The Fight Network is Leonard’s KCND, a small asset on which he hopes to build a big company. He says he is in a much better position than his father in the mid-1970s, because he has the positive legacy of CanWest to grow on – great experience, wide global contacts, and good personal wealth still in hand.
When Izzy bought KCND, he had little hands-on business experience, but he leveraged his Winnipeg assets to buy into a new Toronto-based superstation called Global, which had fallen on hard times.
Thus began the turbulent saga of CanWest Global, which the older Mr. Asper built into a national network to rival CBC and CTV. Izzy Asper had three lawyer children, and in 1999, he promoted his 35-year-old youngest son Leonard to CEO, with David and Gail playing roles in philanthropy and real estate and on the CanWest board.
With visions of cross-media synergies, the Aspers stunned the business world in 2000 by buying the Southam newspaper chain from Conrad Black for $3.2-billion.
But Izzy Asper died suddenly in 2003, leaving Leonard alone holding the reins. To fill CanWest’s vacuum in specialty TV channels, Leonard in 2007 bought Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc. and its stable of channels for $2.3-billion in a controversial partnership with U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs.
He argues that the deal has turned out to be “an absolute winner,” and he would do it again tomorrow. It buoys Mr. Asper’s self-confidence as a deal maker in his own right as he takes another run at the brass ring.
But there is one clear regret – he should have relied less heavily on debt and more on equity to buy newspapers, which proved to be a non-growth asset. That decision, of course, was made with his father at a time when the marriage of TV and newspapers was trumpeted by the Aspers as magical.
Even so, that debt proved manageable for nearly a decade, he insists, until the global economy went south in spectacular fashion. The newspaper subsidiary breached a covenant, and blood-smelling hedge funds exploited the wound and circled the entire organization.
In other recessions, he might have ridden out the crisis through refinancing and asset sales, but the historic credit crunch shut down such transactions. There were reports in early 2008 of a bid for CanWest’s Australian interests, but he insists he never saw a solid offer.
The one firm bid, he says, came right on the eve of the financial crisis, when an unidentified player was poised to buy the Australian unit. A solution was at hand, but Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world plunged into freefall. The window closed.
He resigned as CEO in 2010 and made a futile bid to hold on to the television interests. In the final selloff, the broadcast part went to Shaw Communications Inc. and the newspapers were wrapped into a new company, Postmedia Network Canada Corp.
Leonard says he is hardly blasé about the outcome – “I’m very pissed off at what happened” – but he wants to do his talking through his actions. “I like business, the rough and tumble, and I just want to go back to what I was doing at CanWest – every day I walked in and asked how we could do it better.”
He is heartened that so many older, successful entrepreneurs had a “CanWest moment” in their earlier careers – such as gold baron Peter Munk who as a young man was at the helm of a consumer electronics firm that flamed out in the 1960s.
Mr. Asper feels Canada, and particularly its media, is brutal in the treatment of entrepreneurs who try and fail and try again. Contrast this to the United States where entrepreneurs shoot for the stars and when they miss, pick themselves up and do it again without being stigmatized as unregenerate losers.
On Bay Street and in the broader Canadian business world, the serious players aren’t nearly as hard on each other, he points out. They accept the hard knocks of commerce, where winners are never as smart as they look and losers never as stupid. “It’s a lot like hockey. Someone loses a playoff game when the puck goes in off a skate but it could have gone the other way at the other end.”
And he does not speculate on whether the wily, combative Izzy might have wriggled out of the final CanWest crisis. “I try not to think of it, because I think you’d kill yourself,” Leonard says. He just knows that life can dish out second acts – he points to the old Winnipeg Jets souvenir rug under his meeting table. He likes to paraphrase the counsel of his father’s onetime partner, financier Gerry Schwartz: “You’re young, you have money, you have time.”