The Rich 100 (2009)

Our 11th annual ranking of Canada’s wealthiest people.

A year ago, there were plenty of reasons to question the future of global capital markets, and their ability to unleash astonishing wealth. Last November, when we published our annual survey of Canada’s 100 richest people and families, the markets were still in the throes of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And while it was clear that 2008 had been devastating, few predicted a quick or powerful rebound in 2009. Well, the market is full of surprises.

As we concluded our valuations for this, our 11th annual Rich 100 list, we were surprised to discover that the majority of the nation’s richest had not just stopped bleeding money — they were making it again. A lot of it. From April to September, the TSX composite index rose by nearly 45% — a rise further bolstered by the strength of the Canadian dollar. It translated into a $7.6 billion rise in the net worth of Canada’s 100 richest people. Almost half of that gain — just over $3.5 billion — went into the coffers of Canada’s richest family by far, the Thomsons.

The family of the late Kenneth Thomson was worth roughly $21.99 billion as of late September, when we finalized our calculations for this year. That’s an impressive 19% jump from last year, when the sagging fortunes of the media industry had hammered the value of the family’s central asset: more than 455 million shares in Thomson Reuters Corp. But that really fails to capture the awe-inspiring windfall that the rebound bestowed upon Canada’s richest clan. Consider this: that $3.5-billion gain from 2008 to 2009 translates into $10.9 million per day, $452,500 per hour, $7,540 per minute and $126 per second. But even at that, the Thomsons are still well below their record high of $25.35 billion, reached in 2007.

Of course, with that much money tied to a single share price, values can be volatile. Indeed, Thomson Reuters shares have fallen by $1.99 in the past couple of months, carving a whopping $907 million off the family fortune. But the Thomsons won’t need to worry about selling assets to pay the bills any time soon. It’s been three years since Ken, the kindly family patriarch who was frequently seen walking his dog around Toronto’s posh Rosedale neighbourhood, passed away. His son, David, is now head of the family’s collection of businesses, and serves as chairman of Thomson Reuters. Like his father, David shuns the spotlight and rarely speaks publicly. That’s also true of the other siblings, Peter — who is also active in the family businesses and sits on the board of Thomson Reuters — and sister Taylor, who has worked as an actress and producer, but plays little role in the family business.

And while media represents the lion’s share of the Thomson fortune, the family also holds extensive real estate investments — something they share in common with many of their fellow members of the Rich 100 list.

Many of our moguls managed to snatch up properties at bargain prices since Canada, of course, didn’t experience a collapse in property valueslike the one in U.S. Still, for most, 2009 was not a year to take massive risks. When analyzing and discussing strategy with many members of the list, we found most spent the year hunkered down, conserving cash, nervously monitoring the shifting fortunes of the global economy and waiting for confidence to be restored. The strategy worked: overall, 69 list members increased in total wealth.

Yes, the rich are getting richer. And while that might be galling for those still dealing with the lingering effects of a brutal recession, there is good news in it for all of us. The Rich 100 provides a rough and unscientific barometer on the health of our economy. The wealth of the ultra-rich is often a leading indicator of economic growth, and so it seems the worst really is over. These titans, at the head of industries that employ millions, are now recovering what was once thought lost forever. Hopefully, soon, we all will be.