Ted Rogers spent his life defying expectations. He feared he would die by the time he was 38, the age when his father was felled by a ruptured aneurysm, leaving a six-year-old son with the pristine image of a heroic dad.
Driven by this memory, young Ted managed to live almost twice as long as his father, surviving a lengthy catalogue of physical ailments. He died on Tuesday at the age of 75 at his home in Toronto. He suffered from congestive heart failure.
A sickly kid, he was always picked last for sports teams at upper-crust Upper Canada College, but he made himself into a decent boxer. As an adult, he bought a major league baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, while conceding he was "the village idiot" on baseball matters.
But his greatest expectation-smashing act was escaping bankruptcy, as his flagship Rogers Communications Inc. survived a parade of near-death experiences, buried under the debt amassed by its risk-embracing owner.
"Mr. Rogers' successor as chief executive officer will be addressed by the Rogers Communications board of directors, which intends to form a special committee to lead a search considering internal and external candidates. In the meantime, Alan Horn, chairman of Rogers Communications, will continue to serve as acting chief executive officer and lead the company's office of the president," the company said in a statement.
In the end, Mr. Rogers was master of the communications universe in Canada, the owner of the dominant cable TV system, of radio and television stations, of magazine publishing, residential telephone services and the largest wireless network. He was the rare communications titan to solve the convergence conundrum, combining media content and transmission in a single corporate entity.
"He was not a strong person, and he had a pretty vulnerable physique, but as long as there was a deal in the air that he could sniff, he would make it," says Robin Korthals, a former president of the Toronto Dominion Bank, who negotiated the bank's first loan 40 years ago in what would become a mutually beneficial relationship with Mr. Rogers.
He was this country's version of Steve Jobs, a technology entrepreneur who was down but never out, who unabashedly loved gadgetry, who had a huge, resilient ego, who made life hell for his executives but could evoke great loyalty - and who triumphed over naysayers to become the second wealthiest Canadian with a personal net worth estimated at more than $7-billion.
Like all history-changing people, he was locked into his personal mission, often unmindful of wife, children, friends, and colleagues. To the outside world, he would display the guileless innocence of an untrained puppy dog. Yet he practised confrontation as a management style, and sported a hair-trigger temper that was capable of unleashing torrents of abuse. Mr. Rogers could be warm and reflective one moment, and ruthless in dispatching underperforming managers the next.
Although a scion of old-money Toronto, he portrayed himself as an underdog as he battled telephone giant Bell Canada all his life - and finally triumphed, in a fashion. Mr. Rogers built a communications empire that rivalled the Bell holdings. RCI early last year briefly surpassed Bell's parent BCE Inc. in terms of stock-market value, just before BCE became the focus of a private equity auction.
A risk-taker in business, Mr. Rogers could be archly frugal in his personal life. Yet he clearly enjoyed his yacht, a luxury beach house at Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, a retreat in the Muskokas, and a mansion in Toronto's Forest Hill with an indoor pool and an outdoor tennis court.
He built his riches on crushingly hard work and a clever understanding of the Byzantine web of government regulation surrounding broadcasting, cable TV and the phone business. Though he started in radio, his near-monopoly in cable television in Canada's richest urban market was the base of his fortune. But he was controversial, and many of his cable customers never forgave Mr. Rogers after being forced to take cable channels they didn't want. The marketing phrase `negative option billing' became a new Canadian curse.
But the big disappointment of his life was he never purchased Toronto radio station CFRB, started by his father. The Rogers family lost control of it after the father's early death, but young Ted vowed to his mother that one day he would get it back. Right near the end, he was agitating with CFRB's current owner, Astral Media Inc., to buy the station.
Descended from Quaker roots in the United States, Edward Samuel Rogers was born in Toronto on May 27, 1933. His father, also Edward or Ted, was celebrated for his invention of a radio than ran without batteries. In the early days of radio, a set needed a battery the same way a car does now. Ted Rogers Sr. solved that problem by making tubes do the work so the radio could be simply plugged into the wall. The elder Rogers became Canada's largest manufacturer of radios and the last two letters in CFRB stood for "Rogers Batteryless," the brand name of his invention.
Young Ted Rogers was a gangly child with reddish hair who was born almost blind in his right eye. When his father died in 1939, his mother Velma could not carry on, and there was an uncle who was anxious to rid himself of the industrial assets.
After the sale of the radio factory and CFRB, the estate added up to $384,000, enough for a comfortable life, but it marked the end of his father's technological legacy. Instead, Ted Rogers carried a lifelong torch, collecting old Roger's Majestic radios and driving to rebuild what had been lost.
Young Ted went to Upper Canada College, boarding from age 8, even though he lived close to the school. He defied the private school's rules by rigging up an antenna to present TV shows in his dorm room and charging admission. Like his father he went to the University of Toronto and then on to law school at U of T - but even in high school, he had a business on the side supplying bands for dances.
He was always fortunate in his personal life. His widowed mother married John Graham, a rock-solid lawyer who helped Velma overcome her alcoholism, and became a mentor to Ted in his entrepreneurial years.
Mr. Korthals remembers early in TD's relationship with Mr. Rogers when the entrepreneur and his stepfather came to the bank requesting financing that, in Mr. Korthals' opinion, would require a loan covenant. An enraged Mr. Rogers stormed out in a huff, leaving Mr. Graham and Mr. Korthals to work out the terms. It marked a pattern: Mr. Rogers was a tough negotiator who always pushed things to the limit.
Mr. Rogers also married well, to a woman who loyally supported him through his near-death experiences. In 1957, he was visiting a school pal in the Bahamas where he went to a party and met Loretta Ann Robinson, the 18-year-old daughter of a British MP, who later became Lord Martonmere and governor of Bermuda.
They married on Sept, 25, 1963 - and Loretta immediately persuaded her father to advance $450,000 from her inheritance to fund Ted's first venture into radio.
Although he was trained in law, it played second fiddle to completing his father's unfinished business. After a lacklustre law-school stint, he sought an articling position with the Toronto law firm of Tory's, where he begged John A. Tory, son of the founder, to take him on. John and his twin brother Jim liked the bumptious, slightly younger man, and hired him despite his poor grades.
"Ted Rogers probably would not have been on our list to interview, but we did hire him," John A. Tory recalled in an interview with Caroline Van Hasselt, author of a recent biography High Wire Act, Ted Rogers and the Empire that Debt Built. "Whether we would have kept him is a different story. He wasn't around very much."
Because of Mr. Rogers's absences, Jim Tory, who supervised him, initially refused to sign the document confirming his full-time articling attendance. He relented when his brother pointed out that Mr. Rogers had pledged he would never actually practice law.
Mr. Rogers also promised to get down on his knees and shine Jim Tory's shoes "at any time in any place for the rest of his life," the book relates. For years afterward, he did just that when he would meet Jim Tory at public events.
Ted Rogers was lucky with his Tory connections - with the Tory party which he supported (his hero was former prime minister John Diefenbaker), and the Tory family, who became lifelong advisers. John A. Tory was consigliere to the wealthy Thomson family, but he was a trusted counsellor to Mr. Rogers, too. And John A.'s son, John H. Tory, became a key RCI executive before pursuing an elected political career.
To some extent, Mr. Rogers followed the business model of patriarch Roy Thomson, the media entrepreneur who believed in using debt leverage to finance growth. But while the Thomsons would deploy free cash flow to pay down existing debt before launching another spending spree, Mr. Rogers gleefully lurched from one leveraged deal to another.
"Maybe he found that exciting," says John A. Tory, who insists Mr. Rogers was always confident of his ability to salvage the situation, even as his stock price plummeted. He was somewhat protected by the nature of his businesses, such as cable and broadcasting, which were regulated and subscription-based, thus providing steady cash flows. What's more, the heavy capital spending and debt payments allowed Rogers Communications to avoid paying tax year after year.
At Tory's, he actually spent most of his articling time researching how to acquire communications assets. At 26, while dabbling in a new private TV station for Toronto (CFTO), he used an inheritance - about $100,000 - to buy Toronto's first FM station, CHFI.
FM radio was new then, the station had only been on the air since 1957, and FM receivers were expensive. Ted Rogers had some FM radios designed, with CHFI-FM etched into them, and sold them at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the same place his father launched his Rogers Batteryless Radio in 1925.
Mr. Rogers plunged into the media industry, managing the radio station and opening an AM version of CHFI in 1962. That station stayed in the Rogers stable and in 1990, radio 680 went to an all-news format, with its `traffic and weather together on the ones' or every 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cable TV was getting started in Canada in the 1960s. Many Canadians had used rooftop antennae to improve local reception and in particular to pull in border stations from Poland Spring, Maine to Bellingham, Wash. But cable television replaced this forest of rooftop aerials with one antenna to service hundreds, then thousands and millions of households.
In July, 1967 Mr. Rogers landed his first 300 cable customers in the Toronto suburb of Brampton. The next year he managed to get the licence for York, then a borough of Metropolitan Toronto and then landed the richest franchise in the country, downtown Toronto. Cable demanded as many legal as broadcasting skills, since the monopoly licence was granted by a politically sensitive federal regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.
Ted Rogers spent the next 20 years expanding his cable television franchise, and acting as an industry consolidator. In 1994, he acquired Maclean Hunter Ltd. in a $3-billion deal that brought other media interests, such as Maclean's magazine and, for a while, the Sun newspapers, into the fold. The deal helped cement RCI's position as the country's largest cable company.
Indeed, it took years for Rogers Cable to make money as its entrepreneurial maestro re-invented it in new properties or other ventures, such as the challenge to Bell Canada's monopoly of long distance telephone service in Ontario and Quebec.
Files on the applications to de-throne Bell filled metre after metre of shelf space in the CRTC's office in Ottawa. Mr. Rogers and his partners had taken over the old telegraph and telex monopoly, CN-CP Telecommunications and renamed it Unitel. It went on to win the regulatory challenge but it was a pyrrhic victory. The long distance market was only a cash cow as long as it was a monopoly. Competition, in both Canada and the United States, pushed down prices dramatically, and Rogers eventually sold Unitel to AT&T after losses hit about $500-million.
It was Mr. Rogers' most crushing business setback and it only cemented his enmity towards Bell, which he argued enjoyed an unfair advantage. If anything, he worked harder than ever.
Mr. Rogers was the classic micromanager who contacted executives at all hours to discuss minute details. One manager, later fired by Mr. Rogers, said he used to break away from lunch meetings by telling his fellow diners: "I've got to get back to the office. I have 25 e-mails from Ted to ignore."
Executive turnover was often rapid, and the survivors indulged in mordant, joking acceptance of their harried, but well-rewarded, fate. During one of Mr. Rogers' periodic health crises, he underwent bypass surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Later, a senior RCI executive observed that when surgeons opened his chest, one of them exclaimed: "This heart has never been used!" Mr. Rogers simply smiled at the jokes and plowed on.
Mr. Korthals says Mr. Rogers' greatest weakness was that he was "an administrative disaster." He always had some good people around him but his centralizing approach impaired the development of management depth. Also, "for a long time, client service left a lot to be desired," the former banker says.
Yet despite his confrontational style of decision-making, and the occupational hazard of executive burnout, he often patched up frayed relations with present and former executives. "Everybody knew that he was a bit of a genius, and they knew he was one of the most loyal people in the whole world," John A. Tory says.
His optimism and drive kept him bouncing back from adversity. If long distance was a loser, the cell phone was a winner. He was a co-founder of the pioneering Cantel system in 1985 and eventually bought out the other partners in the company, which became Rogers Wireless.
Mr. Rogers was slow to adapt to the Internet, but he was smart - or lucky - in many of his technological choices. In 2000, he switched wireless modes to adopt the GSM format (for Global System for Mobile Communications) which is the dominant standard outside North America. Mr. Rogers cemented this status in 2004 by snatching wireless contender Microcell away from rival Telus, an acquisition that capped Mr. Rogers' Lazarus-like business reincarnation.
The Microcell deal put RCI on top of the communications industry, but it only stoked speculation about the future of the company. Ted and Loretta Rogers had four children, the oldest of whom, Lisa, was adopted after he and Loretta had trouble conceiving early in their marriage. But after the adoption, Loretta gave birth to Edward Jr., Melinda and Martha.
Two children now work in senior jobs at RCI - Edward is cable division president and Melinda is vice president, strategy and development. But Mr. Rogers seemed to signal his succession strategy in 2005 by appointing Nadir Mohamed, a bright recruit from Telus, as president and chief operating officer of the major division that spanned wireless and cable.
Mr. Rogers has said it is unlikely one of his children would succeed him initially as CEO. Meanwhile, he has worked with John A. Tory to develop a trust to hold and administer the family's pivotal voting shares.
That reflects another of Mr. Rogers' strengths: He was smart enough to surround himself with complementary expertise. His long-time deputy Phil Lind is a people person with a common touch; John A. Tory is a master strategist in corporate structures and estates; another legal adviser Gar Emerson is a student of mergers and governance who served as chairman of Mr. Rogers' flagship, RCI.
Yet according to High Wire Act, Mr. Rogers pushed Mr. Emerson out of the chairman's job in 2006 when his long-time adviser pressed the issue of a conflict of interest involving an unnamed RCI executive. Mr. Rogers seemed personally insulted as Mr. Emerson agitated for a company statement indicating RCI would not tolerate unethical behaviour, the book says.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers was travelling back and forth to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota - and more recently, the Cleveland Clinic - for life-saving procedures, followed by regular maintenance.
"I'm goddamn lucky to be alive," he said in an interview in 2001. "I've had a heart attack, a quadruple bypass, a single aneurysm, a quadruple aneurysm, and a carotid artery here that was 95 to 98 per cent blocked. Another week and I would have died."
"I'm lucky we have what we have," he said. "We're trying to give a little bit back to the community, as you know."
That giving has become Mr. Rogers' focus over the past few years. He has become ubiquitous in Toronto as much for his monuments as his media footprint. There is the Rogers Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Toronto and the Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, and the list goes on.
The guy who styled himself as a perpetual underdog could no longer credibly sell that story. That was clear as RCI lobbied in vain recently against new wireless spectrum rules that would guarantee new entrants to the industry.
It was an odd spectacle, seeing Mr. Rogers in a defensive mode, but it should not be all that surprising. Like most entrepreneurs, he ultimately wanted to dominate the markets he entered - and he succeeded beyond expectations.
The past year has been a kind of farewell tour for Mr. Rogers, who was increasingly frail-looking in public appearances, and resorted to using a wheelchair. His 75th birthday party was an extravaganza, in which he bused 7,000 Toronto employees to the Rogers Centre stadium for a midday party, and held an evening affair for 350 family members, friends and associates. Entertainment was provided by Harry Connick Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Paul Anka, who sang a Rogers-centric version of My Way.
Mr. Rogers could be as tender as he was tough. One of his last public appearances was at the launch party for his autobiography, Relentless, a collaboration with journalist Robert Brehl. Mr. Brehl told the assembled group that he often scheduled his interviews with Mr. Rogers on Sunday mornings to fit into the communication czar's crowded schedule.
At one session in the Rogers home by the indoor pool, the two men ended up talking about losing loved ones, and Mr. Rogers welled up with emotion. One of the Rogers daughters arrived to the sight of both men crying, and asked what in the world was going on.
Mr. Rogers defied expectations to the end. As Canadian provider of the iPhone, he bucked the bad economic news by delivering solidly higher sales and profits in recent quarterly results. And even as his health was failing, he was making his patented folksy sign-off, "The best is yet to come."
- Files from F. F. Langan