in attendance, along with at least five current and former premiers. Two planeloads of politicians came from Ottawa, including four once and future PMs—Turner, Chrétien, Martin and Harper. Each of the three Asper children gave a brief eulogy. Gail spoke of her father’s dream for a Canadian Museum of Human Rights and the promises she had vowed to keep. David talked about the Blue Bombers and asked his dad to save him “a seat at the bar.” Len riffed on his father’s passions: business, politics and jazz. And he ended with a reference to what the family found left behind on Izzy’s desk—a 2V2 page “to do” list, with the tasks ordered in descending priority. “We have your checklist,” said Len. “We know what’s left to be done and we won’t let you down.”
Always protect your downside—Izzy Asper
THERE WAS A BRIEF period a few years back when the Canadian Football League marketed itself with the phrase “Our Balls are Bigger.”
Obsessed with the line of succession, Izzy 'was hedging his bets’
Should they ever think of resurrecting the slogan, they could do worse than to sign up David Asper as a spokesman. After a close loss knocked his beloved Winnipeg Blue Bombers out of playoff contention in September 2005, Izzy Asper’s eldest child realized the daydream of many a disgruntled sports fantaking the field to tell players and coaches just what he thought of their effort. “He just wanted to know what was going on and why we sucked,” Bombers linebacker Lamar McGriggs told reporters afterwards. The problem for Asper, then a member of the Bombers’ board of directors, was that he didn’t just stop there. The then-46-year-old followed the team into the locker room, and by the time he came flying back through the doors, escorted by towering Bombers CEO Lyle Bauer, the media had their cameras at the ready. The images of David’s red-faced tirade made national news. He resigned from the club a few days later.
That sort of public shaming would be enough to steer most people toward a life of quiet contemplation in a darkened basement. But it seems to have taught David Asper a very different lesson. Last January, the executive vice-president of CanWest Global Communications and chairman of the National Post announced his bid to buy the football team, ending 76 years of community ownership. Under Asper’s proposal, Creswin Properties, the real-estate arm of the family empire, will pony up $40 million towards a new privately owned stadium and a further $25 million for an on-site retail development, in exchange for control of the club. The bid is contingent on Manitoba and Ottawa reaching into taxpayers’ pockets and contributing $40 million each to the venture.
In his field-side office at Winnipeg’s Cañad Inns Stadium earlier this summer, Bauer didn’t seem fussed about the prospect of having a former antagonist as a boss. In fact, the
Bombers’ chief has a slightly different recollection of that evening: he wasn’t tussling with David, he was saving him. “After a tough loss, the locker room is a dangerous place for certain people to be in. Bad things can happen,” says Bauer. People close to the club have always known that David bleeds blue and gold. And if his passion sometimes overrides his common sense—like the time he went on CanWest’s own CH television in Hamilton to rip the “dirty, stinking” Ticatsit’s part of the bargain. “David gets a no-BS response from me,” Bauer says. “People with that kind of power don’t always get that. So I think he appreciates it.”
By all accounts, the eternal greatness of the Blue Bombers was one of the few things
that Izzy Asper and his eldest could always agree upon. The relationship was sometimes businesslike—both David and his brother have talked about how family dinners were run like board meetings. But more frequently, things between the two were explosive. “We were almost like litigators,” David recalled in a 2005 interview with CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers. “We were often yelling and debating and screaming at each other. In one sense, to be honest, there’s a huge relief because the debate has stopped.”
As a young man, David keenly felt the pressure of being Izzy Asper’s offspring. After graduating from the obscure California Western Law School in San Diego in 1984, David articled with his dad’s old firm, but when it came time to practise, struck out on his own. Hersh Wolch, a Winnipeg defence lawyer, remembers the letter David sent with his CV. “It said, T want to get out from under my dad’s shadow.’ ” It was a tall order. On his first day, Wolch brought David along to see a client arrested for killing a Mountie. The officer who led them to the cells took one look at the young lawyer and asked, “Hey, aren’t you Izzy’s kid?”
But it was in working with Wolch that Asper found a cause and forged his own identity. In the summer of 1986, Wolch took on David Milgaard as a client, then serving a life term for the 1969 rape and slaying of Gail Miller, a Saskatoon nursing aide, and handed the file to his new associate. Asper put the Crown’s shaky case in the spotlight, and kept it there. “He was perfectly suited for it,” says Wolch. “He had an awful lot of media savvy. It was almost like having a PR guy in your office.”
The pressure worked. In April 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the case and ordered a new trial. The government of Saskatchewan declined and set Milgaard free. Five years later, new DNA-testing technology identified another man—Larry Fisher—as the culprit. Milgaard received a formal apology and $10 million in compensation. It was a historic legal victory, but one that has always been tinged with a certain amount of regret for Asper. “One of David’s great frustrations was that having carried the brief all of his professional life, it was Wolch, not him, who argued it in front of the Supreme Court,” says retired Winnipeg lawyer Harold Buchwald, a former boss of David’s and close friend of the family. Asper’s decision to return to school in 2006, to pursue a masters of law at the University of Toronto—focusing on wrongful convictions—seems to be an indication that the business is still unfinished.
For Izzy Asper, the Supreme Court decision was an excuse to bring David back into the fold. He waged a forceful campaign, taking his son on a luxury yachting vacation in Europe. The issue of succession in the CanWest empire had always been an obsession for Izzy, and it appeared that David had now become the chosen one. In 1995, at the age of 36, he was the face of the company’s highprofile bid for a new private television network in the U.K. Greg Gilhooly recalls the three months the pair spent holed up in a London office working on the project, so focused they didn’t realize they were sharing a floor with a modelling agency. “There was no downtime. Their dad was relentless. He would fax and call. Those kids had nowhere to hide,” says Gilhooly. But Izzy never appeared happier than the day they went public, stand-
ing beaming at the back of the room as David took questions from the British media.
Ultimately, the bid failed-disqualified over concerns about the quality of CanWest’s proposed programming. And the notion that David was being positioned to take over the empire began to fade. One former CanWest executive suggests it was Izzy who lost faith.
“He told me, T gave David every shot, every chance, every benefit of the doubt. I thought he was the strong one.’ ” But Peter Viner, who recently stepped down after nearly 30 years with the company, most recently as CEO of CanWest’s Canadian media properties, says Izzy had no real preference. “He was hedging his bets.” David’s version is he realized that running the show wasn’t going to make him happy. “It required a very sincere, to-thine-own-self-be-true reflection,” he has said.
Among those who have worked closely with the family, there seems to be general agreement that David made the right choice. Harry Ethans, a mergers and acquisitions specialist whose history with Can West goes back to 1978, says David has Izzy’s creativity,
but not his financial mind or discipline. “David’s not interested in sitting down and reading 100-page contracts and negotiating deals for days on end.” Izzy was notoriously hard on staff, but even more exacting when it came to his kids, making it almost a point of pride to rip strips off them in front of their peers. “Izzy believed the harder he was on
them, the better they’d be ready for battle,” says Ethans. David, as first-born, always got an extra helping, and it seemed to rub off.
Jim Sward describes David as a charmer, but like his father, someone who seems to crave confrontation. He recalls the eldest Asper son taking special delight in stoking up CanWest’s Wednesday management meetings. “David was always a bit mischievous. He’d come in and roll [the equivalent of] a hand grenade down the table,” says Sward. Then it would become a contest about who could get more pissed off. Sward believes that family dynamic shaped all the children. “Izzy was not an easy man. He struggled with an alcohol problem, and I think the kids paid the price a bit.”
But relinquishing his claim on the top job didn’t make David any more inclined to shy away from the spotlight, often as the belligerent face of the family empire. In early 2001, just weeks after the Southam deal closed, David boldly announced the change of sheriffs by penning a scorching attack on journalists for their “remarkably unfair” go at Prime Minister Jean Chrétien over the Shawinigate affair. A year later, when criticism of a plan for national editorials in all of their papers was at its height, it was David who fought the rearguard action, firing Russ Mills, the Ottawa Citizen pub-
lisher, for calling on Chrétien to resign without seeking head office approval. And it was David who delivered a blunt public message to carping journalists at CanWest’s Montreal Gazette. “If these people in Montreal are so committed, why don’t they just quit?” The trend has continued with Asper’s outspoken columns in the National Post (some of which, like a dense September 2003 defence of Conrad Black, are said to be ghostwritten by edi. torial staff).
Lately, however, it has been David’s political volte-face that has garnered the most attention. Given Izzy’s Liberal pedigree, many were surprised to see David openly embrace the Conservatives during the 2006 federal election campaign.“There was no epiphany,” Asper told the Winnipeg Free Press, citing disappointment in Paul Martin’s leadership and Liberal attack ads, as reasons for his change
of heart. (Another explanation might have been then-finance minister Ralph Goodale’s 2005 flip-flop on income trusts, which sent the market into conniptions and shaved $300 million off the value of a Can West fund offering.) Whatever the motivation, David’s conversion seems sincere. In a 2006 speech to the Canadian Association of Journalists, he patted Can West on the back for spending millions to defend reporters from police and governmental efforts to tap their sources— paying particular praise to Andrew McIntosh, and his work on Shawinigate.
And like his father, Asper doesn’t seem too worried about what other people think. “He’s not afraid, not a politically correct guy. He says what’s on his mind, and he’s a wide thinker,” explains Kevin Shea. True enough. Everyone who has worked with him agrees that David is an endless creative font. “In the 10-minute drive to Portage and Main he would have had 10 ideas,” says jazz host Ross Porter, who worked for the Aspers on Izzy’s pet Cool TV and radio projects. During his brief stint as executive producer of Mike Bullard’s latenight talk show on Global, David raised eyebrows for suggesting the host sing the monologue to the tune of a different Broadway hit each night. The cast and crew responded by saddling him with the nickname “Fredo,” a cruel allusion to the hapless elder brother in The Godfather film saga.
But whatever the controversy, the Asper family’s loyalty to each other has never been in question. Conrad Black’s trial brought to light a terse exchange of letters between Izzy and the newspaper baron over David’s attempts to pressure editorial staff at the National Post—a paper they co-owned at the time—to ease up on Chrétien. The family also closed ranks around David in 2004, when former Post society photographer, Patricia Hickey, launched a $405,000 wrongful dismissal lawsuit alleging she was fired after complaining about Asper’s “lewd” behaviour. Hickey claimed that Asper unzipped his pants and stuck his finger out of his fly when she tried to take his photo at the 2003 National Newspaper Awards. Asper denied the incident. The parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit five months after it was filed.
The last couple of years have been a difficult period for David. He and his wife, Ruth, separated, and then reconciled. A planned move to Toronto was scrubbed—Asper bought a $6-million, four-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in Forest Hill in May 2006, and put it back up for sale a week later. And that fall, the family’s trusted housekeeper and nanny to their three children was convicted of stealing $140,000 from their bank accounts.
But those close to David say he has re-
sponded positively to the challenges. “I think he’s more controlled, and circumspect,” says Buchwald. There have been indications that his focus might be shifting. In recent months, Asper and his wife have made a number of generous donations to Winnipeg institutions—$1 million to the Pan Am medical clinic, $500,000 to the University of Manitoba. David has also mused about walking away from Can West to devote himself to charitable causes. “I want to be careful. My dad’s life ended early,” he told an interviewer. “I want to really be able to focus on making the world a better place as my job.”
Friends say that in many ways, the death of Izzy hit David the hardest. “His whole motivation was patricidal,” says one, noting
that Asper’s favourite musical is Pippin—the fantastical tale of Charlemagne’s hunchback son, who usurps the throne by murdering his father, then repents and has him brought back to life. David admits that it has been hard to stay focused since Izzy’s death. “He hoofed my butt into everything I wound up ever doing,” he said in one interview. “Without him you have to be self-motivated, and I have to fill that gap. It’s been very tough.”
Archie Cham, a Winnipeg businessman and former Wellington Crescent neighbour, tells the story of his last encounter with Izzy, four days before his death. They ran into each other at a Fiberal fundraiser, and started chatting about the Post. Izzy lamented the paper’s financial state, but expressed pride in David’s efforts to stem the red ink. “He said, T put my son in to do this terrible, terrible job. And guess what, he’s doing great.’ ” After Izzy’s passing, Cham told David the story. “It made him feel good, one of the last things his dad said. And I felt good. My dad was the same way.” In all the years that Cham had known
Izzy, it was the only time he ever heard him talk about his kids.
Don’t fall in love with the bricks and mortar —Izzy Asper
STEPHEN HARPER—as is his penchant with any bit of governmental good news—made the announcement himself. Standing at the podium flanked by Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, Sam Katz, the mayor of Winnipeg, and Gail Asper, the Prime Minister let the packed hall in on a bit of history last April. A new national museum—the first ever outside of Ottawa-Hull—to be built in partnership with the private sector (another first). It would entirely run on public money: an estimated
$22 million a year, on top of the $100 million the Tories had already pledged toward the construction of Izzy Asper’s grandest vision, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
The promotional videos for the museum are slick and stirring, promising an institution that will explain the horrors of the past— the Ukrainian famine, the Holocaust—and their more recent dark echoes in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Canada’s own checkered human rights record will be both held up to scrutiny—visitors will walk through a recreation of a residential school dormitory as holographs of native children catalogue their mistreatment and misery—and celebrated in a giant scale replica of the Charter of Rights. (Although no mention is made of a wing dedicated to smokers’ rights, something the tobacco-addicted Izzy Asper was determined to include, and endorsed by his daughter as recently as 2004.) The plan Izzy sketched out shortly before his death in 2003 calls not just for a collection of artifacts, but a spiritual and intellectual locus for the global human rights
movement. All housed in a soaring glass castle designed by American architect Antoine Predock—a civic showpiece on a par with Sydney’s Opera House or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to be located at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg, with a total price tag of $311 million.
By any measure, Harper’s announcement was a staggering victory for the Asper clan. Izzy was never one to declare a dream impossible, but even he must have realized that the odds of such a day ever arriving were awfully long. And there is little question who deserves most of the credit: Gail Asper. Since her father’s death, the 47-year-old lawyer has been the driving force behind the project, chairing fundraising efforts and lobbying governments. The key, says Sheila Copps, the former Liberal heritage minister, was Gail’s ability to keep the ever-expanding idea on the agenda of three different federal governments. “There’s a ton of proposals that have a great start and never finish,” says Copps. “What set this apart was Gail’s persistence.”
For years, the Asper family had been advancing the argument that our cultural “badges of federalism” needn’t be located within walking distance of Parliament Hill. In part, that was because they recognized that a Winnipegbased human rights museum couldn’t cover operating expenses without regular infusions of taxpayer money. (Projections optimistically call for up to 800,000 visitors a year, putting it in the same league as Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. Calgary’s Glenbow Museum draws about 160,000 annually. Pier 21 in Hali-
fax, 60,000.) However, there were few signs their vision was winning the day with Heritage bureaucrats, or their political masters, before last April’s surprise announcement. The four existing national museums in Ottawa have long been begging— unsuccessfully—for a funding increase. The Harper government’s only other concrete action on museums has been to gut an assistance program that spread a meagre $9 million a year between Canada’s 2,500 not-for-profit institutions.
In fact, as recently as last winter, there was a distinct sense the Tories had done as much as they were prepared to do to advance the legacy of Izzy Asper-a lifelong Liberal. Word was that the new Prime Minister not only had concerns about the project’s sustainability, but serious qualms about throwing Conservative support behind a shrine to Trudeau
and his Charter of Rights. Leading members of Toronto’s Jewish community were quietly asked if they would be upset if Ottawa took a pass on the Aspers’ funding request. Their answer was a collective shrug.
While Gail has been phenomenally successful at securing government money for the project-Ottawa’s $100 million-plus, $40 million from the province of Manitoba, and $20 million from the city of Winnipeg—private and corporate donations have been harder to come by. Although $80 million, including $20 million from the Asper Family Foundation, has been raised toward the building and its endowment so far, the project remains $75 million short of its goal. Most galling to museum supporters is the lengthy
list of prominent Jewish Canadians who have yet to give ’til it hurts. “A lot of people who made a lot of money with Izzy—close friends, relatives-say, why Winnipeg?” says Harold Buchwald. “We’ve all sat here and tried to figure out how to break through that resistance.” Other key figures like Onex honcho Gerry Schwartz, a former Asper business partner, have reportedly made only modest contributions. “When Gerry came in at $250,000 [the suggested donation was $6
million] and wouldn’t get involved, or show any leadership, it sent a message,” says another person close to the museum.
Indeed, the reaction of the country’s largest Jewish community to the project has ranged from indifference—the United Jewish Appeal in Toronto has twice turned down requests from the Aspers for access to its donor list—to outright hostility. Old grudges die hard, it seems. “The Aspers have taken an awful lot of money out of Toronto, and any time they were asked to contribute to the Jewish community here they told us to stuff ourselves,” says one prominent philanthropist. And there are questions about whether the family itself has made sufficient financial contributions. David’s proposed
$40-million investment in a new football stadium is exactly double their museum pledge. “There would be a very different attitude if they were putting up serious money of their own,” says the philanthropist.
In his final years, Izzy Asper spent a lot of time thinking about his legacy. But he needn’t have worried. His children have been fiercely protective of his unfinished business—especially the museum. For example, when Maclean’s last wrote about the project in March 2006, Gail called senior executives at Rogers, the magazine’s parent company, to try and ensure favourable coverage.
And Matthew Fraser, the former editor-inchief of the National Post, blames his departure, in part, on family sensitivity over Izzy’s legacy project. He traces the beginning of the end to the Post’s endorsement of Stephen Harper in the June 2004 federal election. After the Tories fell apart in the final week of the campaign, allowing Paul Martin to eke out a minority victory, there were broad hints about recriminations from the Liberals, says
Fraser. “I failed to appreciate how ugly and vindictive the political system in Canada can be,” Fraser wrote from Paris, where he is working on a roman à clef about a failing national newspaper. “As soon as Martin won that election, the goons from the PMO got on the honker and began issuing threats, including to the Aspers.” The stakes were too high for him to survive, contends Fraser. “In an incestuous country like Canada, where the government regulates media properties, they were under some pretty intense pressure. The funding for the museum was, I had no doubt, not unrelated.” (Scott Reid, Martin’s former
director of communications, scoffs at the notion anyone close to the then-prime minister threatened the Aspers, or the museum, in any way, shape or form: “The endorsement of Stephen Harper by the National Post should not have come as a surprise to anyone on the planet earth.”)
The Asper family also remains sensitive about how their late father will be remembered in print. Winnipegjournalist and author Gordon Sinclair Jr. has been working on a biography of Izzy since 2003, a book that devotes space not just to Asper’s accomplishments, but his foibles, like a 1985 conviction for failing to provide a Breathalyzer sample.
Sinclair received little aid from the family, with several Asper friends saying that they had been instructed not to talk. Last year, when Peter C. Newman began work on his own Izzy Asper project—with full family cooperation and the research help of historian Allan Levine, author of Can West’s official corporate story—Sinclair was dropped by his publisher, McClelland & Stewart.
But it has been left to the least known member of the Asper clan, the woman Izzy still called “little Gail” right up to his passing, to carve out a more permanent, and perhaps fitting, tribute. A museum with a mandate that is as oversized, and improbable, as the kid from Minnedosa, Man., who dreamed it up. And Gail, a tireless worker for countless charitable causes, isn’t the type to be dissuaded. “She’s an expensive friend,” says Jonathan Kroft, a Winnipeg lawyer and lifelong pal. “There’s not a ticket to a raffle, banquet or gala that you can say no to.”
You're not out till they're laughing at you —Izzy Asper
PLEASING IZZY was never easy, and as one might suspect, it has become a hell of a lot more difficult since his death. In the fall of 2004, CanWest trumpeted the acquisition of a 50 per cent stake in the Jerusalem Post, an English-language Israeli daily. “Izzy would be levelling,” an excited Len told a reporter, using the Yiddish term for “bursting with pride.” Owning the publication had been a family dream for close to 20 years, he explained, let-
ting slip his plans to place a copy of the paper on his father’s grave when he returned home to Winnipeg. It wasn’t a big deal—the total purchase price was US $13.2 million—but neither did it seem to be a particularly astute one. While the Post has some brand recognition outside of Israel, it has a minuscule circulation at home and is a perennial money-loser (it was hemorrhaging $400,000 a month at the time). Worse still, the joint operating agreement with Israeli businessman Eli Azur dissolved into acrimony and lawsuits. In the end, an arbitrator handed Azur a total victory, and ordered
Asper to pay his former partner’s legal bills.
Whether CanWest’s current difficulties all stem from that sort of reflexive desire to honour—or perhaps best—the fallen, is hard to say. But the fix that Len finds himself in is more than a bit ironic given Izzy’s almost pathological attempts to ensure a smooth transition of power. The Asper patriarch’s early history as a Winnipeg tax lawyer left him with a healthy fear of the damage successive generations could inflict on a family empire. He passed on books to his children detailing the dysfunctional history of clans like the Bacardis, McCains and Steinbergs. And he left his kids with a legally binding, 80-page “code of conduct” that explicitly spells out their respective responsibilities, and their duties to each other. “It’s very, very detailed,” Len told Maclean’s in 2000. Among the rules: no public airing of disagreements, no jobs for spouses, and a requirement for regular family meetings.
Those close to Len say he has often confided that he may have stepped into the CEO’s job too early (he was just 36). The scrutiny, time demands and international travel have all proved draining, they say, and especially hard on his wife and three young children.
What Len does seem to have in his favour is flexibility—never one of his father’s strong suits. When “convergence,” the buzzword CanWest used to describe its attempts to cut costs by integrating its television, newspaper and Internet assets into one cross-promoting juggernaut, failed to produce the anticipated savings or advertising benefits, he backed away. Len also fired Rick Camilleri, the former music executive he had hand-picked to implement the failed strategy, and brought back Peter Viner, a trusted Izzy lieutenant, to oversee the media division. “Len’s good at recognizing his own mistakes,” says Don Babick, the former COO of CanWest Global Communications. “He has the smarts and determination to make things happen.”
And late last year, he acceded to internal demands to relocate CanWest News Service— the in-house wire agency that is supposed to fill the copy void left by the company’s withdrawal from the Canadian Press—from Winnipeg to Ottawa. (Global TV’s flagship national newscast with Kevin Newman will leave Vancouver and set up shop in the capital early
next year.) “It was an honest debate,” says Viner. “Leonard and David said why not Winnipeg? But a case was made that we need to fish where the fish are.”
Asper has also based himself out of Toronto, buying a $5.25-million mansion in Rosedale, and bowing to a business reality his father steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Although Asper continues to refer to the move as “temporary,” offering his 204 area code cellphone as proof of an intended return to the Peg, friends say there is no going back. “I think it’s permanent,” says Kevin Shea, “and it’s the smartest thing Len ever did.” Harold Buchwald says it illustrates how the younger Asper has become his own man. He recalls Izzy’s incredulity when he once refused to have a business meeting early on a Saturday morning because he wanted to go watch his son play hockey. Len was on the same team. “Len moved because he was spending too much time away from his wife and family, and that’s something Izzy wouldn’t do.” Given all the sacrifices and difficulties, it’s fair to wonder why Len continues to put himself through the wringer. He could, after all, follow the example of other Canadian business families like the Thomsons or Molsons, and leave the hard slogging to hired guns. Perhaps it’s just not in his makeup to sit back and cash the cheques. If so, the upcoming CRTC hearings will certainly test his mettle. Under new chair Konrad von Finckenstein, the board has taken a harder line on media mergers, forcing CTV to divest City tv in exchange for approval of its CHUM takeover, and making Rogers—the new Citytv ownersell two of its existing stations. Market watchers are expecting an even rougher ride for the Alliance deal. “There’s little doubt that CanWest is going to get even greater scrutiny because of the foreign ownership angle,” says one analyst who follows the company. The stock, still trading at $7-50, continues to lag because of concerns over high debt levels, the “unappealing complexity” of the Alliance Atlantis takeover, and continued failure to find a buyer for Australia’s Network Ten.
In the end, it may simply be that Len feels he has no other choice but to continue on. There’s ample evidence that he, like his siblings, is still a hostage to his father’s towering persona and lofty ambitions. “About three times a week I have a dream where he walks in the room and says ‘So, what did you do today, or how’s it going?’ ”Len once told an interviewer. “So I tell him. It’s like I brief him at night. It’s almost to me like he’s still here.” With one big caveat. “When something bad happens, I don’t dream about the crap I’m getting from him.” M