When Ted Rogers turned 50, in 1983, he received a gift from Robin Korthals, a friend who was then president of the Toronto-Dominion Bank. It was a fake loan document, offering him a TD personal line of credit for $50 billion. Rogers appreciated the joke, even if he felt it overstated his debt habit. In his autobiography, he calculated that all of his companies had borrowed “not much more than $30 billion” over three decades. And raised a grand total of $4.5 billion in equity.
That was classic Ted Rogers—the gambling, debt-loving workaholic who built the biggest and most ambitious cable, wireless and media empire that Canada has ever seen. His life story, and that of Rogers Communications Inc., included brushes with creditors—he came within hours of losing the company in the 1970s—moments of brilliance, and deal after deal after deal. His high-wire act was always going to be difficult to follow. In March, 2009, shortly after his death, that task fell to Nadir Mohamed.
Now Mohamed is leaving, making way for Vodafone executive Guy Laurence, who becomes the new chief executive on Dec. 2. And if you listen to the whispers coming from Rogers HQ, Mohamed’s reign was a less-than-glorious period. There is the crude scorecard of the stock market, where Rogers has underperformed BCE Inc. and Telus Corp., both of which have offered returns of more than 120% since March 31, 2009. (Rogers’s return in that time was 82%, including dividends.) There is the loss of dominance in the company’s most important business, wireless, where Rogers no longer whips the telcos in the race for new subscribers. And there is the alleged coziness with the mortal enemy of Bell (which, by the way, owns 15% of The Globe and Mail).
During an interview with this magazine in 2005, Ted Rogers smacked his fist into his palm and said of BCE: “If they screw us around too much, I’ll screw them around where it really hurts.” But last year, Rogers and the evil Bell completed a deal that saw the two become equal partners in controlling Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. Each now owns 37.5% of the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Raptors and Toronto FC, and they share the broadcast rights to the games. Equal partners? With those guys? Nadir, what were you thinking?
All of that, however, does not give the whole picture. I think the record will show that Mohamed took one of the biggest jobs in Canada at precisely the worst time anyone could get it.
Ted Rogers died on Dec. 2, 2008. It was the middle of the great financial crisis. For the previous year and a half, BCE had been distracted by a takeover drama; it was due to be taken private in one of the biggest leveraged buyouts ever.
On Dec. 11, the BCE deal died. Over the next 12 months, pretty much everything changed in the Canadian wireless business. With new boss George Cope—and without tens of billions in new debt from a buyout—BCE woke from its multiyear slumber. For example: One reason Rogers was winning in wireless was that it had about 400 more retail outlets than Bell. So, Cope bought The Source to add 750 stores that would sell only Bell phones. That was in early March, 2009—when the Rogers board was still dithering about naming a new CEO.
BCE and Telus did something else in 2009. They finished building a wireless network capable of handling the iPhone. At the time, it didn’t seem like such a big deal: The BlackBerry (ha!) was still Canada’s dominant smartphone. But the move proved important once Apple’s glass box became the phone of choice for hip urbanites. Rogers lost a lucrative monopoly.
Several weeks later, the federal cabinet overturned a CRTC ruling and allowed foreign-backed Wind Mobile to start a wireless operation in Canada. Wind and another newcomer, Mobilicity, had spent nearly $700 million on wireless licences. They needed subscribers fast, so they attacked the biggest markets first, namely Toronto, Rogers’s backyard. A price war ensued, but more than that, the Harper government’s view of the industry changed. Lower phone bills proved popular. Wireless competition has become a permanent fixture of government policy, and bashing the Big Three is a proven political strategy.
So the game has changed. In the years before Ted Rogers died, his company prospered like never before—partly because of his shrewd dealmaking but also because the political landscape was benign, its main competitor was a zombie, the wireless industry was an oligopoly of three, and capital markets were open to a company that carried a large burden of debt. By the time Mohamed became the boss, the politicians were hostile, BCE had emerged from the crypt, the wireless business included at least five competitors in the big cities, the capital markets were a total mess and most investors didn’t even want to look at a company with too much debt.
Even a deal-crazy genius would have trouble with that.