One of the first things you notice about Rai Sahi is his voice, a bass gurgle that, after its owner has had a couple glasses of wine, can project across a room like a voice-over for a suspense-flick trailer. One on one, he's voluble: He regales you with anecdotes about his childhood in India, or episodes from an investing career marked with conquests in everything from trucking to golf courses.
But Sahi tends to get a little anxious when he's forced into public speaking. Take the event last January in the library at the plush King Valley Golf Club, nestled in the hills north of Toronto. Before Sahi were some two dozen captains of industry, assembled for a lavish tribute to Rob Franklin. The occasion was Franklin's imminent departure as chairman of ClubLink Corp., owner of King Valley and 29 other courses in Ontario and Quebec.
Franklin, who has decades of experience in Canadian boardrooms, most notably as chairman of Placer Dome Inc., had sat on ClubLink's board for 10 years. For eight of those years he'd also been chairman. Franklin was leaving ClubLink because he had been ousted in the aftermath of a hostile takeover bid. Through dinner, several of the guests rose to say a few words of tribute to Franklin. When it came time for Sahi to speak, he turned and looked at Franklin.
There was a pregnant silence.
The moment was awkward because it was Sahi who had forced Franklin from the job he loved. "There's a lot of animosity between us," Sahi explains, retrospectively. "It was tense," acknowledges ClubLink director Brian Semkowski. "Like one of those kids' dances when everyone's on one side or the other and no one wants to be the first on the dance floor."
Sahi finally did speak-we'll come back to that-but the significance of the incident is not what he said but that he would speak at all. It illustrates the Sahi style. Yes, he would partake in the sendoff for someone he deposed, because in Sahi's view, it's just business.
ClubLink was neither the largest nor the nastiest battle to be staged in Canadian business last year. It wasn't even the biggest battle in Rai Sahi's career. But it held symbolic importance to spare. Founded in 1993 by golf course owner Bruce Simmonds, ClubLink had grown into an empire of 30 18-hole courses, with more than 9,000 members and annual revenues of $107 million. ClubLink owns many of the jewels in the business, from Oakville's Glen Abbey, historical home of the Canadian Open, to Muskoka's Rocky Crest, one of the country's top-flight resort courses. You could not, in other words, get any more Establishment. Owning ClubLink would consolidate Sahi's membership in the upper echelon of Canadian business. Not bad for a farmer's son from the Punjab.
Although he's not well known in the mainstream, at 57, Sahi has become one of Canada's preeminent investors. The Sahi strategy is to find a fragmented industry crying out for economies of scale and the fruit-profits-that falls thick on the ground in the wake of consolidation. Once he identifies a target sector, Sahi buys his way in by investing in a vulnerable company, then manoeuvres aggressively to increase his holdings. "His style is to put the seed money in, manage the investment over time and then become a 100% owner," says Frank Munsters, a long-time VP at Sahi companies. It's a strategy Sahi employed successfully first in trucking and then in auto-parts distribution. Now, ClubLink notwithstanding, the focus is real estate, via a family of companies that Sahi controls through Morguard Corp.
His ascent means that he has no rival as a role model in Canada's East Indian community, save for his friend Prem Watsa, CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc. "On Bay Street, in the East Indian community?" asks Steve Gupta, a Toronto hotelier and long-time member of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce. "He is the guy." Sahi is a role model for up-and-coming East Indian professionals, according to Gupta, and a pillar of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce.
The best business advice Sahi ever received was something he heard when he was the captain of Punjab University's wrestling team in the late '60s. Faced with an opponent who was both larger and stronger, Sahi asked his coach for some combat tips. "You just have to be smarter," the coach said.
The fourth son of a Hindu middle-class farming family that was displaced from what is now Pakistan to India's Punjab province by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, Sahi (pronounced SAW-hee) emigrated to Canada in 1971, following the lead of his oldest brother, who had become an engineer at Northern Telecom.
Arriving in Montreal, the 24-year-old Sahi was university-educated-thanks to a wrestling scholarship-but could only find work unloading boxcars for $1.50 an hour, due to his halting English.
Not a problem for long. Scant months later, Sahi began selling life insurance in Kingston, where he also studied for his certified general accountant designation. By 1977 he had his CGA and had begun a five-year stint with the Bank of Montreal in Calgary and Toronto, eventually handling real-estate loans. Sahi made his move in 1982. "I was lending money to a lot of different businesses and meeting a lot of different entrepreneurs," he says. "Gradually I realized I could become an entrepreneur too."
An accountant friend alerted Sahi to a business in Penetanguishene, Ont., that would shortly be put up for sale. Its name was as mundane as its product: Advanced Extrusion Ltd., a manufacturer of toothpaste tubes, among other things, that generated profits of $1 million annually. Leveraging his contacts at the bank-and his own house-Sahi, along with partners, bought the company for $7 million. Taking advantage of the depreciating Canadian dollar, Sahi and company increased exports to the States and installed a high-speed assembly line. By the time he sold his stake in the company in 1984, its revenues had doubled to $16 million.
With his share of the proceeds, Sahi embarked on an acquisition spree that continues to this day. Within months of the Advanced Extrusion sale, he bought into Consolidated Fastfrate Transport, a trucking company with sales of $35 million. He then bought Kingsway Transport Group from Paul Martin's CSL Group Inc. (the transaction sparked a friendship with the Liberal leadership candidate that continues to this day). The consolidated Consolidated, so to speak, was christened CF Kingsway Inc. It eventually charted sales of $300 million as Canada's third-largest trucker; meanwhile, Sahi was buying out his fellow investors. In 1988, he sold CF Kingsway to Winnipeg-based Federal Industries for $70 million.
As part of the deal, Sahi ended up with a stake in Federal and a seat on its board. What he found in Federal was a company lacking in Rai Sahi-type focus. Under CEO and later chairman John (Jack) Fraser, the onetime Winnipeg grain handler had sprawled into 27 businesses ranging from steel pipe to bookstores. Federal fared poorly in the recession of the early '90s, losing $134 million on revenues of $1.38 billion in 1991.
Sahi soon began to encourage Fraser to narrow its focus, onto Federal's metals distribution business, specifically. When Fraser didn't move fast enough for Sahi, he resigned from Federal's board, in 1993.
By the spring of 1997, Fraser's company had changed its name to Russel Metals Inc., but remained something of a mess, having lost almost $120 million in 1996. Sahi saw his moment. In April of 1997, he mailed a proxy to Russel shareholders that proposed to turf Fraser and replace most of his board. Suddenly Sahi found himself typecast as an ill-mannered usurper. He received a call from Prem Watsa, who counselled against the fight: It wasn't worth making enemies of the Establishment. Sahi disagreed. Business was business, according to Sahi, and a board chair in Fraser's position should be forced out, regardless of whether, like Fraser, he had the Order of Canada. To Sahi, business is colourblind; he says he's never felt discriminated against.
The battle lasted until the eleventh hour: At midnight on the eve of Russel's general meeting, with neither side certain how a vote would turn out, Sahi arrived at a compromise. He dropped the proxy fight and won a seat on Russel's board. In return, both Fraser and Russel chief executive John Pelton resigned.
Sahi sold out later that year. Pelton's successor as chief executive, Bud Siegel Jr., carried out the mission of right-sizing the company. However, Siegel says, he didn't get much credit from Bay Street. "People were under the impression that Rai was the catalyst for all the good things that were going on at Russel," Siegel says. "We'd go and see the institutional investors and they'd say things, like, 'Boy, Rai is really pushing you guys.' And I'd say, 'Rai? Rai who?' Rai had nothing to do with us.
"What he does is, he buys things that are undervalued, pretties them up and then sells them for as much money as he possibly can.... Rai is very good at promoting Rai, and consequently, he has this reputation of coming in, stirring up the pot and leaving a company better than when he found it." In fact, Siegel says, Sahi posed a problem to Russel management because of his incessant efforts to peddle off various parcels of the company, which distracted from day-to-day operations. "Sahi was trying to get his stock out of Russel at the highest possible price," Siegel says. "At the end of the day, he was a nuisance on the capital markets; on the operations he was a non-event."
For his part, Sahi says, "I don't know whether people gave me credit for that or not. I didn't go around and try to solicit that credit. I don't know why he [Siegel]is saying that-he probably thinks he should have received credit for the turnaround. And, as the CEO, he probably should have."
Sahi's biggest triumph began unfolding in 1990, when he bought a 23% stake in Acklands Ltd., a distributor of industrial supplies and auto parts. The company was a century old, and showing its age: Over the previous three years, Acklands had lost $33 million and gone through three presidents. "A lot of people thought that business was going in the dumpster," says Wayne McLeod, who bought Advanced Extrusion from Sahi and his partners. Soon after he got control, Sahi embarked on another dizzying round of consolidations, racking up 33 acquisitions in five years. Acklands emerged as Canada's second-largest aftermarket auto-parts distributor and its largest distributor of industrial and safety products. Revenue tripled to almost $900 million; likewise share price, to $15.
Time to move on. Sahi sold or spun off the parts of his new empire over the course of six months in 1996-'97. The deals left the original company, Acklands, with $300 million in cash.
Sahi decided to try his hand at real estate. Five years later, Acklands has undergone two name changes-it's now called Morguard Corp. Sahi owns about 40% of the publicly traded company. Having taken over such firms as Goldlist Properties Inc. and Revenue Properties Co., Morguard is emerging as a Canadian real estate powerhouse, with holdings in residential, industrial and corporate real estate, as well as possessing a substantial property management arm.
That's not all. It controls or manages assets worth about $5 billion. Morguard has a 31.7% stake in Toronto-based computer leasing firm MFP Financial Services Ltd., whose lucrative contracts with the cities of Toronto and Waterloo have been the subject of official inquiries. (Sahi wants to sell.) Sahi also owns 70% of Tri-White Corp., a spinoff of Russel Metals whose prime asset is a narrow-gauge mountain railway in Alaska and the Yukon that caters to cruise-ship tourists.
Tri-White was also the vehicle for the ClubLink deal, which was an anomaly for Sahi-an investment not made on a foundation of number-crunching.
Which is not to say Sahi is one of those businessmen whose judgment is clouded by jockiness. His house (he is married and has two grown children) is only a short walk from the Mississauga Golf and Country Club, but he rarely takes the stroll. He golfs for business, not pleasure (he scores between 100 and 125). No, the thing that made Sahi suspend his usual discipline with ClubLink was just that the price was so good.
The chance came just before Labour Day weekend in 2001. At the time, the largest stake in ClubLink was owned by the world's leading golf course and resort owner, Dallas-based ClubCorp USA Inc. On the Thursday before Labour Day, ClubCorp's chief operating officer, James Hinckley, called Sahi at home. Would Sahi be interested in buying ClubCorp's stake in ClubLink?
At $7 a share, it would be a $35-million transaction. Sahi wasn't game, but the ClubCorp executive had the persistence of a motivated seller. Having expanded rapidly, ClubCorp found itself in a sudden equity crunch. It needed to offload its Canadian stake by Tuesday, only four days later, or face an uncomfortable rendezvous with a lender. So the price was flexible.
"My senior management unanimously were against the deal," Sahi recalls. When Hinckley followed up on Tuesday at about 11:30 a.m., with only hours to go before the deal's deadline, Sahi surrendered to an impulse.
"I really don't want to do this deal," Sahi said, "but I'll give you a number-we'll buy five million shares at $5 each."
The deal valued the stock block at $25 million- a whopping $10 million less than the asking price. Hinckley gulped and accepted on the condition that Sahi get the money to ClubCorp by 4 p.m. Considering the stock had been trading at a few cents above $6, the deal was a bargain. And it made Sahi into ClubLink's largest shareholder, with 25.1% of the company.
But not a happy shareholder. Problems began soon after Sahi took his seat on ClubLink's board. Sahi says most of the friction was between himself and the duo of Rob Franklin, the chairman, and Bruce Simmonds, the founder, a pair so close that investors nicknamed them "Frik and Frak." One source of contention was Sahi's urging ClubLink to sell extra real estate around courses to generate some cash, which could pay down debt and shine some sun on the stock. "Franklin and I, we had a..." Sahi starts, and then pauses. He starts again: "We didn't agree....At the end of the day we just couldn't be compatible in our thinking. So we launched the takeover bid."
Last September, Sahi floated a $7-per-share offer for the 75% of ClubLink he didn't already own. If someone came in with a higher offer, at $8.50 or $9, he'd sell his shares and take a profit. But even after Sahi brought the price up to $7.75, the committee ClubLink had struck to weigh the bid, headed by investor Bob Poile, bristled at what it regarded as an insultingly low offer, branding it "coercive" and "opportunistic." Citing a study by BMO Nesbitt Burns that valued ClubLink between $10.29 and $12.05 per share, the board advised shareholders not to sell.
In the absence of an alternative offer, the takeover battle was at a stalemate by mid-January: Sahi wouldn't raise his bid, and management couldn't generate another offer. By cellphone during a family vacation in Florida, Sahi negotiated an end to the impasse. On one hand, the deal barred him from increasing his share in the company until June, 2005. On the other, Franklin resigned from the board, and was replaced jointly by Sahi and Bob Poile.
The arrangement seems to be working. With a membership roster of 9,731 at the end of 2002, up more than 30% from the year before, ClubLink's annual revenues are increasing-it logged $107 million in 2002, or $7 million more than in 2001. However, thanks in part to the cost of fighting off Sahi's takeover battle, ClubLink lost four cents a share in 2002.
Some observers wonder, however, how long the good news will continue. Like Sahi, Poile has a reputation for playing investing like a contact sport. Some shareholders doubt whether two such alpha types will be able to work together.
Poile insists the compromise is doable. "I'm very comfortable with the idea of working together with Rai," says Poile. "We're all professionals." One director, who requested anonymity, made a different observation: "With those guys you're swimming with sharks-everybody's trying to bite the tail of the other guy, and you just have to watch that you don't get bitten yourself."
The first board meeting of the détente went smoothly. Afterward, the directors, management and a few guests assembled in King Valley's library for the Rob Franklin sendoff. Before he basked in tributes at dinner, Franklin himself said a few words to each guest. To Sahi, he mentioned only the largest shareholder's indifferent attitude to the game of golf.
Before long came the tense moment when it was Sahi's turn to speak. Finally Sahi told a story. Unknown to most of the participants in the takeover battle, back when ClubCorp was ClubLink's largest shareholder, Simmonds and Franklin had feared the American golf empire would attempt to take over its smaller Canadian partner. After a banquet at a CIBC-sponsored golf function at Glen Abbey, Sahi recalled, Franklin approached him and inquired whether Sahi would be interested in helping out ClubLink if a takeover battle did break out.
The punchline: "I was supposed to be the white knight against ClubCorp. But it turns out later they were looking for a white knight against me!"
ClubLink country: The plan is to encircle major cities with courses
1 Greenhills Golf Club, London
2 Heron Point Golf Links, Ancaster
3 Blue Springs Golf Club, Acton
4 Caledon Woods Golf Club, Bolton
5 Eagle Ridge Golf Club, Georgetown
6 Glencairn Golf Club, Milton
7 Greystone Golf Club, Milton
8 RattleSnake Point Golf Club, Milton
9 Glen Abbey Golf Club, Oakville
10 King Valley Golf Club, King Township
11 King's Riding Golf Club, King Township
12 Highland Gate Golf Club, Aurora
13 Emerald Hills Golf Club, Stouffville
14 DiamondBack Golf Club, Richmond Hill
15 Station Creek Golf Club, Gormley
16 Rolling Hills Golf Club, Gormley
17 Cherry Downs Golf Club, Pickering
18 Rocky Crest Golf Club, Mactier
19 Delta Sherwood Inn, Port Carling
20 Lake Joseph Club, Port Carling
21 Grandview Golf Club, Huntsville
22 Kanata Golf Club, Kanata
23 Club de Golf Hautes Plaines, Gatineau
24 GreyHawk Golf Club, Cumberland
25 Le Maître de Mont-Tremblant, St. Jovite
26 Club de Golf Le Fontainebleau, Montreal
27 Club de Golf Val des Lacs, Ste. Sophie