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Illustration of philanthropist Charles Bronfman. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of philanthropist Charles Bronfman. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Charles Bronfman opens up about Seagram's demise: 'It is a disaster' Add to ...

It’s lunchtime at Rouge Tomate, a sleek and airy establishment near the southeast corner of Central Park. With one eye, I scan the menu – only local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, a selection of organic wines – and with the other, I try to spot one of the wealthiest Canadians in the world.

Moments later, Charles Bronfman arrives. A small man with a balding pate and a ready smile, he is wearing a pink-and-green striped tie and a dark blazer bearing his Order of Canada pin.

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He is an unusual sort of billionaire. Like some of his peers, his fortune originates in a legendary business empire. But unlike them, he knows what it is like to see that business implode and collapse. Rarer still, he has publicly committed to giving away most of what remains.

He is open to discussing missteps, even painful ones, especially if he feels others will learn from them. There were the early mistakes with his philanthropic foundation (sky-high ambitions, less-than-precise goals). There was the ill-advised third marriage, to an architect, which ended in divorce.

And of course, there is the demise of Seagram Co. Ltd., the liquor giant built by his father Samuel. In the 1990s, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mr. Bronfman’s nephew, led the company into the entertainment industry and eventually, a calamitous acquisition in 2000 by France’s Vivendi SA.

(Joanna Slater describes her lunch with Charles Bronfman in a video: The making of Lunch with Charles Bronfman)

For years, the Montreal native said little to nothing publicly about the choices that destroyed Seagram. Now, Mr. Bronfman is more candid. “It was a disaster, it is a disaster, it will be a disaster,” he says. “It was a family tragedy.”

At the age of 81, Mr. Bronfman is still willing to try new things, including submitting to an interview over lunch, which he says is a first for him. To break the ice, we start with concoctions from the restaurant’s in-house juice bar. I opt for the Raging Bull (kale, grapefruit, lemon), while Mr. Bronfman selects the more dignified Winter Smoothie (mango, orange, pineapple).

We meet at a moment ripe for reflection. Mr. Bronfman has written a new book, The Art of Doing Good , a how-to guide on succeeding as a social entrepreneur, drawing on profiles of eighteen individuals. It’s a follow-up to The Art of Giving , published in 2009, on how to be an effective philanthropist.

Both books were co-authored with Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the main vehicle for Mr. Bronfman’s charitable work (he and his second wife Andrea, who died in 2006, started the effort in 1986).

There is not only a new book – which he will discuss at an event in Toronto on April 10 – but also a new relationship and a new passport. Last year, Mr. Bronfman married Rita Mayo, a long-time Montreal resident. And in February, he became a U.S. citizen, which gives him dual nationality.

Becoming an American had nothing to do with taxes, he says – Mr. Bronfman’s net worth is an estimated $2-billion (U.S.), according to Forbes magazine – and he confesses the move was accompanied by a lot of “negative emotion.” One factor contributing to the decision: Since 1996, he has spent most of his time in the United States, in New York or Florida, and he was tired of not being able to vote. The new passport doesn’t change his identity, he says, tapping his fingers to his heart: “I’m a Canadian.”

After all, this is the man who has made the promotion of Canadian heritage one of the priorities of his philanthropy: His foundation funded the acclaimed Heritage Minutes, the bite-sized films that educated a generation of Canadians on points of national pride. He is also deeply involved in Jewish causes, both in North America and in Israel.

Friends and associates describe him as both thoughtful and canny when it comes to charitable projects. Often, he provides not only funding but connections. Deborah Kenny, an educator who founded a network of charter schools in Harlem and is featured in The Art of Doing Good , says Mr. Bronfman was an early donor who opened doors to other contributors, like media magnate Barry Diller.

Mr. Bronfman also didn’t hesitate to point out her rookie mistakes, Dr. Kenny said – for instance, in communicating with major givers. “He would call me up and say, ‘This is amateur. You can’t send your board the same letter you send everybody else,’” she said. “He gave honest feedback, but in such a caring way.”

Mr. Bronfman grew up in a home where both parents instilled the importance of philanthropy. His mother Saidye had all four children knit blankets for the Red Cross during the Second World War, while his father Samuel led a number of Jewish charitable organizations.

In 1985, Mr. Bronfman decided to strike out on his own, philanthropically speaking, launching his foundation a year later. “Somewhere you gotta do something that your heart dictates,” he says, tucking into a plate of Arctic char with bulgur wheat salad and broccoli rabe.

Over the years, he held various positions in the Canadian operations of Seagram, eventually becoming co-chairman of the company. His elder brother Edgar ran the firm from 1971 to 1994 and then handed the reins to his son, Edgar Jr.

The subsequent implosion has been well documented: the sale of a highly profitable stake in E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. to finance a foray into the film industry, the acquisition of Seagram by Vivendi in exchange for shares whose value would plummet, the dismemberment of what remained of Seagram’s business.

After our plates are cleared, Mr. Bronfman orders some hot water with lemon and a plate of cookies, and I ask him about Seagram.

His response is devoid of self-pity. It is the thought of his father, whom he adored, that brings sorrow. “I think about how hard my dad worked to build up what he built up,” he says. “When I think of his dreams of building something and then all of a sudden, it disappears – that’s pretty tough.” The physical manifestation of that dream is the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, an architectural landmark which is no longer connected to the Bronfman family, he noted, something that would distress his father.

“I don’t know where he is, because I don’t know whether I believe in God or not,” Mr. Bronfman says. But if there is a heaven, and his father is there, “he’s got to be very, very upset. And I am still very upset – you can see it in my eyes.”

In one important way, the fate of Mr. Bronfman’s foundation and Seagram were intertwined, since the former was partly funded with Seagram shares. The debacle with Vivendi helped force a decision about whether to give out far smaller amounts in perpetuity or to spend down its endowment.

Mr. Bronfman chose to spend the funds and the foundation will close its doors, right on schedule, in 2016. After that, he will handle his giving personally, assisted by some long-time advisers like Mr. Solomon. Last year, he joined the Giving Pledge, an initiative started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, where very wealthy people promise to give away at least half of their fortunes.

Next month, he is travelling to South Carolina for a meeting of those who have signed on to the pledge. “I think we all have to pay our own way too, you know?” says Mr. Bronfman, with a slightly impish smile and a chuckle. “That’s awful, awful.”

He has a wry sense of humour, a slightly folksy manner, and a healthy awareness of his own good fortune.

I’m curious about the changes he has witnessed in his lifetime. Can he remember a time, for instance, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum refused to take major contributions from Jewish donors? “Oh hell yes,” he says.

His luck held several years ago, when a friend suggested to Mr. Bronfman that he invest some money with Bernard Madoff, now convicted of fraud on a massive scale. Mr. Bronfman passed the idea along to his financial adviser, who sent a standard set of questions to Mr. Madoff. The answers were not to the adviser’s satisfaction and he advised against it. “So I said, ‘That’s what you’re getting paid for,’ and that was the end of that,” Mr. Bronfman recalls.

These days, Mr. Bronfman splits his time between New York, Palm Beach and Montreal, where he spends a few months each summer. Mr. Bronfman is bullish on Canada’s prospects, although dismayed by Quebec’s new separatist government. When I mention I’d like to ask him about the province’s politics, he shakes his head and replies, “Don’t.”

Quebec separatism aside, Mr. Bronfman is the picture of equanimity.

“Frankly, he is the most happy man I know at this moment,” said Michael Steinhardt, a legendary investor and long-time friend. Together the two men founded Taglit-Birthright Israel. Since 1999, the program has sent more than 340,000 young Jews from around the world on a 10-day free trip to Israel.

Mr. Bronfman describes the joy he feels when he attends major gatherings of Birthright travellers in Israel, where thousands of young people come together to celebrate their shared experience – a joy that always moves him to tears.

He does not dwell on what might have been. He sees his nephew, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., only rarely, he says, when their paths happen to cross. “I’m a very happy camper, my kids are very happy campers, and that to me is the most important thing,” he says.

And now he has a plane to catch back to Florida. The restaurant’s maître d’ escorts us to the door with a deferential flourish (“Thank you, Mr. Bronfman. Hope to see you again soon, Mr. Bronfman.”) We say goodbye on a midtown sidewalk as he dons a tweed cap and a brightly striped scarf and starts walking east.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On anonymous giving

“I just think you should be proud of what you’re doing. … But I also do not believe in rights or wrongs when it comes to this sort of thing. … As long as you’re doing something that’s helpful to others and satisfies you in here, that’s where it’s all at.”

On generational changes in philanthropy:

“We’ve done a lot of research on all this stuff. We’ve found out, for instance, that Generation X and Generation Y, they’re very spiritual – and it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Protestant. They’re very spiritual but they do not like organized religion. They do not like amorphous things – they don’t like something called a ‘federation’ or a ‘united way.’ Young people want to see what happens with their money. They want to get involved.”

On separatist aspirations in Quebec:

“It’s terribly unfortunate but it is what it is. … “[Quebec] has very, very nice people, lots of resources and a terrific future. But not when you’re striving to do silly things.”

On becoming a dual citizen:

“I’m a political junkie. Since 1996, when I moved [to the U.S.], I have not been able to vote anywhere. … I have a very dear friend in Palm Beach, and I told him the news [about becoming an American] and he said ‘Oh, thank God. For the last 20 years that I’ve known you, you’ve been slamming this country and calling it all kinds of names. … ’ And I said, ‘You have to understand something. I realize that I’ve been a foreigner in this country, so therefore I’ve been very circumspect. But now that I’m a citizen – are you going to get it!”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Beginnings

Born June 27, 1931, in Montreal

Attended McGill University

Family Life

Son of Samuel and Saidye Bronfman

Three siblings: Aileen “Minda” de Gunzberg (deceased), Phyllis Lambert, Edgar Bronfman

Two children, Stephen and Ellen; six grandchildren

Married four times. His second wife, Andrea, was killed in a traffic accident in New York in 2006. Now married to Rita Bronfman, whom he wed last fall.

Career

1951-2000: Various positions in the family’s liquor empire, culminating in the role of co-chairman of Seagram Co. Ltd.

1968-1990: Chairman and principal owner of the Montreal Expos 1986-present: Chairman of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Inc.

1997-2006: Chairman of Israel’s Koor Industries Ltd.

Hobbies

Golf, tennis, reading about politics

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