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(Ryan Szulc)
(Ryan Szulc)

ROB Magazine

The mystery woman behind the blockbuster MLSE deal Add to ...

One of these things is not like the others.

Sitting on a riser in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, in power suits with jackets open, are: Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman and part owner of Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment; Nadir Mohamed, the CEO of Rogers Communications; and George Cope, the CEO of Bell Canada.

All three men are familiar faces to the murmuring rabble of sports and business journalists here on Dec. 9, representing outlets ranging from TSN to The Wall Street Journal.

In the fourth chair sits Jane Rowe, 52, without whom none of the others would be here—for it is this unknown woman who is responsible for the deal being announced today, the surprise sale of a controlling stake in MLSE to Rogers and Bell for $1.32 billion.

And it’s Rowe who gives the opening remarks about Teachers’ letting go of its signature holding. But when journalists dive in with questions, she’s ignored. Not until about 20 minutes in is a query directed at Rowe: How much money did her employer, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, make from the sale? Attention then returns to the trio of titans.

It’s a safe bet that if Jim Leech, Teachers’ gregarious and well-known CEO, had been sitting in Rowe’s chair, he would have been asked a lot more questions. Indeed, in the coming days Leech enjoys much of the credit for pulling off the MLSE sale, even though he’s the first to say that it properly belongs to Rowe and her team.

Perhaps the press take cues about stature from the wrong place? After all, when Rowe and Cope shake hands after her speech, he’s noticeably taller—even though he’s sitting down and she’s standing. Diminutive or not, as Teachers’ head of private equity, Rowe presides over a $12-billion pool of capital and has the power to spend $200 million without so much as checking with her boss, Leech. She’s very near the top of the power echelon on Bay Street and, with luck, she may become the first woman to get to the peak.

Leech knows it, Rowe knows it, and the other execs do too, even if the media don’t: The MLSE announcement was the coming out of Sarah Jane Rowe.


"Okay, so the first thing I’ll say is: New-fun-land,” Rowe says, correcting my pronunciation of the name of her home province. I try again; it comes out Newfoundland. “No, New-fun-land,” she says. I make two more efforts before sheepishly moving the conversation on. Rowe, I see, is not afraid of making you look foolish.

Yet she manages to do it gracefully. It comes naturally to a student of human nature, someone who has spent countless hours studying strangers’ interactions in airports and other public spaces, and who has made a point of observing and learning from the behaviour of bankers and executives she’s dealt with throughout her career on Bay Street. The result is a keen sense of what motivates people—a skill that’s invaluable in tough negotiations. Rowe can press for change while remaining highly likeable.

She’s also persistent. A couple of hours later, I say Newfoundland again. “No. New. Fun. Land. It’s understand Newfoundland,” she says.

It helps, I think to myself, that Rowe is disarmingly self-deprecating. How does she like public speaking? “I’ve. Learned. To. Embrace. It,” she deadpans.

Truth is, she was tired, tense and nervous at the MLSE event, her press-conference debut. Later, she recalls the moment shortly afterward when she walked into MLSE’s gargantuan Real Sports bar, which was rebroadcasting the event. Just then, her face splashed across the bar’s celebrated two-storey-tall TV screen. “I’ve got to tell you, as a middle-aged woman, it’s a big freakin’ screen,” she says.

It’s difficult to believe that this woman, who shops in the petite section and exudes a sort of personal warmth rarely seen in people of her station, has struck fear into the hearts of executives who have found themselves on the other side of negotiations with her.

“She has strong negotiating skills, she’s very straightforward, but she’s also very pleasant to deal with,” Leech says. “She’s a Newfie with a great sense of humour.”

And when she needs to be, she can be fierce.

Rowe grew up in the historic fishing town of Carbonear, the daughter of Augustus, a physician, and Bea, his war bride from London. Rowe says her mom—and many childhood summers spent in England—is the reason she doesn’t have a strong Newfoundland accent.

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