"Don't get old," Peter Munk says. "It's not for sissies."
But if you must get old, the rich-as-Croesus founder and chairman of Barrick Gold Corp., the world's largest gold company, wouldn't be a bad model.
Although he no longer heli-skis on the powdered Alpine slopes at Klosters, his Swiss winter home, and his 5-foot-10-inch frame is not quite as erect as it once was, the 83-year-old Budapest-born Canadian's fertile brain is clearly firing on all neurons. Still at the top of his game, he could be a poster boy for active octogenarians or a Harvard Business School case study of how not to be deterred by business reversal: He has weathered more than a few.
Mr. Munk still maintains a watchful brief over Toronto-based Barrick, the company he started with zero mining experience 27 years ago, Today, it's a global bullion empire, active in 27 countries, producing millions of ounces annually, with millions more in reserve. Its last quarterly results, filed this week, reported record earnings, a staggering $10-million - a day.
Retirement? Not a chance. A friend recently asked him how long he intended to stay on the board. "Hold on," he said, "I'm the founder and being a founder is for life."
Meanwhile, while many senior citizens are lining up for early-bird dinners in south Florida, the indefatigable Mr. Munk is busily supervising the development of the world's largest super-yacht harbour, a $400-million playground (with waterfront hotels, condominiums, retail stores, etc.) at Porto Montenegro, a former naval base on the Dalmatian Riviera. "I have to de-motivate myself," he says. "I'm overly motivated. I won't heli-ski any more because I can't and it's not fair to the people I'm with if I fall. But in Montenegro, it's my money and if I lose it, I don't mind. But I won't lose money. It may be the biggest [success]of all."
Then there's the Peter Munk Charitable Foundation, which has spewed a $100-million fountain of largesse over various health and educational institutions, including Toronto General Hospital, the University of Toronto and, more recently, the high-profile and popular Munk Debates, which reflect his own appetite for intellectual engagement. Mr. Munk oversees it too and, though he won't specify where his vast estate will go when he dies, the foundation is a safe bet.
"I love my [five]children," he explains, relaxing in his spacious 37th-floor office at BCE Place. "But other causes are more worthy. It will do more good for a hospital than a bigger car for my daughter. And like George Soros and Warren Buffett, I believe in giving everything away. The money belongs to society."
He invokes a tennis analogy. "If I beat you, I've won the points. But what good are the points? The points are not the fun. The fun is to win the game. Well, I won the game. I don't need the points. What would I do with them? Buy a bigger mausoleum?"
Will the children get nothing? "They had or will get an excellent education and an understanding that life is about integrity and not compromising your values, that it's about what you contribute, not what you take out. The fundamentals I want to convey are, you don't lie and don't cheat."
Meeting with his Barrick board of directors this week, Mr. Munk told them that he didn't need any councils of corporate standards or well-intentioned non-governmental organizations to advise him on ethics. "We were providing funds for the education of miners' families even before there were NGOs." Although a few Barrick workers in Papua New Guinea were recently implicated in a gang rape - leading to accusations that the company was violating human rights - he said it would be impossible to police the behaviour of 5,550 employees, particularly in countries where "gang rape is a cultural habit. Of course, you can't say that because it's politically incorrect. It's outrageous. We have to pretend that everyone's the same and cultures don't matter. Unfortunately, it's not that way."
His wealth, he contends, is not the result of any particular brilliance, but of a singular focus and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for challenge. That gene for enterprise may well be encoded in his DNA. Four generations of Munks, he notes proudly, made their first million before the age of 30, in four distinct lines of work. These include his grandfather, Gabriel, whose banking fortune was seized by the Nazis during the Second World War and who escaped the Holocaust by buying exit visas for the family from Hungary on the famous Kasztner Train in 1944; his father, Louis; his son, Anthony, now a managing partner at Onex Corp., and of course Mr. Munk, who became a millionaire when he took Clairtone Sound Corp. Ltd., his first business venture, public in 1959. "And not one of us inherited a single penny and, in the case of my son, Anthony, I refused to even buy him a car."
His own relentless drive may have been born, in part, from deprivation. Escaping from the Holocaust, he arrived as a refugee in Toronto in 1948 at the age of 20 and, while learning English, put himself through school, selling Christmas trees and working on a tobacco farm. "I guess if you want to get somewhere in life, you have to overcome obstacles. I was ambitious. I was lucky. And I had great colleagues."
After a roller-coaster business career that now spans seven decades and every continent but Antarctica, there isn't much that can surprise the savvy Mr. Munk. But he had a shock this week, returning from Switzerland for the Barrick board meeting. Climbing into a Toronto taxi, the South Asian cab driver said he had seen Mr. Munk in a movie.
Mr. Munk said he must be mistaken; he wasn't in the movie business. No, insisted the driver. He had seen him on the Internet, a film showing him driving in a fancy car in New York.
Mr. Munk looked up from his reading in utter amazement. In 1967, he and David Gilmour, his friend and then partner in Clairtone, had shot a one-minute commercial for their new product line, colour TV sets, in
Manhattan, riding in a 1936 convertible Pierce-Arrow. Four decades later, it has attracted about 4,300 viewings on YouTube. Mr. Munk had not seen it in years - and was astonished that a young South Asian cab driver could recognize him from a 60-second ad shot when he was still a young man with red hair.
Launched in 1958 with $6,000 of borrowed money, Clairtone combined Mr. Munk's knowledge of technology - he had earned an electrical engineering degree from U of T - with Mr. Gilmour's suave salesmanship. Its high-end stereos, owned by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Hugh Hefner, became a phenomenal success story.
In his 1996 biography Peter Munk: The Making of a Modern Tycoon, writer Don Rumball recounts an apocryphal story of Mr. Munk's single-minded business focus. After a presentation trumpeting the virtues of Clairtone's stereos to a gathering of potential buyers, he found himself in an elevator with a striking young woman. Gushing over his performance, she lauded his vision and then confessed that she wanted to sleep with him. "That's nice," he replied evenly. "But what will it do for the company?"
Falsely accused of using insider knowledge to dump his own Clairtone shares before the debacle, Mr. Munk and Mr. Gilmour fled to England and embarked on a new adventure: building and owning hotels in the South Seas. That, too, seemed destined for entrepreneurial glory, until the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which decimated the global economy and erased 90 per cent of Mr. Munk's holdings.
The meltdown led to perhaps the most humiliating moment of his career, a confrontation in London with Lord Inchcape, chairman of the venerable shipping giant P&O. Desperate for capital, and exhausted from a 40-hour flight from Fiji, Mr. Munk had come to beg Lord Inchcape's board to reinstate an offer for shares that his South Pacific company had earlier rejected. The imperious Lord Inchcape would not be moved. "What offer are you talking about, Mr. Munk? There is no offer on the table. You will go bankrupt and then we will talk to the receiver and will pick up your assets and you will face the wrath of your shareholders, which you well deserve, because you were pigheaded." With that, Mr. Munk was shown the door.
There was one other major reversal, a grandiose plan to build, in partnership with then Saudi Arabian billionaire Adnan Khashoggi, a 10,000-acre luxury resort complex overlooking the pyramids in Egypt. In the mid-1970s, Anwar Sadat had given it his personal blessing - Mr. Munk has the photograph of the former Egyptian leader, on his knees, in his Cairo palace, reviewing architectural drawings - but later was forced by political and commercial pressures to renege. Mr. Munk pursued the Egyptians for more a decade in the courts, eventually winning an $18.5-million lawsuit.
Resilient as ever, Mr. Munk astutely calculated that the flight of capital from post-apartheid South Africa would soon seek other gold-mining ventures in which to invest. North America was an obvious target. That gamble has paid off handsomely, especially now that the price of gold has soared through the $1,300-an-ounce threshold.
"Of course, anyone can make money when commodity prices are high," Mr. Munk says. "It's the low prices that separate the boys from the men."
So will gold's upward thrust continue?
The grey Munk eyes twinkle for a moment. "Trees don't grow to the sky, do they?"
Michael Posner is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail.