Leonard Asper’s bright, white new offices in mid-town Toronto appear locked in a time warp, as if it’s 2002 all over again.
Walls are lined with memorabilia of his late father Izzy, newspaper pages of business triumphs, and a book on the glorious first 20 years of CanWest Global Communications Corp., which the Asper family built into the country’s third television force.
It is a jarring reminder of how far, how fast, Leonard has fallen – from CEO of Canada’s biggest media company to seeing it slip away in bankruptcy protection and asset sales. Now, he is reconstructing his career on the platform of a “combat sports” TV channel.
Mr. Asper, boyish-looking in blue jeans and blazer, explains that he is randomly pulling stuff out of boxes to fill his bare walls. Still, this immersion in past glories fits with his mindset – that CanWest’s demise was an unlucky accident, one bad break in a lifetime trajectory of success.
Asked what he learned from the collapse, he says: “It was a comet hitting the Earth, basically.” In hindsight, he might have built better safety cushions in CanWest’s debt-heavy capital structure, but he could not have anticipated the worst financial meltdown in 80 years.
“We had cushions for every possible normal eventuality, but probably not for Halley’s Comet,” he says.
It is a response that will anger critics who believe Mr. Asper, by loading up on debt for big, fanciful acquisitions in newspapers and specialty channels, placed CanWest in the path of the onrushing fireball.
But in the education of Leonard Asper, the big lesson is that life occasionally hands you a beating – and then you pick yourself up off the canvas and start punching again.
He recognizes that outsiders will take their shots, but insists he knows best the inside story of how he tried to save the company. “I have enough friends in the financial and business world who know what happened, and no one is saying to me, ‘You screwed up.’ I try to give myself a very hard cold analysis about what happened and I think I did what I could.”
If CanWest could have just held on for another quarter, the economic rebound could have lifted it through the crisis, he concludes – which means we might be sitting not in the nice-but-nondescript offices of his holding company, but on the 31st floor at Winnipeg’s Portage and Main, where he once ruled as a media titan.
This positive frame of mind comes naturally – he works out a lot and doesn’t lose sleep in the most trying times. He will need this detached composure as he strives to be a player again, which he believes is within his grasp.
“I just know what I can do – I just know what it takes to succeed. I am 100-per-cent confident that I’ve got it,” he says.
This is the first time since the breakup of CanWest that he has talked openly about the debacle – though he is clearly more interested in discussing Fight Network, the specialty channel in which he recently bought a 30-per-cent interest, with an option for majority control.
If CanWest was Izzy’s baby, the Fight Network is Leonard’s newly adopted wild child, a scrappy street fighter that speaks to his inner Sugar Ray Leonard. But he insists it is not about forging a comeback because he hasn’t really gone anywhere.
“I won’t ever acknowledge there is some place to come back from. Just mentally and intellectually I can’t get my head around that. I look at it as ‘what happened, happened.’ ”
He is saddened over losses to shareholders – which include himself – and for some former employees. Still, “it was not some epic failure but I look at it as the ups and downs of business.”
Mr. Asper’s undimmed entrepreneurial flame seems rational when you consider that, even after being CanWest CEO for more than a decade, he is turning 47 this month. He is only four years older than his lawyer father Izzy was when, reeling from political setbacks as Manitoba Liberal Leader, he plunged into the broadcast business. Among his key acquisitions was a rival TV station KCND in North Dakota, which he packed up and moved to Winnipeg.