Still, there was time for politics. He worked on the provincial PCs’ campaign in 1990 – the election that famously brought the New Democrats led by future Liberal Bob Rae to power – and three years later, with the departure of Mr. Mulroney, and worked on policy for Kim Campbell’s federal leadership campaign.
Meanwhile, his law career was taking off. He had been thrown into one of the more complicated projects in Canadian history – the billion-dollar public and private partnership that produced the 12.9-kilometre Confederation Bridge that connects Prince Edward Island to the mainland.
“We went to war for about four years to get that done,” says Bill Ainley, a senior partner at Davies, which worked for the developers. “It is … probably the most difficult project I ever did, and I couldn’t have done it without Nigel.”
His firm made Mr. Wright a partner in just five years, the minimum then allowed. And yet, just two years later, he was gone.
Working on an acquisition deal for Onex Corp. had brought him to the attention of its chief executive officer, Gerald Schwartz, who was impressed even though a leading Liberal fundraiser at the time. “He has excellent judgment,” the billionaire Onex chieftain has said. “He has the right amount of caution; caution exceeding enthusiasm.”
Plus, as Mr. Schwartz puts it, “People like him. He’s very easy to work with, and that’s very important in our business.”
One of his first assignments came with Mr. Schwartz’s bold attempt in 1999 to buy Canada’s two biggest airlines and combine them. The plan was hellishly complicated, sparked allegations of government collusion and eventually failed, but set Mr. Wright on a path to becoming a lead player in Onex’s many subsequent dealings in the aircraft business.
He was also at the point man for a spectacular near-miss that came in 2007 when Onex joined a group that came within a whisker of buying Qantas, the Australian airline. Soon afterward, the financial crisis struck, punishing share prices and slashing air travel. The group had bid about $11-billion (Australian) – and today Qantas is worth barely one-third of that.
Worse was the joint Onex/Goldman Sachs acquisition of business-jet maker Hawker Beechcraft Corp., whose orders evaporated with the financial crisis. Eventually, the company filed for creditor protection, essentially wiping out Onex’s $212-million investment.
Still, deals such as the one for Spirit Aerosystems more than made up for such losses. Onex invested $108-million to buy Spirit from Boeing in 2005, betting it could make assembly plants that had supplied the aircraft giant more efficient. Mr. Wright led negotiations with Spirit’s four unions that helped to seal a deal, and allowed Onex to collect $756-million, and retain shares worth another $100-million.
Yet the allure of politics refused to fade, so Mr. Schwartz was not really surprised when Mr. Wright decided to go to Ottawa. He is said to have left behind annual compensation worth seven figures (and has let slip that he once gave more to charity in a year than he now earns).
Part of the draw was Stephen Harper himself. As Mr. Wright told a Commons committee just before taking the job, the PM’s “values align with mine in every single way” – a sentiment that makes perfect sense considering that he played an active role in making his future boss party leader as well as Prime Minister.
The two first met after the party’s collapse in the wake of the Mulroney era.
Mr. Wright helped to turn Kim Campbell into her party’s first woman leader and Canada’s first woman prime minister. But four months later, she was reduced at the polls to just two seats, and the cause he had served since high school was in ruins.
A regional and ideological rift had split its ranks in two, allowing Reform, the controversial western splinter group led by Preston Manning, to soar to 52 MPs – including Mr. Harper, then a rookie from Calgary West.
Impressed with Mr. Harper, and looking for the ideal person to heal the rift among conservatives, Mr. Wright contacted an old friend.
“Nigel called me about him,” recalls Tom Long, a key player in helping Mike Harris bring his Common Sense Revolution to Ontario in 1995. “He said, ‘He’s young, he’s smart and he’s bilingual, and I think he’s somebody who has a big future in terms of trying to put the conservative movement back together.’ ”