On the cusp of Rogers Communication Inc.’s expansion in the late 1960s, it was Loretta Rogers who personally paid for the first 600,000 metres of cable to be laid, setting the company on course to becoming a $30-billion telecom, sports and media behemoth.
A woman of few words and great insight, the Rogers family matriarch was co-founder of the company and its longest-serving director. Unlike her husband, Ms. Rogers wasn’t one to yell over others during board meetings. Instead, she wielded her considerable influence more subtly, providing Ted Rogers, the hard-driving CEO, with wise counsel until his death in 2008.
Ms. Rogers died peacefully in her bed on June 11 at age 83, after a brief battle with gallbladder cancer. She was surrounded by her daughters and closest friends, who took turns holding her hands.
In addition to the pivotal role she played at the company, Ms. Rogers was also an accomplished painter, a loving mother and grandmother and a generous philanthropist who supported nature conservation, health care and women’s empowerment. Friends and family describe her as an elegant, soft-spoken woman with a great sense of humour who loved to spend time on the water and treated everyone as her equal.
“You would never know that she was a woman of such wealth,” said Judith McMurray, Ms. Rogers’s best friend, who accompanied her on countless adventures aboard the yacht Loretta Anne. Everyone loved Ms. Rogers, Ms. McMurray said, including her staff, whom she treated as extended family. “She was not high-and-mighty.”
She was born Loretta Anne Robinson in London on April 13, 1939, just before the Second World War. Her father, John (Jack) Roland Robinson, was a British Member of Parliament, which made their home a potential target for German bombs. Mr. Robinson and his wife, Maysie (née Gasque), an American heiress to the Woolworth department-store fortune, sent young Loretta and her brother, Richard, to New York, to wait out the war.
When Loretta was a teenager, her father was knighted and raised to the peerage as the First Baron Martonmere, later becoming governor of Bermuda. During this time, Loretta became a rebel. She resisted her mother’s pressure to wear drab, conservative clothing and become a proper lady. Instead, she took up smoking and sailing and adorned herself in bright colours.
She attended Wellesley College, a prestigious private women’s college in Massachusetts, but found it too snobby and transferred to the University of Miami. She excelled in both art and math and was instructed to pick one or the other but refused to do so and pursued both, her daughter, Martha Rogers, said.
Mr. Rogers entered her life in 1957, when he attended a party at the Robinsons’ winter getaway in Lyford Cay, an exclusive enclave on the western tip of New Providence Island in the Bahamas. After a six-year courtship they were married on Sept. 25, 1963, at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, in London.
Ms. Rogers’s parents bought the couple a house on Frybrook Road, in Toronto’s upscale Forest Hill neighbourhood, not far from where Mr. Rogers’s mother lived. The Robinsons also advanced their daughter money from her inheritance to invest in her husband’s business ventures, according to Caroline Van Hasselt’s biography, High Wire Act: Ted Rogers and the Empire that Debt Built. This gave Ms. Rogers a seat on the fledgling company’s board.
When Mr. Rogers, who had started out in radio, got the idea of venturing into cable, his wife recognized the nascent industry’s potential. “Loretta, who was by now a full-fledged business partner, lent me $225,000 from her family trust, and on May 3 we paid Bell the first $200,000 down payment for 600,000 metres of cable to be installed,” Mr. Rogers wrote in his autobiography, Relentless: The True Story of the Man Behind Rogers Communications, co-written with Robert Brehl.
Mr. and Ms. Rogers took on enormous financial risks to build Rogers Communications Inc. into a telecom and media giant, mortgaging their home several times – something they had promised her parents they would never do.
“She was a rock of support for Ted,” said David Peterson, the former Ontario premier, who previously served on the Rogers board. “She had faith when nobody else did.”
The couple, who initially had trouble conceiving, adopted their first child, Lisa, in 1967. Ms. Rogers later gave birth to three children – Edward, Melinda and Martha.
She was a tolerant mother who let her kids keep crabs in their bathtub in Nassau. “Our home, growing up, was like a farm,” said Ms. Rogers’s daughter Melinda Rogers-Hixon, rattling off a partial list of animals that she and her siblings kept as pets: ducks, chickens, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish, dogs and cats.
Ms. Rogers’s daughters attended Bishop Strachan School, a private girls school housed in a stunning neo-Gothic style structure. Ms. Rogers sat on the board and was a significant fundraiser for the institution. “She just loved the school and what it was doing for young women, making them so self-confident,” said Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a friend of the Rogers family for over 30 years. “Women’s empowerment was really important to her.”
Mr. and Ms. Rogers balanced each other out. He was mercurial and excitable; she, calm and stoic. When the pair entertained, Mr. Rogers would slip away after dinner and disappear into his work binders, Toronto Mayor John Tory said, leaving guests to chat with his wife. “She was the one that kind of carried the social end of things,” said Mr. Tory, who has known the Rogers family for decades and worked at the company as president of the cable division before entering politics.
Ms. Rogers possessed a quiet power. Although she could, at times, come off as shy, she was a formidable woman with business savvy who wasn’t afraid to tell her husband what she thought, those closest to her say. “Ted had ideas and he would just grab them and start to go with them and sometimes they needed a sober second thought. I think she was often the one that made sure that happened,” Mr. Tory said.
When members of the family or the company wanted to influence Mr. Rogers, they would often voice their concerns to Ms. Rogers, who, during a quiet moment with her husband, could nudge him in the right direction. “I don’t know how she would do it,” Ms. Rogers-Hixon said. “It was such a subtle way of influencing, but it was pretty incredible.”
Last fall, the Rogers family found itself divided after Ms. Rogers’s son, Edward, tried to fire the company’s then-CEO, Joe Natale, and replace him with chief financial officer Tony Staffieri. Ms. Rogers backed her daughters Melinda and Martha, as well as a majority of the company’s independent directors, who opposed the move. (Unlike her siblings, Lisa is not a director at Rogers, but she serves alongside them on the 10-person advisory committee to the Rogers Control Trust, which controls the telecom through its ownership of 97.5 per cent of its voting class A shares. At the height of the conflict, Lisa did not vote in favour of a motion supported by her mother and two sisters to block Edward from exercising voting control of the company.)
The conflict that erupted, which eventually landed in a B.C. courtroom, was exactly the kind of public spectacle that Mr. Rogers would have wanted to avoid, and friends say it took a heavy toll on Ms. Rogers. In the end, the court handed Edward Rogers a victory, allowing him to replace five of the wireless giant’s independent directors, including Mr. Peterson, and install Mr. Staffieri as CEO.
Ms. Rogers lived in perpetual summer, splitting her time between her cottage on Tobin Island in Muskoka, where she ran a painting group out of a 15-by-15-foot cabin, and her home in the Bahamas. She loved to be outdoors, particularly on the Loretta Anne, a navy-hulled, 154-foot yacht that she designed.
“She was really a water baby,” said Inta Kierans, another of Ms. Rogers’s closest friends, who accompanied her and Ms. McMurray on trips down south. The three women, who had been friends for decades, played tennis until their aging joints forced them to switch to water sports such as snorkeling and scuba diving, an activity that Ms. Rogers picked up in her 60s.
“She loved the underwater world, and she painted it,” said renowned Canadian artist Robert Bateman, who took part in regular painting retreats at Ms. Rogers’s properties in Muskoka and in the Bahamas.
Ms. Rogers was a skilled and prolific artist, whose nature paintings line a long hallway, dubbed Loretta’s Walk, on the 10th floor of the telecom’s Toronto headquarters.
“Loretta’s paintings were very bright,” said Birgit Freybe Bateman, Mr. Bateman’s wife. “She loved the turquoise water and the corals, and the wonderful tropical fish, and she realized that if she could paint it, then she could take it back with her to Toronto.”
She was also a passionate supporter of nature conservation. She funded an initiative to save turtles in Central Ontario, and her group of Tobin Island artists illustrated a children’s book called Larry the Loon, written by Ms. McMurray, the proceeds of which went to the Canadian Wildlife Federation. “She always tried to protect nature, endangered species, shorelines and water,” Martha Rogers said.
One year, Ms. Rogers and her adventurous friends, then in their 70s, set out on a bucket-list trip: swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Belize. They enjoyed the experience so much that they went back several times. “We were spoiled,” Ms. Kierans said.
Ms. Rogers enjoyed shopping at Costco – she loved the hot dogs – and doing crossword and sudoku puzzles. She liked to play Mexican Train, a modern version of Dominoes, and was great at cards. “She beat me probably nine out of 10 times,” said Dr. Bernie Gosevitz, Ms. Rogers’s family doctor, who bonded with her over their shared love of steak tartare and mystery novels. “She had a mind like a steel trap.”
Ms. Rogers sat on several boards, including the University Health Network and the Canadian Lyford Cay Foundation. She also contributed generously to research into heart health and eating disorders, including by establishing the Loretta A. Rogers Heart Function Chair, a position held by the cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross.
Dr. Ross first met Ms. Rogers when she was looking after Mr. Rogers. The connection blossomed into a friendship after Ms. Rogers took a keen interest in the research that her donation was funding, Dr. Ross said. “When you find somebody who’s truly a class act, formidable but down to earth, all wrapped up into one package – that’s a rare thing.”
Ms. Rogers leaves her children, Lisa, Edward, Melinda and Martha; and seven grandchildren.
Her generosity and kindness were legendary.
In 2008, during the reception that followed her husband’s funeral, Ms. Rogers shrugged off the fact that uninvited guests were stuffing their pockets with food that staff at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel had laid out for mourners.
“They’re hungry,” Ms. Rogers said when asked whether she wanted the half-dozen or so funeral crashers to be shown the door.
“They got to sit and relax and fill their bellies,” Ms. Rogers-Hixon said. “That really describes who she was.”