In the end, it came down to what people in industry coldly refer to as “the age and the stage.” Ian Greenberg, a co-founder more than 50 years ago of the company that became Astral Media Inc., will turn 70 this May, and there was no obvious successor to him as president and chief executive officer.
But that doesn’t mean his choice was easy. And on Friday, sitting next to a serial acquirer who had just pledged to gobble up his life’s work, the CEO of Astral took a moment to acknowledge the emotional significance of BCE Inc.’s approximately $3-billion purchase of his Montreal-based broadcaster.
“I’d like to begin by saying [it’s with a]bit of a bittersweet emotion that I address you today,” said Mr. Greenberg, as George Cope listened politely. “I can’t help but feeling a touch nostalgic today. When my brothers and I started this company here in the beautiful city of Montreal, with the purpose of keeping our family together, we never imagined it would become one of the leading media companies here in Canada.”
In the hours after the announcement, investors and others noted that its success was largely due to Mr. Greenberg’s intelligent stewardship of the company. In the past 15 years, after taking over Astral following the death in 1996 of his older brother Harold, Mr. Greenberg guided Astral away from its roots in photofinishing, home entertainment distribution, and manufacturing to focus on broadcasting.
In April, 2007, he pushed Astral into purchasing Standard Radio for more than $1-billion. And he was instrumental in bringing the HBO brand to Canada to bolster his company’s pay-television network TMN.
“I think he’s made the big, hard decisions – and they weren’t easy,” said Phyllis Yaffe, a veteran broadcaster and a member of Astral’s board. “It all seems like it fit into place and it worked so well when you look back on it, but I’m sure each turn in the road was as difficult as it could be. He just chose well. He was determined, he knew what he wanted, he knew what he thought was best for the company, and I think he’s delivered.”
But unlike other Canadian broadcast entities such as CanWest and Shaw, which developed succession plans (with mixed success), Astral employed many of the Greenberg clan but wassensitive to accusations of nepotism. While each branch of the Greenberg family was represented on the board, no single individual rose to the top of the organization. And so this week’s decision was inevitable.
“Look,” said Stephen Greenberg, Harold’s son and a member of the board, who on Friday choked up during a telephone interview as he recalled his childhood spent in the family’s camera stores. “Builders by nature are not passive individuals; you’re geared to the next thing. And if it becomes unclear as a family what happens next, then I guess you start to look outside and say, maybe we have to examine other opportunities.”
Those other opportunities came knocking, possibly bringing about the end of the age of vibrant independent broadcasters in Canada. With BCE’sacquisition of CHUM Broadcasting in 2007, and then CTV in 2011, the purchase of Astral by a larger company seemed inevitable. “This business was a successful business and could have gone on for many more years,” said Ms. Yaffe, about Astral. “But the pressure from the outside, the bidders looking for what was left to buy, was certainly not going to go away, was only going to get larger.”