As head of specialty channel behemoth Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., Michael MacMillan was one of Canada's most powerful media moguls. He sold the company for $2.3-billion in 2007, generating a personal fortune, part of which he invested in a charitable foundation (Samara) and a winery (Closson Chase, in Ontario's Prince Edward County, east of Toronto).
Now, he's returned to the media business, having set up Blue Ant Media Inc. to take a stake in GlassBox Television Inc., a small outfit with a handful of specialty television channels and ambitious plans to distribute programming over the Internet and hand-held devices.
When you sold Alliance Atlantis, did you think that eventually you'd be back in the media game?
No. There was no intention to get back into the business world, let alone the media area. [I had]29 years with a front-row seat on an industry that was changing. [I]got to watch the introduction of portable cameras and videotape and privately owned TV stations, and then satellites and cable channels, and then new things like video cassettes and DVDs and the Internet. So after a fun long ride like that and selling at the right time, I didn't know what I was going to do next.
What changed in recent months to make you want to get back in?
It was three things. One is that technology keeps changing, and [those] changes make it easier for people to listen to, watch and read information and entertainment as they wish. So the pie is actually growing. Number two, there has been an enormous amount of vertical integration and horizontal consolidation in the Canadian media industry. In a growing, diversifying media landscape with the consolidation of media owners, that spells opportunity. And then thirdly, GlassBox was an interesting company that began online and moved into broadcasting. It straddles both the old and the new world and is small and nimble.
What are expansion plans for your new media group?
I want to grow it, which means launching new products. It probably means buying or investing in other businesses as well, but I'd be exaggerating if I could tell you with any kind of precision what the detailed path is. It's really early days, but I am confident that the media world is growing. It's the opposite of being in the horse and the buggy business in 1910.
Is this what it was like when you started Atlantis back in 1978?
Atlantis started as a teeny little company, [with]two partners and $300 of startup capital and no relevant experience. It was fantastic. By the end, we had 1,200 employees and it was like a big enterprise. So going back to being small [means]you can zig and zag far more easily than when you're on the prow of a big ship, where you have to be far more cautious.
Do you miss running a big company?
I don't miss the quarterly conference calls and the short-term pressure and focus. And by the end the company was big and it was hard to think of new activities, projects or products that would move the needle. That meant there were lots of smart, good, neat things you wouldn't do because they were too small.
On the other hand, as a big company, there were lots of great people and resources. You could make things happen quickly. That was fun.
Also, I've had the good fortune of not being in the business world between 2007 and 2011. That was a great four years to be out of it. Our deal [to sell Alliance Atlantis]closed on August 16, 2007, at five o'clock and the credit markets were shuddering just before that. The next morning a major financing for a big media company failed to close. Two or three days later you couldn't finance anything in the credit markets.
Why did you set up your foundation, Samara, to focus on citizen engagement in politics?
Since I was a kid I have been interested in public policy and politics. I was probably one of the few teenagers who got Hansard delivered to the house each day. But in the 29 years at Atlantis and Alliance Atlantis my only involvement [in government]really was in a self-interested way, advocating on behalf of either our company or our industry.
As the years went by, it bothered me [when]otherwise thoughtful, intelligent, accomplished people would say [about]some matter of public policy: "It doesn't matter because it won't have any impact. Any decision made won't really impact." I don't subscribe to the theory that each of us acting solely in our own individual interest will, through some magic confluence, create a public good. I concluded that the choices we make together matter - governing ourselves, being engaged in that process, talking about it through media. I decided that it would be neat if I could help push that conversation.
We are focused on three things: political leadership, citizen engagement and media discourse. We try very targeted projects.
Would you ever run for office yourself?
No. I am thoroughly enjoying what I'm doing. Via Samara, I am able to make a slight contribution.
I've got a high tolerance for projects that take a long time and whose success is not immediately judged. So that would maybe be difficult in a political career.
What is your message to other executives who have considerable resources and want to give back?
It would be the same advice I always give to 21-year-olds who come in asking me about their career hopes and plans. My advice to them is to do what you're passionate about - to push in that direction and see how far you can go.
What advice do you give to young people who want to go into the media business?
Go do it, jump in. The barriers to entry are far fewer than they were [when I started]because of changing technology. It used to be you needed a pile of money and a lot of complicated equipment to make even the most rudimentary five-minute movie. You can now do it with [a cellphone] I think we're going to enter a new golden era of content creation. I don't know exactly what it's going to look like precisely, but my advice to a 21-year-old today is: It's a great time.
How did you get into the winery business?
My business partner Seaton McLean and his wife Sonja Smits were approached by wine maker Deborah Paskus. Deborah made wine in Niagara for years and still is one of the most acclaimed wine makers in Canada. It was her idea that one could plant these vines in Prince Edward County. It was a very new and unusual idea. Seaton and Sonja said, "Yup, let's do it," and turned to me and I said, "Sure, I'm in." That was 1999. We planted the first vines that year and then more each year - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Executive chairman, GlassBox Television Inc.
CEO, Blue Ant Media Inc.
Co-founder and chair, Samara
Born in Scarborough, Ont.;
54 years old
BA in film studies, Queen's University.
Co-founded Atlantis Films in 1978
Won an Oscar for a short film in 1984
Merged Atlantis with Alliance Communications in 1998, becoming CEO of the new firm
Retired from Alliance Atlantis in 2007 after selling the company to CanWest and Goldman Sachs
Founded charitable foundation Samara in 2007
Created Blue Ant Media in 2011, and agreed to take a controlling interest in GlassBox Television