The way we were
What has happened to the scallywags of yesteryear? You know who I’m talking about, those high-flying, job-creating entrepreneurs who always seemed to be mouthing off on topics about which they knew nothing. They were in-your-face outlandish spenders with the latest private jet, a palace in the Caribbean, and women draped all over them.
Take Nelson Skalbania, for example, who loved to gamble, owned the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames among other teams, several fine cars, a yacht, artwork, and tore down many a mansion as he bounced through a variety of sectors including forestry, air cargo, and an engineering firm. Peter C. Newman called him “a figment of his own imagination.”
Or how about those two least likely high-flyers, Jack Rhind and Pat Burns. Said Rhind: “I’m going to be the only kid on the block without an electric train. Get me an electric train.” Burns was a willing partner, declaring in 1990 to a Canadian Club audience, “We are ready to take on the world.” They took a formerly staid insurance company, Confederation Life, into deep doo-doo by investing far too much of the company’s assets in real estate just when values were about to plummet and stay down there for a decade. In 1994, regulators seized the firm and wound it up.
And there was Robert Campeau, who began as a house-builder in Sudbury, passed through Ottawa on his way to the U.S. where he convinced bankers to lend him some $10 billion to acquire two department store chains, Allied followed by Federated. Interest payments alone ran to $1 billion a year. He ended up presiding over their bankruptcy and, by some accounts, causing the October 1987 stock market crash.
There’s also Edgar Bronfman Jr. who liked to do deals but cared little about actually running his acquisitions. The conquests included Hollywood studio MCA Inc. and Polygram records. His comeuppance arrived when he joined with Jean-Marie Messier of Paris-based Vivendi SA, and in so doing managed to lose three-quarters of his family’s $8-billion fortune. The prediction of his grandfather, Sam, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” turned out to be all too true.
I can’t think of a Canadian business leader today with anything like an entrepreneurial profile similar to those described. Maybe that means they’re more likely to find long-term success in the future.