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Israel Asper with his children, from left, David, Gail and Leonard (Perry Zavitz)
Israel Asper with his children, from left, David, Gail and Leonard (Perry Zavitz)

The Saga

Izzy's vision, Leonard's woes Add to ...

When media tycoon Izzy Asper suddenly accelerated his succession plan a decade ago, he caught nearly everyone by surprise. He promoted his youngest son, Leonard, to the job of chief executive, replacing a non-family company loyalist.

The promotion came earlier than expected, but the identity of the new CEO was hardly a bolt from the blue. Izzy Asper felt Leonard, then 35, was the best-equipped of his three lawyer children to preserve and build on his dream of becoming a world media player.

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Leonard, like Izzy, had the ability to dream big and Izzy loved to hear his son roll out his vision of the future for family-controlled CanWest Global Communications Corp. CanWest, Leonard said, would have to become a global company: "I want to be sitting on the stage with News Corp., and Viacom and those ones."

But a tenure that started out with such promise is ending up looking very ugly. The Decade of Lenny has turned into a disaster. It is not entirely his fault - and his late father suffered from a powerful hubris - but Leonard Asper must carry the weight of losing one of Canada's great media empires.

CanWest's announcement that it is filing for creditor protection in a deal with key lenders is a transaction that will leave the Asper family with a small stake in a diminished company from what Izzy built into a global media titan.

It is almost merciful that Izzy Asper is not alive to see it happen. When the chain-smoking, burger-chowing, jazz-loving entrepreneur died in 2003, at the age of 71, he still believed he had built a legacy for the ages, even though it was buried under a mound of debt that he had helped build up.

Above all, he was proud of his children that they did not seem to be coupon-clippers and place-savers, content to live off the proceeds of the old man's work.

"They don't look like caretakers to me. I don't want caretakers. They'd be better off taking their chips, investing them into CanWest high-yield debentures and having boats. Or becoming ballet dancers, or something they want to do for themselves."

If only they had just been caretakers, there might be a healthy Asper-owned CanWest today.

Leonard was clearly sensitive to a common malady of business heirs - how to live up to the founder's image. It forces you to shoot higher, take more chances, raise more debt than is healthy. So when the worst economic downturn in decades strikes, there is no margin for error.

For the Asper children, it all began in the River Heights area of Winnipeg where Leonard, Gail and David grew up in the comfortable home of a tax lawyer who, for a period, was the leader of the provincial Liberal party.

Izzy was never able to lift the Liberals above the ranks of also-ran status, and returned to private life as a lawyer and investor, working with an up-and-coming protégé named Gerry Schwartz.

Izzy bought a North Dakota television station and moved it north to Winnipeg, thus entering the broadcasting industry that would make his name. He bought into a struggling new TV superstation in Toronto called Global, which became the building block of CanWest Global.

While Izzy was off conquering the media world, the kids were being raised by his wife, Babs Asper, who maintained a normal family life. There were all the usual hobbies and sports, including hockey, which is still a big part of what makes Lenny tick. He was fast, agile and could shoot on the fly without pausing to set up. He could play the corners with a bit of friendly menace - just what you'd expect from an Asper.

By the mid-1980s, through a combination of opportunism, aggression and legal brinkmanship, Izzy had built CanWest into a big media player, but not yet the national titan he yearned to own.

Then the children started to look at coming into the business. Gail, who had practised law in Halifax, returned to act as a kind of personal assistant to her father and to serve as CanWest's corporate counsel.

When Gail came back, the peripatetic David, best known for helping exonerate David Milgaard, who was falsely convicted of murder, started to become interested.

Leonard had gone off to study political science at Brandeis University in Boston, and later law at the University of Toronto. He was thinking of a corporate career, or perhaps creating his own company.

At one point David and Leonard discussed among them who would be CEO, and David gave way to his younger brother. Leonard is more "corporately made up," Izzy once said. "His personality allows him to do CEO things, and flip from one crisis to another."

Leonard was at his father's side when in 2000 he made the $3.2-billion purchase of the Southam newspapers from Conrad Black, a deal that made CanWest the country's biggest media player, but also forced debt-management to become the company's primary preoccupation.

The two men settled into a relationship where Leonard was the nuts-and-bolts operator, while Izzy contemplated the overall direction of the company.

By the time Izzy died in 2003, the company had grown into a debt-laden behemoth with operations across media platforms throughout Canada and in Australia and New Zealand. Then Leonard Asper saw an opportunity to quickly increase CanWest's presence in the one big area where it was lagging - specialty TV channels. In 2007, he spearheaded the $2.3-billion takeover of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc.

To get the deal done, CanWest was forced to take on a partner in U.S. investment banker Goldman Sachs. The deal was controversial, as critics raised alarms that New York-based Goldman would dictate how the Canadian assets are administered. But CanWest was able to satisfy the CRTC that it was in control and wasn't merely there to satisfy domestic ownership requirements.

Even more critically, the deal added to CanWest's worrisome debt, and, as the economic meltdown took hold in late 2008, its stock price spiralled into even more rapid decline. The company became engaged in a marathon restructuring that saw creditors move into the driver's seat, the family take a back seat, and CanWest start to sell off pieces of the house that Izzy built.

Suddenly, Izzy Asper's dream of a great family legacy had faded and, with yesterday's announcement, it has effectively died.

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