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Report On Business ‘He tried, desperately’: Calgary business titan George Gosbee’s secret struggle with mental illness and alcoholism

mental health

The secret struggle of a Calgary titan

George Gosbee at the annual Alberta Economic Summit at Mount Royal College in 2013 in Calgary.

He was the exemplar of a new generation of Alberta entrepreneurs. He built an investment bank from nothing – earning huge wealth, acclaim and the ear of Justin Trudeau. But beneath the veneer of business success, there was another side to George Gosbee – one of mental illness and alcoholism. The family he left behind tells their story.

From the outside, George Gosbee appeared to have it all.

He was a big player in the Calgary business establishment, a man who could get the ear of fund managers, chief executive officers and finance ministers. When Justin Trudeau was preparing for a run at the Prime Minister's job, he sought out the financier for advice on economic policy.

With business success came great wealth and status, including membership in the small, elite club of people who have owned a piece of a National Hockey League franchise. Meanwhile, he also tried to live a life with meaning – one that included mountain-climbing expeditions to Kilimanjaro and Antarctica.

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But away from public view, the wunderkind investment banker was a man tormented by a near-constant struggle with alcoholism and mental illness, members of his family say.

"This was at the heels of him all the time," said his widow, Karen Gosbee.

George Gosbee's death by suicide on Nov. 12, at 48 years old, shocked Alberta's financial community, where he was known as a risk taker and consummate salesman, and had been an abiding presence for more than two decades.

Karen is speaking because she believes George's private pain is far from unique. In a series of interviews with The Globe and Mail, she said her husband created a business legacy that won't be forgotten, but his family saw a much different version of the man.

He had long tried to manage his mental illness and his drinking, Karen said. George had attempted suicide once before sending him to a Calgary hospital in late 2014, she revealed. He had been in addiction-treatment facilities twice, and joined a 12-step program. For more than a year, the founder of AltaCorp Capital Inc. had been living separately from his family to give him the space to recover, Karen said.

George Gosbee’s family, seen in 2014, saw a much different picture of the man seen by the business world.

"A lot of people saw him as so accomplished and so externally validated," she said. But, she wants people to know, that if this could happen to someone like him, it could happen to anyone.

"Maybe people will have more of an empathetic ear to other leaders out in the business community."

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George's frenetic energy – along with good timing – helped make him the exemplar of a new generation of Alberta oil-and-gas entrepreneurs. At just 30 years old, he used what he said was "a couple hundred grand" to create his own investment firm, Tristone Capital Global Inc., just as Canada's energy sector was heading into a boom period. He went on to sell it nine years later, 2009, for staggering $130-million. But a year later, he was starting his next investment firm, AltaCorp, in partnership with the Alberta government-owned ATB Financial. Meanwhile, his big picture economic patriotism – he spoke of growing underdeveloped Alberta sectors such as technology and agri-food – saw him selected for other plum roles, including a spot on the board of the province's $70-billion pension fund.

And after the federal government participated in the bailout of two U.S. auto makers in 2009, he was tapped by Ottawa to represent the government on the board of Chrysler Group LLC. Jim Flaherty, the finance minister at the time, looked to him for advice.

These tributes were laid out alongside his demons at his funeral. The Anglican priest officiating the celebration of life talked about George's "shadows," his self-medication and substance abuse. Karen said she was approached by several people who told her about their own depression or suicidal thoughts.

"Lord knows there are so many people that came up to me," she said. "So why can't they tell their best friend?"

While still grieving, Karen believes her husband's story can help others. In one way or another, she says, mental health is an issue for most families – right across the socio-economic spectrum. The Gosbees now believe that one of the first steps in dealing with mental illness is removing the shame, and "normalizing" discussions around it.

"A lot of people know him only as that public figure – the one that's always smiling," said John Gosbee, 23, their oldest son.

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"They don't see really what's underneath the surface, or kind of what he was battling with the majority of his time," John said. "With the social stigma, he thought maybe he could beat it by himself."

When George and Karen met in their early 20s at the University of Calgary, they bonded over a similar sense of humour and George's medical history. Karen's father is a neurologist, and George had undergone surgery at 21 for a benign tumour.

Even before he was fully recovered from his surgery, and while he was still attending university, he went to work for the brokerage Peters & Co. Ltd. – a move that would start his swift rise in Calgary's investment banking community. Following Peters & Co, he worked as managing director at Newcrest Capital Inc., another independent firm.

He and Karen married in 1994. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but Karen said he didn't take his prescription for a Ritalin-like medication because he was worried about it slowing him down as he conquered the business world. Later, he was diagnosed with depression, and explored treatments for other disorders including borderline personality and bipolar, she said.

At the same time, regular binge drinking was part of his life.

"All I know is that there was a mental-health component and there was substance abuse," she said. "I can't determine what came first."

In 2000, George founded Tristone, which quickly made a name for itself in financing and deal-making for junior oil companies and energy trusts, which were a hot sector at the time. Early in the firm's history, George brought in people with deep technical expertise, making Tristone a major force in the business of acquisitions and divestitures of oil and gas properties. The boutique dealer grew quickly – especially as oil prices ratcheted up beginning in 2004 – and opened offices in London, Houston, Denver and Buenos Aires.

The Gosbees' three children were young, and George worked long hours and travelled around the world for work. But John said when he was home in Calgary, he was present – attending hockey games and taking the kids to indoor climbing gyms when the weather was too cold to go outside.

"He supported us. He was a really kind father – really, really kind," John said.

"He gave us everything. And later … he kind of became a recluse."

Karen said that up until 2008, George was a heavy drinker. But that was the year it accelerated. Alcohol became an everyday thing, and binge drinking would happen three or four times a week. At times, he combined alcohol and sleeping pills, heightening his family's concern.

He would go a whole day without eating, or would pass out at the dinner table, Karen said. Someone in the family would talk to him by phone in the afternoon, and they could tell he was drinking – and a plan was hatched to get him home. The kids didn't ask him to come to their school or sports events. They avoided talking about his work because it made him more stressed.

"The family was all working around it," Karen said. "It was one of those things where the family was trying to hide it … you're on high alert."

The year 2008 was an intense time for George – indeed, for many people in the financial industry. Financial contagion had set off a sickening crash in markets and oil prices, and George, along with everyone else, was worried about losses. But Karen said the heavy drinking didn't stop when markets recovered, and is loath to point to economic or business factors as the reason for his problems.

"It was a big thing for George, in that one, because a lot of people suffered," she said of the financial-crisis period. "But there will always be a reason to drink, or to use."

In 2007, he had began a seven-year stint as vice-chairman of Alberta Investment Management Corporation ( AIMCo) – the province's newly created pension and endowment fund – which became one of his proudest business accomplishments, John said. In 2008, he was appointed to Mr. Flaherty's Economic Advisory Council. Next came the Chrysler board appointment, "to make sure the Canadian government's investment is well managed," George said. At the time, he regularly made lists of the most influential Canadian businesspeople.

In the same period, George sold the company he had built from the ground up. In May, 2009, Australia's Macquarie Group paid $130-million to acquire the 170-employee Tristone. He later said he sold it reluctantly, at the urging of other shareholders.

Karen Gosbee and her son John at a park near their home in Calgary, Dec. 21, 2017.

In 2013, George headed a Canadian group that purchased the Arizona Coyotes, and he was credited with playing a major role in keeping the troubled franchise in Phoenix. But the group, which included Canadian oilmen looking for a business legacy beyond the energy sector, sold their controlling interest in the NHL team a year later.

Even while George struggled personally, Karen believes he still excelled in the business world.

She tried to look after him. There had been addiction in her own family when she was growing up, and she believes there was a strong element of co-dependency in their relationship. She wanted to "save him."

But eventually, Karen said she realized she needed to create a healthy example for their children. She started attending Al-Anon in 2013, and has since taken addiction-studies courses at Mount Royal University.

"I detached with love," she said. "I needed to do my own recovery if there was any chance that I was going to be able to mentor that for my kids, and for George to grow, too."

In December, 2014, Karen was in emergency at Calgary's Foothills hospital with George after his first suicide attempt. She was rapidly laying out plans to get him into the best addiction-treatment facility available when a blunt-speaking psychiatrist told her to stop – that George would only get help when he decided for himself he wanted to act.

"He leaned over and he's like, 'Hon, it doesn't matter what rehab place he goes to. He needs to decide to get better.'"

George did make the decision to do something. He entered a substance abuse treatment centre on New Year's Day in 2015. Karen said George worried once he stopped drinking, it wouldn't be as easy for him to socialize for work – as so many business relationships were formed at a bar.

"That was a big fear … when he had to quit and he wouldn't be able to do a lot of that stuff. How would he function in those circles?"

Relapse is a part of recovery, and George was back to treatment in July, 2016. When he left, he began living separately from the family to work on himself, Karen said. He was attending Alcoholics Anonymous. She and John, and younger siblings Carter and Isla, still saw and spoke to him regularly. There was no legal separation, and the couple had recently started therapy sessions to determine where their relationship was going, Karen said.

There was also regular yoga for George, and mountain climbing – including 2017 expeditions to Mount Kilimanjaro, Antarctica's Vinson Massif and an attempt at Everest that his son John said kept him "balanced."

"He tried, desperately," Karen said. Someone like George, she said, was used to having solutions and results instantaneously. "But in recovery, it just doesn't happen that way."

John said his father at one time had a good connection with his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, but George had recently "seemed to kind of let go of the relationship."

"You would have maybe thought he would always battle with this, but … it wouldn't come to this abrupt end," John said of his father's suicide.

"To be honest it seemed like it came out of nowhere, because with his expeditions he seemed like he was the healthiest he had ever been before."

John, who is studying chemical engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, is plain-spoken about his father's strengths and his trials. In his eulogy at the funeral on Nov. 18, John spoke about George's talent and work ethic, his delighted grin expressing that "he got what wanted from you before you even had a chance" and his push to have his children attend university and see the world.

John also said his father did everything he could to try to defeat his illness.

"We can only imagine the weight burdened on him as he trudged through each day, each hour, each minute," he said in the eulogy.

"I know now that these ghosts no longer lurk behind him, and hold him down. He is now light."

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