Conrad Black or Michael Sifton: Which of the two Canadian-born media moguls would you rather have lunch with? No question: Lord Black of Crossharbour is literate, opinionated, impeccably well-connected, a historian with a penchant for gory details, a fabulous raconteur and, in his own pompous and baronial way, funny. Years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked him about the joys of commuting from London to New York by Concorde. "I never take public transportation," he replied.
Now, which of the two would you rather give your money to? Not Black, because the returns on Hollinger Inc. of Toronto-the parent company of Hollinger International, the New York-listed owner of The Daily Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times and The Jerusalem Post-have been unspectacular lately. You might not pick Sifton either, if only because you've never heard of him. If you had, you might just write him a cheque.
Sifton, 43, is the president and CEO of Osprey Media Group, the country's fastest-growing traditional media company and a Sifton family comeback story. For much of the past century, the Siftons were synonymous with Prairie newspapers and now, through Osprey, Sifton is getting back in the game. Osprey owns 22 dailies and 26 weeklies, all in Ontario, including The Kingston Whig-Standard and The Peterborough Examiner. Most were the unloved regional remnants of the Hollinger and CanWest Global newspaper empires. Sifton wants more of them, and bigger names, but not at any cost. Unlike Black, Sifton doesn't care about political influence, or using newspapers to snag a peerage. He wants to make himself and his private investors richer. He's a frugal operator who knows how to squeeze monopoly papers in small- and medium-sized towns for maximum return, not maximum fame.
Sifton is a buyer because Black is a seller. Black sold almost all his big-city dailies, including Montreal's Gazette and the Calgary Herald, to CanWest for about $3.2 billion in 2000. A year later, he sold most of his small Ontario papers to the nascent Osprey group for $250 million. Black is now under enormous pressure from U.S. institutional investors, who accuse him, in effect, of acting like Louis XIV and bleeding peasant shareholders dry. What's left of Hollinger's once-vast portfolio could be dismantled, though Lord Black will fight hard to keep his beloved Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. Without them, he's a peer without a pulpit.
Osprey was formed in 2001 to buy small Hollinger papers. Sifton was then working for Hollinger, and he invested $5 million for 5% of the new company. The rest was divided between the merchant banking arms of Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and Scotiabank, each now in for $75 million. Since Osprey is private, how do we know it's creating value?
A few clues have emerged. Osprey paid the equivalent of seven times EBITDA for the Hollinger papers it bought in 2001. Earlier this year it bought CanWest's community papers for $193.5 million-8.2 times EBITDA. Both multiples are considered bargains. U.S. regional newspapers have gone for 10 times or more.
Another clue comes from Teachers'. Since it started its merchant bank 12 years ago, its investments (including Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment) have earned an impressive 25.6% return on equity. Its Osprey stake has performed similarly well.
Osprey's partners are considering some financial wizardry. An initial public offering is possible. Or Osprey could be backed into a larger media group such as Torstar, owner of the Toronto Star. But nothing is imminent. Teachers' tends to operate in five- to seven-year investment cycles. Sifton is just getting started too. He'd love to have bigger titles, notably The London Free Press (owned by Quebecor Media) or The Windsor Star (owned by CanWest). There are also nine Osprey-free provinces. Might New Brunswick's billionaire Irving family get out of newspapers one day?
Sifton is friendly, though notoriously private. He likes to ask questions, not answer them. He avoids Bay Street, and lives north of Toronto in King City. He doesn't like wearing suits. He doesn't seek fame or clout, though polo, his passion, is a baronial sport. But baronial status may be thrust upon him. His great-grandfather, Sir Clifford Sifton, bought the Manitoba Free Press (subsequently the Winnipeg Free Press) in 1891. The family later owned the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post. By the 1990s, the papers were gone, and the only family asset with any profile was the small Toronto Buttonville Municipal Airport. Now, Michael has returned to his roots. Call him the new breed of media baron-earnings before ego.