Live & Learn: Edgar Bronfman

On being a rebel, the family heritage, and philanthropy.

Born June 20, 1929, in Montreal • Former CEO of Seagram Co. • Philanthropist • Piano Player

I was a terrible rebel. I was the guy who ate ham on Yom Kippur. But I’ve come full circle. Now, I actually fast on Yom Kippur. Fortunately, I find fasting very easy, so it’s not the biggest sacrifice in the world.

I don’t go to synagogue, still. But I do observe the holidays and the Sabbath in my own way. I’m not concerned with punishment from above or below. That doesn’t resonate with me at all. But I think to be able to live with yourself is important.

Being Jewish helped me with ethics. You don’t have to be crooked to do well in business. You don’t have to cheat. You’ll do fine if you’re honest.

My father wasn’t around very often growing up. When he was there, there were constant lectures. He was giving us this lecture about moderation — that was his favourite theme for quite a while — when, finally, in desperation I turned to him and said, “But to be perfectly consistent, father, you also have to be moderate in your moderation.” Then I ducked because I knew the kick was coming.

The Samuel Bronfman Foundation is named after my father. I’m obeying the Biblical injunction. It doesn’t say to love, it says to honour. I’m honoring him because he deserves it.

Giving is in my family’s heritage. My father was very generous. He led the way in the idea that if you have money, it’s a lot of responsibility and you should give.

My father’s driving force in life was to be somebody. One of the reasons he gave was to be somebody. I understand that. I still have no problem with it. But for me, it went a little deeper than that. I give because I want to. And the causes I give to are very selective, because they’re the only ones I think can build a Jewish renaissance.

The Jews have a great, long history of achievement, and we’ve given the world a lot and we’ve got a lot left to give. One of the things we’re very involved in is the repair of the world. Obviously, we haven’t been involved enough because look at the mess the world’s in.

The thing I found about doing charity work is that you have to listen to everybody. In business, you don’t really have to. But you’re much better off if you do.

My father surrounded himself in terms of friends with his employees. That’s always a mistake. You should like them, but you shouldn’t make them your buddies, because then if you want to get rid of them, it breaks your heart.

One of the hardest things to do when you’re a chief executive is to separate the ass-kissers from those who tell you the truth. And, of course, there’s a lot more ass-kissers than there are truth-tellers.

Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to tell you truth. Nobody wants to get in the ashcan because they insulted you. They tend to skirt around the issue. You really have to know how to penetrate the nonsense.

After my father died, I said to my brother, Charles, “We’ve got to get the best board in Canada. You and I can do anything we want, and that’s not much of a break on us.” That’s the real problem with family-run businesses. There’s nobody to say no to you, unless you have the kind of board we had.

There were two reasons I stepped down at Seagram. One, I was a little bored. And, two, I saw my father stay on much too long, and I surely wasn’t going to do that. He was in his 80s, and he was ruling by veto rather than anything else. The company was doing less well than it should have because of his narcissistic behaviour.

In the long-term, it’s just as well we have rules that make it very difficult for families to stay in control of businesses, because the blood does get watered down.

I don’t miss Seagram. I can still buy Chivas Regal and drink it, which I do occasionally.

I’m glad Seagram isn’t around for the family to fight over who is going to run it. I’ve got seven children. I’ve got 23 grandchildren. I’ve got one-and-a-half great-grandchildren. That’s a lot of kids to think about who’s going to run the company.

I’m with my third wife. I’ve had five weddings, but this is my third wife. Marriage is wonderful when you get it right.

My brother Charles and I are good friends. We weren’t for a time, over the whole DuPont and Universal thing. He was very unhappy with it. But we stopped fighting. What happened was his then wife was ill, and he needed a hug. So I went to hug him. And we stopped fighting.

I take piano lessons, just for amusement, because I find it’s one of the most relaxing things I can do. You can’t really turn off the mind, but you can divert it.