The Accidental Mogul

Michael de Pencier, a blue blood with an entrepreneurial streak, bought Toronto Life for a dollar in 1971. He didn’t have a plan, just a pocketful of notes scribbled on cocktail napkins. Over the next three decades, he built a quirky, multimillion-dollar media empire

Fifty years ago, Toronto was a WASP enclave. Portraits of Her Majesty Elizabeth II adorned the walls of public buildings. “God Save the Queen” was played at public functions. The Lord’s Day Act was still in force, which meant everything shut down tight on Sundays. To buy a bottle of gin, you used a stubby pencil that dangled from the end of a little chain to write a number on a slip. You passed the slip through a wicket to a sour functionary who disappeared in back to fetch the alcohol and hide it in a paper bag before slipping it to you.

In November of 1966, a Vancouver businessman named Don Cromie, who knew little of Toronto, launched a monthly magazine called Toronto Life. (He had just started up Vancouver Life and Palm Springs Life.) He was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying that it would be “the finest metropolitan magazine in North America.”

That first version of Toronto Life could not have been more at odds with the zeitgeist. It portrayed Toronto the Good as hip and sophisticated (typical cover line: “Those Mad! Marvellous! Toronto Jet Setters”). A fashion piece quoted a fellow just back from Tokyo (“and before that Rome, Hollywood, London and Vancouver”) as follows: “Jumpsuits for men are the answer in the future, I think. I’ve got one and it looks great. Not a bit faggy.”

Cromie’s Toronto Life failed to attract many readers or advertisers, and in 1967 he sold it to Michael Sifton, grandson of a legendary newspaper publisher and Liberal cabinet minister. Sifton fared no better. Just before Christmas in 1971, when Peter Gzowski, then a writer and editor, heard that the magazine was in trouble, he phoned his publisher friend Michael de Pencier.

De Pencier and Gzowski both had ramshackle cottages on Ward’s Island. Gzowski lived there with his family; de Pencier moved his young brood over each summer. In the tight-knit Island community, everybody knew everybody. The two men were about the same age, they played bridge and pickup baseball, but they could hardly have been less alike.

Gzowski was smart, thin-skinned, fiercely competitive and subject to brutal bouts of depression. Oddly shy, he chain-smoked Buckingham cigarettes, drank copious amounts of beer and Rémy Martin, and charmed women, who were drawn to his air of boyish helplessness. He was a denizen of the racetrack and often looked as if he had slept in his car.

De Pencier, by contrast, had a shiny-cheeked confidence that seemed embedded in his DNA. A fifth-generation Canadian, he was the grandson of an Anglican archbishop on his father’s side and a bank executive on his mother’s. His wife, Honor Bonnycastle, was a member of the Winnipeg family that prospered thanks to Harlequin, the romance publishing giant.

On the phone, Gzowski told his friend: “I hear Sifton is planning to shut down Toronto Life.” De Pencier went to see Sifton in his Bay Street office, and the two Michaels quickly struck a deal: de Pencier bought Toronto Life’s name and associated assets for a dollar, plus half of cumulative profits in the first seven years. “Sifton was relieved someone was taking it off his hands,” de Pencier recalled recently.

De Pencier was bullish on Toronto, sensing that it was about to flourish, and he wanted a magazine that could reflect it. He had no idea that the publication he bought for a buck would eventually rank among North America’s top city magazines, that he would own it for more than three decades or that it would become the flagship in a multimillion-dollar media empire.

Many years later, when Marq de Villiers, a long-time editor and publisher of Toronto Life, was asked to name the five people most responsible for the magazine’s success, he replied, “Michael de Pencier, Michael de Pencier, Michael de Pencier, Michael de Pencier and Michael de Pencier.”

When de Pencier’s uncle died and left him $250,000, he ignored everyone’s advice and plowed it into Toronto Life, a money-losing enterprise he believed had a future (Photograph by Ron Bull/Getty Images)

First challenge: money. De Pencier got half a dozen friends and relatives to pony up sums ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. But the big investor was de Pencier himself. His mother’s brother, Bill, had recently died, leaving him $250,000, most of which—ignoring the advice of all he consulted—he plowed into Toronto Life.

Next challenge: how to revive a money-loser? He understood the business side of magazines, the unforgiving arithmetic of revenue and expense, and he relied on Gzowski—who had already run both Maclean’s and the Star Weekly—for editorial expertise.

Gzowski recruited John Macfarlane, a young editor, from Maclean’s; Macfarlane in turn recruited Bernadette Sulgit from the Toronto Star as his managing editor and brought on Ken Rodmell as his art director. Gzowski’s friend Terry O’Malley—a Harvard-educated jock and creative director at the ad firm Vickers and Benson—did the marketing and PR. At the de Penciers’ house on Summerhill Gardens, the group met often to drink, plan and brainstorm.

If the failure of an out-of-sync city magazine told the group what Toronto Life shouldn’t be, what exactly should it be? All admired New York, Clay Felker and Milton Glaser’s urbane weekly, which had established itself as the model of a smart, informative, useful city magazine. New York provided the editorial template—a mix of service journalism (event calendars, consumer tips, restaurant reviews) and storytelling (detailed profiles, civic commentary, investigative articles).

The first issue of the revamped Toronto Life—dated April 1972—established the new tone. The cover touted an incisive profile of Beland Honderich, who ran the Toronto Star; another story considered the city’s worsening traffic congestion; and the recurring columns—business, civic politics, dining, city services—also signalled a less superficial approach to Toronto.

I made a minor contribution to that first issue. I was an English literature student at U of T, a for-hire writer of other people’s university essays and a taker of late-night, phoned-in death notices at the Globe and Mail. On the recommendation of my Romantic Poetry professor, I was hired to compile Toronto Life’s sports listings. Twenty-five bucks a month, plus the odd ticket to a game—gravy.

To me—a union organizer’s son—de Pencier seemed the epitome of privileged old Toronto, the kind of dapper prep-school charmer who steps onto the ice for pickup hockey in skates, suit pants, a white shirt and hockey gloves—and then dipsy-doodles through his better-equipped opponents, perfect hair undisturbed. Oh, for such effortless élan.

It turned out he had always had an entrepreneurial streak. As a kid, he sold comics to help raise funds for the war effort. Later, at Rosedale Public School, he set up a paid lending library. “It didn’t go well,” he recalled. “I had a puny inventory and few borrowers.”

For Grade 8, his parents sent him to Trinity College School in Port Hope, then an all-boys, blue-blood boarding school. De Pencier’s brains, good looks and athleticism made an instant impression. “We were convinced he would become a financier,” recalled the lawyer Roy Heenan, a schoolmate. “He always had such a knack for business.” So did some other TCS boys: Charles Taylor, son of the tycoon and thoroughbred breeder E. P. Taylor, ran a mini–bookmaking operation, taking bets on the Queen’s Plate.

Since the school had no tuck shop, de Pencier and a pal, Eric Jackman, hit on the idea of buying packages of suckers on Saturdays in town (seven for a quarter) and reselling them on Sunday mornings. All the boys—in ties and blazers for church—were given a dime for the collection plate. The duo sold their sweets for 10 cents each. “The cost-of-goods ratio was enviable,” de Pencier said, “but the enterprise was shut down after the principal noticed a decline in contributions to the Lord’s work.”

After studying philosophy at the University of Toronto, de Pencier lived for a year in London, teaching high school English, then did graduate work at the University of Michigan, wondering what to do with his life.

One day his uncle Malcolm invited him to lunch at the venerable Toronto Club on Wellington Street. As dark-suited tycoons passed their table—“Good to see you, Malc, this your nephew?”—de Pencier endured his uncle’s pitch for going into insurance, the family business.

“Uncle Malcolm climaxed his speech with, ‘And of course, we’ll have to get you a Thunderbird,’ ” de Pencier recalled. “Back then, I was a Marxist by inclination. I wouldn’t have wanted to be seen in a Thunderbird, let alone own one. I wasn’t sure where I belonged, but I knew it wasn’t in insurance.”

He stumbled into publishing when his friend Phil Greey suggested they buy a trade magazine called the Apartment Owner. They split the $2,000 purchase price. Then together they launched The Curler, ran the affairs of two left-leaning journals (Canadian Forum and This Magazine Is About Schools), and took over a failing book-trade publication, Quill and Quire. They called their little enterprise Greey de Pencier Publications.

Toronto Life’s office was in an old warehouse on Front Street with mismatched furniture, threadbare carpets and duct-taped cables (Photograph by Bob Olsen/Getty Images)

At Toronto Life, de Pencier faced a formidable challenge. Each 75-cent issue, the group decided, should be no fewer than 64 pages long. Full-time editorial staff numbered three: Macfarlane, Rodmell and Sulgit. Even for a bare-bones operation, the first year was grim; the costs of paper, printing and labour exceeded the trickle of income from ad sales and magazines sold.

When I suggested to Macfarlane that I could do the front-of-book section, he offered me $300 a month. Gold: the mortgage on the tiny house I’d bought near Bloor and Bathurst was only $110 a month.

Toronto Life’s office, in an old warehouse building that spanned the block between Front Street and the Esplanade, had a low-rent, Mad Men quality—a miasma of cigarette smoke, late nights, groggy mornings. The building was notorious for its mismatched furniture, outdated phones and electrical cables duct-taped to worn grey carpeting. Located above the Old Spaghetti Factory, the office stank of tomato sauce by 11 a.m. each day.

Macfarlane recalls frequent boozy lunches at Winston’s on King Street, where, amid white linen tablecloths and black-vested waiters, he and de Pencier urged media directors to redirect some of their spending from radio, television and billboards into the new city magazine.

But it rarely worked. Not many advertisers were buying. Adrenalin waned and burnout set in. A handful of new subscribers in the same week was cause for celebration. Invoices were kept in an accordion file: each month de Pencier determined which had to be paid, and the others went back in the file. Even he, an irrepressible optimist, had his what-have-I-done moments. “One evening I remember clearly,” said Macfarlane. “Michael and I sat in the second-floor office of my house. I was in the desk chair; Michael was on the sofa. He mused aloud about shutting the magazine down, and I pleaded, I practically begged him, not to. In the time it took to kill a bottle of scotch, I persuaded him not to pull the plug.”

Ironically, Macfarlane jumped ship 19 months into the job. He and his wife had just had a second daughter, and he fretted about the magazine’s prospects. When Terry O’Malley offered to double his salary to head up a communications division at Vickers and Benson, Macfarlane couldn’t turn it down. De Pencier hired Alexander Ross, another Maclean’s alumnus, to replace him.

The magazine kept bleeding cash. Circulation and ad sales were inching up, however, and de Pencier had hedged his bet by buying Key to Toronto, a hotel-room freebie with low production costs and good margins. As he had anticipated, the city was starting to come alive. David Crombie was elected mayor in 1972 and, with young councillors like John Sewell, he was giving Toronto a progressive new face. Commerce Court and First Canadian Place altered the skyline in the early ’70s; the CN Tower pierced the clouds in 1976. The next year, the Eaton Centre opened and the Blue Jays took the field at CNE Stadium.

Toronto Life was an unabashed supporter of Crombie, who would come to be known as “the tiny perfect mayor.” On the cover of a 1973 issue, he poses as a lovable song-and-dance man, down on one knee, arms wide, holding a cane and a fedora. Throughout Crombie’s six-year mayoralty, the magazine chronicled the changing face of the city. Pieces about the development of Yonge Street, the future of the TTC and the evolution of the waterfront both reflected the civic discussion and, at times, helped to steer it.

Gone were the days when “going for Chinese” meant ordering the same four or five dishes at Sai Woo or Lichee Garden and the best steak in town was served at House of Chan on Eglinton. Chinatown was unfolding up and down Spadina. Old-school restaurants like La Chaumière, the Westbury and La Scala were competing with newer avant-garde spots like Noodles, Fenton’s and the Courtyard Café. Tourism picked up as U.S. media began noting that Toronto had the appeal of big American cities but few of the problems. Visitors had to eat out, and restaurants competed fiercely for their trade. Key to Toronto began minting money.

Good thing, too, since it would be years before Toronto Life turned the corner.

De Pencier had never taken a business course or read a book on entrepreneurship when he bought Toronto Life—and still hasn’t. He relied on restless intelligence, a habit of thrift and an old-Toronto Rolodex. Learning as he went, he developed a style all his own, a mix of instinct, delegation and spontaneity that flew in the face of business-school wisdom. “He was the most wonderfully idiosyncratic boss I’ve ever had,” said Peter Herrndorf, the head of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, who spent nine years as Toronto Life’s publisher.

When Honor Bonnycastle and Michael de Pencier were married in 1962, her parents gave them a VW Bug as a wedding gift

De Pencier was notoriously frugal. More days than not, he took the subway to work. He recently met me for lunch in what may have been the same tan corduroy pants he wore 30 years earlier. His office was a tiny, windowless space often used as a shortcut to the loo. Ken Rodmell, who had an adjoining office for decades, recalled that he once overheard his boss on the phone with his insurance agent. “At one point,” said Rodmell, “Michael called through the wall, ‘Ken, what kind of car do I have?’”

As his company grew, de Pencier hired mostly candidates with little experience. “I wanted people who were energetic, motivated and intelligent,” he said. “After a year, unmotivated people with plenty of experience are still unmotivated. Smart, energetic people soon become smart, energetic and experienced.” He also hired and promoted a lot of women at a time when many owners didn’t. His style was to give his people free rein, check in regularly and ask periodically, “What would you do in my position?” (“If you have a good relationship with your people,” he said, “they’ll tell you.”)

Another biz-school no-no: de Pencier had no five-year plan—no plan, period. The idea was to “stay on the balls of our feet,” as he put it, alert to opportunity. Toronto Life was becoming the flagship of his operation, renamed Key Publishers, and he was building a media fleet around it. When he learned that a competitor planned to launch City Woman, his team ginned up Toronto Life Fashion and beat the competition out of the gate. In 1982, he snapped up Toronto Calendar, a listings magazine, and when the Where chain of crappy little visitor magazines in the U.S. became available, he bought them, too, improved the content, and consolidated all of Key’s visitor magazines under the Where name.

According to a quirky self-imposed de Pencier rule, new ventures had to be either profitable or fun—the less fun, the more profitable. Over the years, in this adhoc way, he put together a tidy, diverse little empire. Titles such as Owl, Quill and Quire and Canadian Geographic he viewed as worthwhile and fun. Canadian Art he viewed as culturally important. Canadian Business was profitable, as was Books for Everybody, a catalogue tedious to compile but indispensable to the book trade. Wedding Bells, too, was all about profit. Quarterly issues ran up to 700 pages.

Key Publishers was a family affair. Honor, a former teacher, did some proofreading, and sold ads to the new art galleries on Yonge Street and in Yorkville, the hippie slum evolving into an elegant shopping area. During a postal strike in 1976, Key employees and their spouses helped the de Penciers deliver magazines to subscribers on evenings and weekends. One year, when food processors were the thing, everybody—all 200 or so Key employees—got a $300 Cuisinart. Company picnics on Ward’s Island, Toronto Life softball teams, annual shareholder meetings at the de Penciers’ home—all made for an atmosphere more cottage than corporate.

“We were good at throwing parties,” de Pencier said. “We put away the breakables and hosted them in the office.” I can attest to raucous fun and abundant libations, having attended parties at both the de Penciers’ home and Key’s offices. There were freight-elevator hookups, and for one Christmas party somebody in a Tarzan costume showed up at the office with a tiger on a leash.

Publishing in Canada—with its thin population across a vast area—has long depended on government support. As Key expanded, so did de Pencier’s influence. A cultural nationalist, he argued against American domination of Canadian newsstands. Arts organizations took note of his success, connections and ability to get things done, and he wound up on a dozen boards, from the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Shaw Festival to the Canadian Opera Company.

He was always cooking up some new project or scheme. “At board meetings, he’d pull scraps out of his pocket,” recalled O’Malley. “He’d been talking to somebody on a plane and scribbled ideas on a cocktail napkin.” Some found his energy infectious, others exhausting. “He had five new ideas a day,” said Macfarlane. “He’d be onto the next before you’d sorted out the last one. His Day-Timer looked like the bottom of a chicken coop.”

His ideas went beyond books and magazines. Is there a shop for people with bad backs? (With a couple of partners, he opened the Back Store.) What about an association of Canadian magazine publishers? (He founded one.) In 1980, after picking up liquor at the Summerhill LCBO, de Pencier had to hunt for appetizers and mix. Why was there no convenience store nearby? A few months later, across the parking lot, there was—the Perfect Mix, which he opened with investor friends. They eventually turned that block of Yonge Street into a row of high-end food stores that locals, in honour of the prices, dubbed the Five Thieves.

Not that he didn’t miss out on some opportunities along the way: turning down Issy Sharp’s offer to do a magazine for the Four Seasons hotel chain, for example. Not investing in Now when Michael Hollett and Alice Klein came looking for money. Passing on Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien’s offer to buy Canadian Living magazine. Failing to take over a lucrative contract to produce in-flight magazines for some U.S. carriers—American, United, Delta.

Unlike many proprietors, who are laser-focused on the bottom line, de Pencier merely kept an eye on it. A lover of art as well as commerce, he understood, as some owners do not, that magazines run on strong content and that, as he put it, “the talent was the sine qua non of our business.” Tom Hedley, a Brit who succeeded Alexander Ross, had the shortest tenure of any Toronto Life editor, and maybe the brightest. “I thought he was brilliant,” said de Pencier. “I just wished he understood the notion of a deadline.”

I first met Hedley at a bistro across from the office. He edited the magazine from his table at Les Copains, meeting writers over jolts of espresso and bottles of red wine. Toronto must have seemed blandly provincial to him: he’d worked at Esquire in New York, dropped the best names and would soon be off to Hollywood, having written a film, Flashdance, that became a smash.

De Pencier rarely interfered in editorial operations, but his laissez-faire philosophy was tested when his friends appeared as subjects in the magazine. One time, the magazine scheduled a story about John Turner (who was briefly prime minister in 1984). De Pencier and Turner ran in the same social circle, their wives were friends from their Winnipeg days, and de Pencier had briefly dated Geills Kilgour, later Mrs. Turner. “The article had some nasty comments,” said de Pencier. Not wishing to overrule his editors, nor to endorse a piece he thought unfair, he took his name off the masthead for that issue.

A book excerpt about another friend—John Bassett, the Telegram’s bushy-browed owner—also put de Pencier in a bind. It outlined the details of the affair Bassett was having with a young Telegram journalist named Isabel Gordon, who was married to Crawford Gordon, a Bay Street broker. Gordon was the son of a noted industrialist and—like Bassett and de Pencier himself—part of the Rosedale gentry that informally held court in the city. It would be ungentlemanly to humiliate a cuckold by rehashing his wife’s infidelity in print. De Pencier let the editor at the time, Don Obe, know that he would prefer not to see the excerpt in the magazine. Obe obliged.

De Pencier once knocked a story off the cover of a pre-Christmas issue, in 1983. Marq de Villiers, who took over from Obe, had scheduled a piece about a violent murder. “I said to de Villiers, ‘It’s tinsel time, happy holidays and all that, and the magazine is full of ads from all these glossy shops. If you want to run a cover story about an axe murderer, February might be a better time.’ ” De Villiers took the story off the cover, but the art director, Jim Ireland, quit over that intervention.

Otherwise, over three decades, de Pencier was hands-off. He read galleys of every issue (“I usually found a couple of typos”), but said nothing about a review of a seafood restaurant so disparaging that the place cancelled its rich ad contract. “It probably cost us hundreds of thousands of bucks in the end,” he recalled. “And I cringed when I read a review of the restaurant atop the CN Tower that said, ‘In general, a restaurant’s quality is in inverse relation to its distance from the ground.’ Sure enough, they yanked their ad. Another time, we offended Bay Bloor Radio, and they pulled out, too. Key’s shareholders thought we could be making more money, but readers had to know our reviews were objective. You pay a price for that sometimes.”

In 1979, the de Penciers bought an island on Georgian Bay for $12,000 and later added a sustainable, Jerome Markson–designed floating cottage

As the city took flight in the 1980s, so did the magazine. “Suddenly there were things worth going out for,” said de Pencier. “People were opening cheese stores, starting theatre companies, building condos.” Toronto Life was a major beneficiary; it was full of advertising. The Toronto International Film Festival, founded in 1976, began to attract A-list stars; restaurateurs like Jamie Kennedy (Palmerston), Franco Prevedello (Centro) and Michael Carlevale (Prego della Piazza) became almost as well known as the actors and directors who graced their rooms. People dined at Sutton Place and Bistro 990 in hopes of seeing Robert de Niro or Meryl Streep.

James Chatto, the magazine’s restaurant critic for a quarter-century, said: “Around 1980 Canadian chefs, led by Jamie Kennedy, began to supplant the Europeans who had ruled the city’s kitchens.” Toronto Life rode the culinary wave, adding profiles of chefs and restaurant industry gossip to its already detailed reviews. Such consumer-friendly fare offset the magazine’s growing attention to important social issues: the AIDS epidemic, homophobia and gay-bashing, homelessness, the complex frictions around burgeoning immigration.

Of the magazine’s finances in the 1980s, de Pencier said, rather modestly, that “there were some good years.” De Villiers, who edited the magazine from 1983 to 1992, was less understated: “For several years the ad staff would come to us and apologize because they’d sold more pages than expected, and they needed another 16 pages of editorial to make up the book. It was heady and completely surreal.”

Toronto Life wasn’t the only title making money. Wedding Bells and Fashion turn a tidy profit to this day. But the big money-spinner was Where, which eventually encompassed over 40 cities, Miami to Budapest. All in all, the 1980s marked a great run for de Pencier. The decade ended, however, with the only business crisis he ever faced.

By the late ’80s, Bay Street—once the realm of anonymous accountants—had become a place of anthropological fascination to readers, and its heroes and villains were cover-worthy subjects. In November 1987, the magazine published Elaine Dewar’s exhaustive, 40,000-word profile of the Reichmann family, who turned Olympia and York into the largest commercial real estate company in the world before getting overextended at Canary Wharf in London and declaring bankruptcy. The Reichmann brothers (among the few people, one suspects, who read the whole article) took umbrage at her depiction of their family. They sued her and the magazine for $102 million.

Toronto Life had a top libel lawyer in Julian Porter and $1 million in coverage. The Reichmanns had a loathing of bad publicity, a brigade of lawyers at Davies Ward and Beck, and deep pockets. They spent more than $5 million exploring every detail of Dewar’s research and ran up legal bills of millions more. As the suit dragged on, month after month, an anxious pall settled over the Toronto Life office. Nobody knew if they’d have a job in six months.

Oddly, de Pencier, with the most to lose, seemed the least perturbed. “I was of course concerned,” he recalled, “but I don’t remember feeling despair. I thought the Reichmanns were having a deserved temper tantrum. They were pissed off, but I didn’t think they wanted our blood on their hands.”

As Key burned through its coverage and dipped into operating funds, and months turned into years, and Julian Porter started hinting that the magazine might lose in court, de Pencier took it upon himself to seek a resolution. “I knew we were at risk of being put out of business. So I went to see John Sopinka.” A venerated litigator in the Toronto office of Stikeman Elliott (and soon to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada), Sopinka agreed that the magazine would probably lose a court battle. “But he also agreed that the Reichmanns likely didn’t want Toronto Life to go bust over this,” said de Pencier. “So, privately, without consulting lawyers, I requested a meeting with Paul Reichmann.”

De Pencier at his Georgian Bay cottage in the late ’70s

Before doing so, de Pencier asked around. “I remember talking to Elizabeth Tory, the current mayor’s mother. In those days she knew more of what was happening in the city than anyone. She knew where all the bodies were buried. She knew everything about everybody.” When De Pencier asked her about the Reichmann family, she confirmed that they were honourable people, and that their good reputation was deserved. “Sure enough,” he said, “when I went to see if we could sort this out, Paul Reichmann was fair and reasonable.”

In Olympia and York’s elegant offices atop First Canadian Place, the eldest Reichmann brother, wearing his customary black suit, greeted de Pencier in a formal way. “We had tea in a room that looked like a tasteful den on the Bridle Path,” de Pencier recalled. “I explained that I had no directive from the board of Key Publishers, but wondered if there was a way we could apologize, pay a penalty and move on.”

Reichmann asked what he had in mind. De Pencier pointed out that, although Key was seen to be doing well, the publishing business was not like real estate development. They couldn’t sustain ongoing legal costs, he said, and couldn’t pay substantial damages. “It appeared he wanted a dramatic payment. Evidently in his league, a hundred million dollars made that statement. I explained that in our minor league that amount would bankrupt us. In the end, we settled on a sum that was significant but didn’t put us out of business.”

To bring an end to the most notorious and costly libel case in Canadian history, Toronto Life ran a full-page retraction and apology, and paid the agreed-upon damages, which were donated to four Toronto charities. “That case was drawn out and stressful and cost a lot of money,” Ken Rodmell remembered. “But Michael didn’t scapegoat anyone. Another owner would have fired the publisher, fired the editor, blamed the lawyer. Michael never did. You can see why he inspired such loyalty in people who worked for him.”

Today, half a dozen magazines de Pencier brought to life are still around. When he unloaded a big stake in Where, in 1996, it went for several millions. Six years later, he got out of publishing altogether and made many millions more. Financially set but still brimming with ideas, he took the weekend off. Then he returned to his unadorned office to tackle the cause to which he plans to devote the rest of his life.

From the late ’70s to the early ’90s, de Pencier (front and centre) hosted company picnics on Ward’s Island each summer

One morning last June, de Pencier took me on a tour of High Hopes, his country place north of Hockley Valley on a property he bought for $500,000 a quarter-century ago. In oversized jeans and a battered World Wildlife Fund cap, he tugged a leafy branch down to eye level. “Look at this,” he said, calling me over. “There’s at least 10 inches of new growth on this burl oak.” On the 69-hectare property, he has planted 60,000 trees, representing some 240 species and cultivars, returning farmland to its mixed-woodlot origins.

Soon to turn 82, de Pencier has the verve of someone 30 years his junior. “His energy is non-stop,” said John Macfarlane, who returned to Toronto Life in 1992 to serve a second stint as editor-in-chief. Other than a sports injury when he was 16 years old, de Pencier has never been in hospital. He golfs regularly and shoots in the 80s.

He was always a conservationist, well before it was trendy. “When my brother and I were kids,” he recalled, “our mother would send us out in winter to dispose of eggshells and coffee grounds in the garden. If you left a light on, you heard about it. We spent summers at wilderness cottages—the Greeys’ at Temagami, the Hendries’ on the French River. Loons. Peace and quiet. You ate the fish you caught. You didn’t waste things.”

For many years, de Pencier rode his bicycle around town. He purchased one of the first Priuses sold in Ontario. He and Honor pick up trash off the street. They recycled before recycling was a thing. They’ve given millions to charities, green and otherwise, from the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Burial Association to the Green Toronto Awards and the Kids’ Run for Nature.

When, in 1979, they paid $12,000 for a little island on Georgian Bay and needed a motorboat, de Pencier spent $8,000 on a 20-foot Grew at the CNE boat show. They used the same boat for 35 years. They’ve since acquired three adjacent islands and land around their bay. He and Honor own the islands. Their three kids—Nick, a film producer; Miranda, a director; and Mark, an investment adviser—and their families own the property on the mainland. On the original island, the de Penciers built a sustainable, six-level, Jerome Markson–designed floating cottage on a steel barge.

No surprise, then, that his post-Key life centres on sustainability, or that he has found commercial opportunity in green innovation. When he and Honor are not birdwatching in Panama, or spending winters down south, or touring China, or hiking through the jungles of Costa Rica, he brings the same restless energy to his green pursuits that he brought to Key. Monte Hummel, former president of the World Wildlife Fund, said: “Michael is a bottomless pit of ideas.”

The Green Living Show at the convention centre, now in its 10th year, is largely de Pencier’s invention. He was an early investor in a slew of environmental initiatives, including Greenchip Financial (which buys into green public companies), the Solar Power Network (rooftop solar), ArcTern Ventures (cleantech), and Investeco Capital Corp., a fund he started with Andrew Heintzman (of piano-family fame) that supports companies devoted to sustainability.

Meanwhile, de Pencier’s search for the next idea is ongoing. What about an eBay-like site for renewables? Why is there no all-green equivalent of Home Depot? Cardboard lids attached to takeout cups, to replace the billion plastic lids discarded each year? (He’s invested in just such a company.) “He’s a serial entrepreneur,” said Heintzman.

Of all his causes, the one nearest to his heart might be the Highway of Heroes Tribute, an ambitious Johnny Appleseed crusade. The HOH project involves planting two million trees—imagine, two million trees—near Highway 401 between Trenton and Toronto to honour the two million Canadians who have served in the armed forces.

Why not a cure for cancer, organ transplants, micro-lending in Africa? Why trees? “They clean the air and beautify the landscape,” said de Pencier, back at the country house. “Maybe I’d be more effective if I spent my time persuading rich people to write big cheques, but planting trees makes me feel like I’m doing something tangible, something to benefit my grandchildren. And I’ve always liked trees.”

De Pencier put some music on the stereo—Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos—and settled into a comfortable old armchair to read the Sunday New York Times before brunch.

“Or maybe my son was right when he suggested that I’m just trying to make up for the trees that went into all those years of publishing books and magazines.”

One thought on “The man who bought Toronto Life for a dollar and turned it into a multimillion-dollar media empire

  1. It has taken me 3 days to “recover” from the impact of reading this bio on de Pencier, a name and person I was previously unaware of. I spent a large part of my working life toiling in publishing and broadcasting with some premium years spent from 1971 to the early 1990s as an activist in the environmental movement. This man, Michael de Pencier, is a new inspiration for me. So much of his life history resonates with me and the parallels are uncannily similar.

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