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Izzy Asper at Switch

Self-made media magnate built Canwest empire

The founder of CanWest Global Communications was a savvy businessman who built an empire with the skills he amassed as a highly respected tax lawyer and writer, Liberal politician, banker and philanthropist.

This article was originally published in 2008

Tax lawyer, writer, politician, banker and finally media mogul, Izzy Asper was a man so varied in his passions and interests, so feisty and relentless in business, that whether you liked him or not depended on which side of the deal you were on.

‘You’d go into a meeting with him,’ recalls Peter Viner, Asper’s go-to fixer at Canwest Global Communications who served for a time as president and CEO, ‘and he was the smartest lawyer in the room, but also the second-smartest financial guy, the second-smartest underwriter, the second-smartest engineer and the second-smartest marketing guy. He was that broad.’

Many-sided and hard-nosed as Izzy Asper was, his close colleagues say he had weaknesses and experienced failure, but not, apparently, self-doubt.

The boy from Minnedosa, MB had unbounded self-confidence that served him well when he made the jump to the big city.

Former president of Canwest Media Sales Jack Tomik observes that Asper earned his way from bottom to top. ‘The kid from the Prairies – like I am – was scraping bubble gum off his family’s cinema and he went from there,’ says Tomik. ‘When you start from nothing, and build a long way up from there, you develop some self-confidence.’

Enough self-confidence to earn a licence to launch indie station CKND-TV in Winnipeg in 1974, secure new stations in Regina and Saskatoon in 1984, and fail with a hostile takeover bid for rival broadcaster WIC Western International Communications in 1995 before he returned with a successful bid in 1998.

Izzy may have been all smiles during an Aug. 1, 2000 press conference when son Leonard Asper, who had taken over the reins from Viner, unveiled the purchase of 14 major daily newspapers from Conrad Black’s Hollinger Corp., but it took much grit and persistence to get to that pivotal deal for Canwest Global.

Elsewhere, the elder Asper had to battle the Allard clan for control of CKVU-TV Vancouver, which was renamed U.TV in 1990. Entry into Ireland started with a phone call in 1991 and the launch of TV3 in 1998. And Canwest had to wait seven years until TVA sold it an interest in Quebec City station CKMI-TV in 1997 to enter the Quebec TV market.

‘Countless times, an objective was set,’ says Leonard Asper, Canwest Global Communications’ president, CEO and controlling shareholder, of his father’s doggedness. ‘Hurdles were put in the way, and he kept punching until victory was at hand.’ It took nerves of steel to get pulled in Izzy’s wake.

Viner recalls in 1992 when Asper led a team to Australia to sell local investors on joining a consortium to acquire Network TEN from receivership.

More than 50 presentations later, no one had come on board. During one fruitless pitch, Asper was told there was only room at the time for two networks in Australia, and only a foreigner would be dumb enough to buy the third, Network TEN.

‘I remember Izzy just looking at them,’ Viner recalls. On a Wednesday night, with two days to their deadline, Asper fielded a call. A local investor would buy a unit, but at a deep discount.

‘And Izzy said, ‘You’re out of your mind. I expect to be oversubscribed by Friday.’ I was there and ready to step out on the window ledge,’ Viner remembers. Sure enough, on Friday night, the Canwest team was oversubscribed.

Leonard Asper says his father, ever the salesman, likely thought he could talk his way into an extension from Westcap, Network TEN’s trustee bank.

The younger Asper also notes that his father never thought he was taking big risks. Izzy’s view was he always protected the downside, and he studied every deal to death before execution. Of course, ‘others felt differently,’ Leonard adds.

In the end, Izzy was far too intelligent to fail to see the humor in the ups and downs of his business career.

Among the Asper axioms that Izzy often told his children to allow them to grow and to avoid repeating mistakes was: ‘If you keep your eye on the ball, your nose to the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel, you’ll find it difficult to work in that position. Stand back.’

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