The man credited by many as one of the best corporate directors in Canada and the smartest person at the boardroom table was also the first to say he had a stupid question.
Ron Osborne, a widely respected executive, courted to serve on boards that spanned the landscape of Canadian business – from Sun Life to Tim Hortons to Postmedia – was known for an incredibly sharp (some say “brilliant”) intellect, a tough and outspoken personality and a habit for self-deprecation.
Those who sat on boards with him were accustomed to his preambles, which would always come before an insightful question or the kind of surgical analysis that cut clean to the core of a business issue: “I might have lost the thread here, but …,” he’d say, or “this is probably a dumb question but I’m going to ask it anyway.”
“It was never a dumb question,” said Paul House, chief executive officer of Tim Hortons Inc. “He was going to probe – that’s what makes a good board member.”
Mr. Osborne died in his sleep on the morning of April 9 at his home in Florida, the result of coronary artery failure. He was 66.
Trudy Eagan, a former executive at Sun Media, served on the board with Mr. Osborne in the eighties, after cable and publishing company Maclean Hunter Ltd. took a majority stake in the newspaper chain. She recalled his dedication to know everything there was to know about every company he was involved with.
“Preparing for board meetings, you did all your homework and felt you were ready for any question that might arise. Ron always managed to find that one question that had us all scrambling,” she said. “He was a very diligent board member. So wise.”
This extended to every facet of the business -- when the Financial Post was transferred to Sun ownership and went from a weekly to daily publication during his tenure, Mr. Osborne counselled against cutting out crossword puzzles to make editorial space. And he was a quick study: when he took over the top job at Ontario Power Generation in the late ’90s, he took his friend Paul Godfrey for a tour of the Pickering power plant. The chief executive officer of Postmedia Network Canada Corp., who studied chemical engineering, recalls that the man who began as an accountant could have fooled anyone into thinking he had a degree in nuclear engineering.
His interests went well beyond business – his friends and colleagues call him a “polymath” and “a true Renaissance man.” He was a lover of music, literature and history, an enthusiastic and good-humoured golfer, even when he botched a shot, an admirer of cars with big engines, and a lover of travel who spoke four languages.
“He was brilliant. He was my role model, my adviser,” said Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey, who recommended Mr. Osborne to the RioCan board and more recently brought him on as chairman at Postmedia. “There isn’t a better CEO, a better board member in Canada. … There’s almost no such thing as an irreplaceable person. Ron Osborne is the closest thing.”
Ronald Walter Osborne was born May 11, 1946, in the seaside town of Worthing, Britain, about 96 kilometres south of London in West Sussex. His parents, Frederick and Annie Osborne, were grocers. He has one younger sister, Christine.
After graduating from Collyer’s School in Horsham,Mr. Osborne studied French and German at Cambridge, receiving a BA in 1968. The following year he married Grace Snead, an Alabaman he met while she was on vacation in England. They celebrated their 44th anniversary last month.
Mr. Osborne immigrated to Canada after seeing a wanted ad for the accounting firm Clarkson Gordon & Co., which was offering jobs in Toronto. He advanced quickly, moving his young family to Rio de Janeiro as a partner in 1976 for a three-year stint that he and Grace always remembered fondly.
He stayed with the firm until 1981, when his acumen drew attention from executives at media company Maclean Hunter Ltd., owner at the time of cable TV services and publications, including Maclean’s magazine and the Financial Post. He was hired on as chief financial officer, made president at the age of 38, and CEO two years later.
When Maclean Hunter took a majority stake in the Sun Media chain of newspapers in the early eighties, Mr. Osborne was one of just two MH executives who took a seat on the Sun board. But the somewhat rowdy group of journalists who expected a bean-counter type from the accountant in their midst were soon proved wrong.
“He wasn’t just a numbers guy. He was a leader,” said Lionel Schipper, who later recommended Mr. Osborne for a spot on the Four Seasons board.