Q&A: Charles Bronfman, the billionaire philanthropist who just wrote a memoir

Q&A: Charles Bronfman, the billionaire philanthropist who just wrote a memoir

In his new memoir, Distilled, Canadian business mogul and former Seagram’s booze baron Charles Bronfman shares his life story, from his silver-spoon beginnings to the demise of his family’s company (which was at one point the largest liquor distributor in the world). In the late sixties, Bronfman stepped out of the family shadow, bringing Major League Baseball to Canada with the Montreal Expos, and went on to distinguish himself as a philanthropist. Here, he talks about the trouble with family businesses, his pledge to leave at least half his fortune to charity, and why the American election is a terrifying thing.

Despite being born into one of the country’s wealthiest families, you say that as a youngster you weren’t aware of your own privilege. When did you realize your life was a little extraordinary?
I think that happened when I was a teenager. There was no one “aha!” moment.

You describe your younger self as having a terrible inferiority complex. As an adult, you say were “too sensitive,” and not a bottom-line guy. Still you’ve been very successful, so I wonder if you think these passive traits might have an upside, career-wise.
Well, I think it depends on what enterprise you’re in. I didn’t want to run the Seagram company, writ large. I didn’t want to have to lay people off, play God with their salaries.

You say your brother Edgar was responsible for making sure your family was successful, while you were responsible for making sure your family was good.
I think that’s what my dad thought I was responsible for. One can ask: why did you have such an interest in philanthropy? And I have my answer: I am in awe of my grandparents, who left Bessarabia on a not-very-wonderful boat ride to Halifax and then were shipped to Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They faced all the hazards of the Canadian winter. They were pioneers in the old-fashioned sense of the word. They endured the tortures of the damned, and I’m born with a silver spoon in my mouth. With philanthropy, I am just saying thank you, thank you, thank you.

You say that being an heir to the Seagram fortune defined who you were.
We were sort of a storied family, and when you’re born and raised in a family company, that’s what you think about—that’s what the dining room conversation was. From the time I was tall enough to look at a back bar in a restaurant, I would try to figure out where our brands were, whether they were well placed. I did it without thinking. It was just who we were.

In Canada, we have so many famous family business families: The Rogerses, The McCains, The Bombardiers. What’s the secret to keeping a clan like that successful?
Often times you fall into founder’s syndrome, which is a difficult thing. You have the founder, who starts a business that is relatively small, and then it grows and grows, and eventually it grows too big for the founder to run it, but the founder still thinks he can. That’s when you start having some problems. I think if one member of the family has the real desire and the acumen to lead that business, that’s fine—but by the third generation the family should stay involved, but the best professional the board can find should be running that business. That is what we should have done in my family.

Do you think there is a sort of romantic notion of a business being passed down from generation to generation?
There’s no question about that. I think my dad felt that his children would run the business.

You were recently honoured for one of your philanthropic projects, the Heritage Minute commercials. As a child of the eighties, I feel like half of my Canadian history knowledge comes from those ads. Do you have a favourite one?
I really like the first one, which was the Underground Railroad, because it was frankly something I didn’t know about, and it was so indicative of Canadian initiative in taking those risks and getting those slaves out of the United States. The other one I really liked was Valour Road, about the three young men from the same street in Winnipeg.

I always liked the “burnt toast” one, about the Canadian brain surgeon.
Isn’t that funny. I’m not sure why, but everyone seems to agree that the burnt toast one is fantastic.

In 2012 you joined the Giving Pledge, a movement started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, where the very wealthy pledge to give at least half of their fortune to charity. Why do it?
I joined because there was only one other Canadian doing it at the time, and he lives in England. I thought, because I am known in Canada, that it might inspire others to take the same pledge.

Buffet has famously said that he doesn’t believe in rich people leaving huge amounts of money to their children. What do you think?
I think there are no rights or wrongs. Some people raise their kids in the way Mr. Buffet is talking about, other people leave everything to their children. I don’t think there is any proof that one way produces better results. It depends on the children and the environment they’re in.

In 2013 you became a U.S. citizen, largely because you wanted to be able to vote in the country where you spend most of your time. Could you have imagined three years ago what kind of election you’d be voting in?
Oh my God, I am so sad about what has happened here. I am just terrified about what the aftermath will be—no matter who wins, it’s going to be a very, very difficult four years. The campaigns have been so incredibly off-base. Never in a million years would this happen in Canada.

Donald Trump is constantly highlighting his business prowess. As a fellow businessman, how would you describe him?
Not very happily.

So safe to say you’re With Her?


November 7, 2016

Because of an editing error, this post originally misstated Charles Bronfman's brother's name. It's Edgar, not Edward.