Joseph Rotman was the definition of a renaissance man, combining a wide-ranging business career across many industry sectors with a passion for collecting modern art, a love of the tango, and a broad fascination with science and neurology research.
The Toronto businessman and philanthropist died on Tuesday at the age of 80. The cause of death was not disclosed, but Mr. Rotman had heart surgery in early January and returned to hospital more recently with complications.
Mr. Rotman “was involved in just about everything,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, who knew him for many years through a variety of business, charity and public institutions.
“It’s hard to believe one person could be as involved in as many things in as varied a way as he was,” Mr. Tory said in an interview Tuesday. “When you were in public life, you would see him all the time. He was a role model for the complete contributing citizen.”
Mr. Rotman founded Clairvest Group Inc. in 1987 to provide financing for new companies, and was involved throughout his career in numerous companies in sectors such as oil trading, petroleum distribution, and oil and gas exploration.
He served on the boards of many major Canadian corporations – including Bank of Montreal, Barrick Gold Corp. and Trizec Hahn Corp. – and made large donations to support a broad range of institutions.
The University of Toronto’s business school was named after Mr. Rotman in 1997 after he pledged more than $15-million in donations.
Former University of Toronto president Robert Prichard said Mr. Rotman was a close friend and “a remarkable philanthropist” who had “a profound impact” on higher education, health care, innovation and the arts.
“In each field, he transcended institutional boundaries and led the field as a whole,” Mr. Prichard said in an interview Tuesday. “He brought a unique combination of vision, financial generosity, high standards and determination to leave a very large mark each place he went.”
In a statement Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “Joe was a remarkable Canadian who leaves an impressive legacy in the fields of life sciences, arts and business, including the students who will graduate from the schools that bear his name.”
Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, said he became good friends with Mr. Rotman, who served as an informal adviser on the business school’s strategic planning.
Mr. Martin praised Mr. Rotman as “a super-strategic and intelligent benefactor” whose donation to the university helped the Rotman School of Management become one of the world’s top business schools.
“His support was truly transformational,” Mr. Martin said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re now a globally consequential business school.”
Mr. Martin added that Mr. Rotman was “incredibly respectful” of academic independence and never imposed requests or opinions. “The amazing thing is to care that much, and impose that little,” he noted.
Mr. Martin said his friend had wide-ranging interests, an “amazing” collection of modern art and an attitude that major problems could be fixed if someone would just tackle them. That attitude led him to develop and finance programs for brain research, which Mr. Rotman felt was under-favoured in research funding.
“He just saw problems that held back how good a country this country could be, and he’d take aim at them and say, ‘This can be fixed,’” Mr. Martin said.
Joseph L. Rotman was born on Jan. 6, 1935, in Toronto and attended the University of Western Ontario and University of Toronto. He remained devoted to both schools throughout his life, and made donations to support programs at both. He was chancellor of Western at the time of his death.
Mr. Rotman “stood among a small group of great Canadians who contributed in many extraordinary ways to the betterment of our country,” Western president Amit Chakman said in a statement Tuesday.
Mr. Rotman earned a master’s of commerce degree in 1960 from the University of Toronto and began working on a doctorate at Columbia University in New York, but left before completing the degree. He set up an oil trading business in the 1960s, and began to invest in Alberta’s oil sector as it emerged as a growing industry in Canada.
While the backbone of his career came from companies in the petroleum sector, he later branched out into real estate and venture capital investments, and founded Clairvest, a private equity firm that currently has $1.5-billion of assets under management. Clairvest remains listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and Mr. Rotman was a member of the company’s board until his death.
He and his wife, the former Sandra Frieberg, whom he married in 1959 and with whom he had two children, have long been known for their support for Canadian culture and arts.
Mr. Rotman previously served as chair of the Art Gallery of Ontario and was a board member of the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards in the 1990s. He was a co-founder of the Siminovitch Prize for Canadian theatre, and a benefactor of cultural organizations such as the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto International Film Festival, among others.
He was also the current chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, a national funding agency that supports professional artists and arts organizations. He became chair of the council in 2008, saying he came to the job not as an artist but as a businessman who felt the arts could strengthen the vitality of Canada. His initial five-year term as chair was renewed in 2013 for another five years.
Canada Council chief executive officer Simon Brault described Mr. Rotman as “a mentor to me, an adviser, a guide and a friend from our first meeting.”
“He possessed an infinite curiosity, boundless energy and an irrepressible desire to transform situations and organizations for the greater good of all – making him a great leader,” Mr. Brault said.
Mr. Rotman was also a long-time supporter of research in life sciences – particularly neuroscience – and in 1989 helped finance the Rotman Research Institute at Toronto’s Baycrest health sciences centre to study human brain function.
In 2008, he co-led a review into the state of brain research in Toronto, which recommended that the provincial government create the Ontario Brain Institute to co-ordinate research. In 2010, he was named chair of the board of the new institute – a position he held until his death.
Mr. Rotman also helped found Toronto’s Medical and Related Sciences (MaRS) Discovery District in 2005; the innovation hub assists entrepreneurs in launching businesses using medical technologies. He remained a director on the MaRS board.
Rona Ambrose, the federal Minister of Health, said Tuesday that Mr. Rotman was “my great friend” who contributed to making Canada a worldwide leader in health care.
“Mr. Rotman leaves behind an inspiring legacy of developing internationally renowned Canadian health care institutions and the establishment of global neuroscience achievements,” Ms. Ambrose said in a statement.
In 1995, Mr. Rotman was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2009 was inducted to the Canadian Business Hall of Fame.
Mr. Rotman also served as chair of Grand Challenges Canada, a not-for-profit organization funded by the federal government to find ways to use scientific and technological innovation to improve the lives of people in developing countries.
He remained active throughout his life, opting for a double knee replacement in his 70s so he could continue his regular ski trips to Aspen, Colo. He and his wife frequently travelled to Brazil, where the couple indulged their passion for the tango. The pair were also torchbearers for the torch run for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Along with his wife, Sandra, Mr. Rotman leaves a daughter, Janis, and son, Kenneth. His funeral will be held Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.
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