Seagram co-chairman Charles Bronfman on running a family business

This second-generation leader of one of Canada’s most iconic companies talks about writing his memoirs, selling the Montreal Expos and why he doesn’t drink

Seagram co-chairman Charles Bronfman

Seagram co-chairman Charles Bronfman. (Portrait by Richmond Lam)

The Bronfman family looms large in Canadian lore, thanks to its ownership of Seagram Co. Ltd., which traces its roots to 1924. Seagram grew from a distilling company into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate with stakes in the entertainment industry, before a failed merger in 2000 led to its unwinding. Charles, son of founder Samuel, was born in 1931 and held multiple roles in the family firm, becoming co-chairman in 1986. Over the past few decades, he has focused on philanthropy; he co-founded Birthright Israel, spearheaded Heritage Minutes and started the Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalized Medicine in New York.

You recently published your memoir, Distilled. What was it like to work on that book?

I found it refreshing. I got a lot out of my system. Originally, this was going to be just for my grandchildren, so they would know where I came from and that their pops was a human being. I don’t know if they’ll think I’m an icon or a jerk, but I wanted them to see the real me. Later I said, “This is an interesting story.”

Why did you go into such detail about the demise of Seagram, the spirits empire founded by your father?

I don’t think I revealed any state secrets. But I thought it was right for my grandchildren, and also for people out there, to know how I really felt about it. It was well-known that I was offside when a lot of this stuff happened.

Let’s go back a bit earlier. When your older brother, Edgar, started at Seagram, he wanted to learn about the organization from the top down. You wanted to learn from the bottom up. Why?

Because I can’t understand things unless I know how they’re done. Same thing when we got on the board of DuPont. I went to a number of DuPont factories to see how Mylar was made, how Tyvek happens and that sort of thing. I wanted to see how it all works. Once I do that, I understand the products, because I’m a visual person. Perhaps Edgar wasn’t as much of a visual person. He wanted to know how to run something big. So when I was running Seagram Canada, we had three different brands, and I was able to compartmentalize the three of them. If someone would discuss doing X for one, I might say “That’s terrific.” If someone would suggest doing the same thing for another brand, I’d understand that’s not the profile of this company.

There’s a chapter devoted to the sale of the company’s stake in DuPont. Your nephew, then CEO, wanted the cash to buy media company MCA. You were strongly against it, but you never exercised your veto as a 40% shareholder in Seagram. You suggest many factors influenced the decision—not wanting to start a war inside the family, for example—but it seems like you aren’t even sure why you didn’t try harder to stop the transaction.

In the first place, one has to define the word “veto.” Yes, my side of the family had as many shares as Edgar’s side, but he might have been able to count my sisters’ shares with him. If I had used the veto, and if my brother and nephew had decided the veto was nice but wasn’t going to happen, we would have gone to the board. I think my brother and nephew would have won. They were the line officers at the company, and I was offside, as it were. So I’m not so sure it was a true veto. But that’s thinking in hindsight.

You don’t think it would have made a difference?

We’ll never know. What bothered me the most was losing touch with our senior executives. I used to know when so-and-so had a baby or when someone’s mother died. All of a sudden, that connection was severed.

Your relationship with your brother was strained for many years afterward, too. You ultimately reconciled. What changed?

We decided we would concentrate on the areas where we had an affinity and leave the stuff we disagreed on out of the equation. So it was mostly about philanthropy. We had the same political views, writ large: the same views about Israel, American politics and Canadian politics. Had it been the same in business, it would have been quite wonderful. I guess, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t have been in the same business together.

Did not having a post-secondary education help or hinder you?

I was a McGill dropout. But my job at Seagram’s Adams division, which made lower-priced whisky, was my Harvard Business School education. I learned from my mistakes there—mind you, we only had a loss one year, and that enabled me to look at the business in a different way, with some success under my belt. Running Seagram Canada later was wonderful. I had a thing against org charts, because if somebody’s name is a higher than somebody else’s, they start trouble. The thing you do is share results. If you’re talking about sales, what’s wrong with having the production guy there? I said people would work together, not in silos.

You were the founding investor in the Montreal Expos in 1969. Some of the other initial investors backed out, and even one of your closest friends and advisers suggested you not go through with it. So why did you?

I love sports, and I wanted to do something for the city, the province, the country. It means a lot to a town like Montreal or Toronto or Kansas City to be called “major league.” Of course, it wasn’t my idea—it was [mayor Jean] Drapeau’s idea—but I thought it was pretty cool. They always say the two greatest days in sports ownership are the day you buy and the day you sell, but for me, opening day in Montreal was the high point.

What about the day you sold?

It had become pretty painful. We started to lose money. We started to lose fans. We started to lose hope. And so we began the process.

There’s an effort to revive the Expos. Do you have any interest in that?

Everybody asks, and I’ve told everyone the same thing: Been there, done that.

Did being involved with the Expos teach you anything about business?

I think it changed me, because I went from being what I consider a backroom guy, under the protection of my family, to doing something on my own. It was that simple. What’s sort of fascinating to me now is that I had some good success on my own. The thing I failed at was being involved in Seagram.

Your dad was certainly a strong personality. You write that for all of his business genius, he had founder’s syndrome. How did you see that play out?

I saw him making decisions he really shouldn’t have made. He had certain philosophies, like, “I buy businesses. I don’t sell them.” Well, occasionally you should sell something. The business just got too big for a one-man ruler. And he used to do things that were not in the true spirit of business. Instead of going to a sales manager, he’d go straight to a salesperson. The manager is wondering, What the hell? It sows organizational doubt.

When your brother was CEO, you actually tried to convince him to hire a professional CEO from outside the family. What would that have achieved?

Stability. My brother and I could have sat with the CEO and said, “This is where we want to go.” And that person could have carried it out. If you have a professional CEO, you’re not subject to the owners’ flights of fancy.

What’s your top piece of advice to family firms who want to ensure they survive a leadership transition?

Train the next generation as broadly as you can, and let them have jobs outside the company. I remember our chief blender at Seagram was very, very good. I worked for two months on a VO blend, and with great pride I took it up to this man. He sniffed it and tasted it. He looked at me, and he just said, “You’ll learn.” That’s no way to train anybody.

You write that a lot of people assume philanthropy is easy. What’s hard about it that they misunderstand?

We founded [the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies] with too much money. So what are we going to spend it on? I had said these were the two subjects that I wanted to focus on: the enhancement of Canadianism and the unity of the Jewish people. We had one woman working with us who wanted us to do something with high school dropouts in Canada, which we did, stupidly. We learned we had better damn well focus. You can either do a little bit for a lot of things or a lot for a few things.

Speaking of VO, what’s your drink of choice these days?

Wine. I find that as I’ve gotten longer in the tooth, I can’t drink as much as I used to.

Not spirits?

Very rarely. I just can’t handle it.