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Jim Flaherty, Oleg Deripaska and Maureen Sabia (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Jim Flaherty, Oleg Deripaska and Maureen Sabia (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Interviews

The Lunch: The tastiest of 2011 Add to ...

They dined, they drank. They explained, sermonized and equivocated. They recited obscure quotes from old football coaches. They picked away at Cobb salads.

They opened up and, sometimes, they closed down and tried to avoid answering our tough questions.

The 50 men and women who sat down for The Lunch with Report on Business in 2011 included some of the biggest power brokers in Canada and the world. Over tuna tartare, spicy Korean noodles and, on occasion, Tim Horton’s sandwiches, our journalists talked with billionaires and chief executives, financiers and a former prime minister. We ate with two of the world’s wealthiest men, and with women who have smashed the glass ceiling in a variety of fields

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(Browse the Lunch archives here)

Herewith, some of the highlights:

CONFESSIONS

“If you actually look at our track record over 30 years, you will see that inevitably when we make bold initiatives, sometimes the world melts down completely.”

– Marketing executive Miles Nadal, head of MDC Partners Inc., sums up his checkered history of acquisitions.

“You go to the goddamned tree lot. Invariably, it'll be raining, and kind of cold. You've got to pull one out, and hold it, and she's got to look at it from all sides, you get needles on you, and then all of a sudden you realize your hands are all sticky.”

– Hank Ketcham, the top executive at West Fraser Timber, admits that he put up an artificial Christmas tree in his home. But the man has his reasons.

“I actually do. But like a lot of consumers, I had no idea before we did this investigation about the higher costs associated with them.”

– Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken, who has been at war with Visa and MasterCard over the cost and conditions imposed on merchants who accept high-end credit cards, confesses that she has one of those fancy cards in her wallet. But, she added, she never uses it at smaller retailers.

“That's a nightmare. It's unbelievable.”

– Lukas Lundin dumps on “Symterra,” the name devised by consultants for his new mining company, to be formed by the merger of Lundin Mining Corp. and Inmet Mining Corp. Fortunately for those who dislike meaningless corporate monikers – but unfortunately for Mr. Lundin – Symterra was stillborn, as the Lundin-Inmet deal fell apart.

AN OLIGARCH AT HOME

One of the hardest-to-land interviews was with Oleg Deripaska, the industrialist who ranks 36th on the Forbes list of billionaires. But Globe writer Eric Reguly, with much persistence, finally got the Russian businessman to agree. Here is how he described the scene:

MOSCOW – Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire who is said to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's favourite industrialist, has gone unshaven for at least three days. He is in grey training pants, a white T-shirt and a dark blue fleece. His nine-year-old son Peter and the family's Labrador retriever, Leo, scurry about. It is 10:30 at night and Mr. Deripaska is relaxed – that is, as relaxed as anyone with 240,000 employees, an empire that nearly collapsed two years ago and a frisky dog trying to drag the table cloth (and all the plates with it) onto the floor can be.

We are in the Deripaska family chalet about 20 kilometres outside of Moscow. A small ski hill next to the chalet is floodlit, exposing a few of the security guards who are an eternal presence in his life. Mr. Deripaska flops onto one of the cushy, low-slung chairs, orders tea from the kitchen staff and invites me to call him Oleg.

The bookshelves are laden with classic Russian novels and books on modern Japanese design – Mr. Deripaska loves Tokyo. Peter, who speaks English with a British accent (he and his sister share a British nanny), is showing us how Leo can dance on his hind legs. His father laughs. “Very intelligent dogs, Labradors,” he says.

The modern chalet is big but not ostentatious. “I am not in Aspen, I live in Moscow,” he says in an English that has improved markedly since I last interviewed him in his Moscow office three years ago.

Since then, the oligarch has fought for his survival. The financial crisis shredded the value of his holdings, a collection of 100 companies built over just a dozen years as he rose from metals broker to industrial baron. And he might well have lost it all in 2008 if not for his close ties to the Kremlin.

Exactly how Mr. Deripaska managed to save Rusal – the aluminum company that was the main source of his wealth – and other investments, is still a matter of debate. Certainly he won a standoff with foreign creditors, but some think he would be dead and buried without a little help from his political friends, who evidently had no desire to see his investments seized by non-Russians. When his fortunes turned desperate in the bleakest months of the crisis, Mr. Deripaska's long-standing record of plowing his fortunes back into Russia, no doubt helped his cause; some of his fellow oligarchs chose instead to acquire overseas trophy assets like American and British sports teams.

Because he knows I am Canadian, he tells me how Peter has developed a passion for Canadian maple syrup. I wonder where he gets the stuff and before I can ask, he explains that his son was given a load of syrup by Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk. The booty formed part of the cargo of Mr. Munk's yacht and was transferred to the Deripaskas’ in Montenegro, where the two billionaires are developing a superyacht marina. As it turns out, maple syrup is not the only bit of Canadiana on Mr. Deripaska's mind. Two others are the Vancouver Olympics and Hydro-Québec. ....

THE REALIST

“I would say: ‘Next Thursday you are going to get your paycheque deposited in your bank account. ... This is your moment to get committed.’ ”

– Mining executive Jacynthe Côté on the tough-love message she gave to “suffering and whingeing” Alcan employees after the company was bought by global mining outfit Rio Tinto

I’VE SEEN WHAT’S WRONG WITH EUROPE, AND IT’S MY FAMILY

“Europe has a bit of not wanting it badly enough. I still have relatives there and you can see that the dominating mindset there is to satisfy, not to optimize. I'm 63 now and all my siblings are younger and they all want to retire way before 63, I can tell you. ... People want to be comfortable and if getting to a higher level means you have to work harder, the choice they've made is not to do that.”

– Leo de Bever, head of Alberta’s public pension fund, explains how Europe’s economy got into such trouble, and ensures a lively debate at the de Bever family Christmas gathering.

AWKWARD MOMENT

“I lived in the U.S. for 15 years, and 11 years in Europe, and I've always thought it was bordering on bad manners to ask people about their incomes or how much they earned.”

– Economist Dambisa Moyo, author of How the West Was Lost, chides Simon Houpt for asking if Goldman Sachs, Ms. Moyo’s former employer, paid well.

AND THAT WILL BE UNCOMFORTABLE

“Whoever wins will be seen to have lied to the public.”

– David Dodge, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, warns that each of the three main party leaders in Ontario’s provincial election is promoting “impossible” economic plans that promise lower taxes and improved services.

PICKY, PICKY

‘They may order food, but that doesn’t mean they want to eat it:

“ ‘What can I say? I expect a lot,’ [Melanie Aitken]says, picking at a salad she ordered as a safe meal after a bout of food poisoning brought on by dried apricots.”

“True to form, Azim Premji has an austere meal in front of him. ... His company, Wipro Ltd., has laid out an array of decadent pastries, hot drinks and a rainbow platter of fruit for our interview at his new Canadian office. Mr. Premji, India's third-richest man, has selected seven strawberries and a cup of tea.”

“A cold [Dambisa Moyo]had picked up along the way was sapping her energy and appetite, leaving her poking dutifully but without enthusiasm at a goat cheese omelette.”

“Anyone who plans to share a meal with [David]Dodge should probably eat first. He unleashes such a torrent of thought-provoking and passionate arguments that food becomes an afterthought. Which is another way of saying that muffins prepared for our morning meal will remain wrapped on his desk and the fighter pilot black coffee mostly untouched.”

BLOCKHEADS

“These guys are like sheep to the slaughter. How do I know? I once was one. ... I've lost the kind of money in China that might make some of these guys throw themselves off a building. That's how I understand what is going on.”

– Carson Block, the short seller whose report helped spark multiple investigations of TSX-listed Sino-Forest Corp., explains why he has an edge over the Canadian research analysts who had recommended the stock

IRON WILL

One of the most surprising profiles to come out of the Lunch series was that of Maureen Sabia, the chairman of Canadian Tire. Here is how writer Marina Strauss began her look at the woman:

TORONTO – Maureen Sabia is on a diet of protein and strict self-discipline.

The first of these, an eating regimen that consists mainly of meat and fish, has allowed her to shed 10 pounds in six weeks. The second – the self-discipline – is a lifelong habit. Ms. Sabia preaches and practises a life of extreme structure, self-restraint and hard work, propelling her to the head of the boardroom table at Canadian Tire, one of the country's most iconic retail chains. In the process, she has become one of just a handful of women to hold such a position at a major Canadian public company.

Ms. Sabia has no concept of work-life balance. She never got married, though she was engaged once and broke it off. She never wanted children. She doesn't take holidays.

Her obsession with hard work and getting ahead wasn't compatible with finding a life partner, but it helped her land jobs at established organizations and seats on prestigious boards. That intensity began early in her career, playing a part in getting her through law school in the 1960s as one of just three women among 300 at the University of Toronto.

But even as she smashes through glass ceilings in an array of male-dominated domains, she stubbornly holds on to contrarian views. Case in point: She refuses to be addressed by the gender-neutral title of “chairperson” or “chair,” insisting instead on being called “chairman.”

“It's an office of the corporation,” says Ms. Sabia, as she winds down during a catered buffet of baked salmon and salads in a Canadian Tire boardroom. It's just a few doors away from her more expansive top-floor office, which has a flawless south-facing view of the city.

“If we had a female CEO, we wouldn't call her ‘president-ess.’ I object to ‘chairperson’ and ‘chair.’ I'm not a piece of furniture ... I'm a traditionalist.”

NOTE: BEING FINANCE MINISTER IS NOT THE WORLD’S BEST JOB

“The best job I ever had was when I was 19. I didn't have a summer job and I was coming home from Princeton ... and they offered me this job as a waterfront director at this camp in rural Quebec because they were bringing in sailboats that someone had donated. And so I took the job, delivered the sails, and I didn't realize until I got there that it was an all-girls camp with all girls as staff, and I was the only guy. This was the best job ever.”

– Finance Minister Jim Flaherty confesses to Tara Perkins that he has never been as lucky as when he was a teenager

NOTE: BEING THE PERSON WHO HOLDS THE FINANCE MINISTER ACCOUNTABLE IS NOT THE WORLD’S SAFEST JOB

“I don't look at job security the same way I did when I was younger. I have no money. I live in a bungalow and I ride my bike to work. I lost a 20-year-old son. There is no security, so what are you fighting for?”

–- Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, explains to Barrie McKenna what drives him to make such candid, and career-risking, assessments of the Harper government’s budget plans

CONFESSIONS (II)

“Between the rabbit meatballs and the lamb-melt sandwiches, the talk of pipelines and stock exchanges, George Gosbee drops a juicy morsel on the table. He has a tattoo. A maple leaf. Somewhere on his body. ‘At 18, I was a proud Canadian,’ he explains with a mischievous smile. Now 42, after two decades of investment banking in Calgary, having sold one firm and started another, he can afford to laugh at his youthful indiscretion.”

– Writer Gordon Pitts provokes one of Calgary’s best-known financiers into revealing his body art. (It’s on his leg.)

THE FIRST BILLION YUAN IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST

Not many Lunch interviews came with tips for business people looking to raise money. But Felix Chee, who represents the China Investment Corp. at its first North American office, had plenty of advice for those who want to tap the giant Beijing-controlled investment fund. “If I can check the following three boxes, there is a pretty good chance I am going to make an investment,” he told writer Jacquie McNish over a lunch of Peking duck at the Lai Wah Heen restaurant in Toronto.

1. The investment should have the potential for a decent return.

2. There should be a China component to the transaction so that the deal provides some benefit to businesses or professionals back home. CIC’s large equity investment in Teck Resources fit because the Vancouver-based mining company sells a share of its minerals to China.

3. The transaction should be structured in a way that enhances outsiders’ perceptions of China.

THE SECRET TO SUCCESS? FAILURE

“If you don't learn from the colossal number of failed deals that you get involved with, then you are really wasting your time”

– Bill Holland, the executive chairman of CI Financial Corp., on why he spends so much time analyzing transactions that flopped

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