Mentorship: Sage advice

One of Canada's most successful — and generous — entrepreneurs writes the book on life, investing and getting ahead in business.

Inside the boardroom at Newmont Capital’s Toronto headquarters stands a black, rectangular plaque celebrating Newmont’s 2002 acquisition of Normandy Mining and Franco-Nevada Mining Corp. — the company Seymour Schulich and his longtime business partner Pierre Lassonde founded more than a decade earlier. A knife and six-shooter pistol are mounted on the plaque above the words Schulich told reporters when asked about a rival gold company’s failed attempt to scuttle the deal: “You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

That’s good advice. And it’s advice Schulich has used himself to become one of Canada’s richest men with a personal fortune worth an estimated $1.2 billion. Of course, a little luck never hurts either. “We started Franco-Nevada almost as a lark,” explains Schulich, Newmont’s chairman since February 2002. “Nevada has great weather, great skiing and I could play poker there. If we had a company in Nevada, we could write off part of our trips down there. It worked out pretty well. We sold Franco for nearly $3 billion.”

Since the Franco deal, Schulich has repeated that success with even more lucrative investments in companies such as BlackRock Ventures and Canada Oil Sands Trust. Those deals made him one of Canada’s most successful investors and gave him the resources to become one of the country’s most generous philanthropists. Over the past 10 years he has given away more than $200 million to universities in Canada and Israel. Now, with the recent publication of his book Get Smarter: Life and Business Lessons, written with Globe and Mail columnist Derek DeCloet (Key Porter, $29.95), Schulich is adding another title to his already impressive resume: bestselling author.

Get Smarter is not your typical dry business book. The longest chapter is less than 20 pages, and the shortest isn’t even a page long. But each chapter is bursting with plain-spoken advice and peppered with personal anecdotes. The book is unusual for another reason: Schulich is personally bankrolling much of its $500,000-marketing campaign. Ads for Get Smarter have already appeared on the business pages of Canada’s two national newspapers and will soon appear on radio, in the Toronto subway system and in campus newspapers. It’s the second-largest marketing budget for a book in recent Canadian memory, says Schulich. “Only Lord of the Rings spent more than us.”

And the book is already a success. Released in August, Get Smarter has sold more than 50,000 copies, is in its fourth printing and now sits on Canadian bestsellers lists. Only part of the book’s popularity can be explained by Schulich’s unprecedented marketing effort, says Jordan Fenn, publisher of Toronto-based Key Porter Books. “No matter how heavily you advertise it, people aren’t going to buy a bad book,” he says. “And the book has had good reviews and great word of mouth.”

Schulich didn’t write the book to get rich, though. If it sells more than 100,000 copies, he will donate $1 million to the Love of Reading Fund, a charity founded by Indigo Books & Music CEO Heather Reisman that provides library books to underprivileged communities. Besides, money has never been a strong motivator for Schulich. Despite his wealth, he has never been attracted to the jet-set billionaire lifestyle. He drives a 12-year-old Lincoln Continental and lives in the same comfortable, yet unostentatious house he bought with his wife, Tanna, more than 30 years ago.

Get Smarter, aimed at readers 20 to 40 years old, is an extension of Schulich’s philanthropic and mentoring activities. “This is a mentoring book, and I hope it will have the same kind of impact as the money I give to the universities,” he says. “I can give $25 million to a school, and it might influence a few thousand kids. But for less than the $1 million this book will cost, I could reach 100,000 young people.”

Schulich credits his father’s strong mentoring as one of the keys to his success and as the source for much of the advice in the book. Julius Schulich was a dress designer who moved to Montreal from New York after he and Seymour’s mother, Bessie, lost their life savings in a bank crash during the Depression. The couple bounced back, and Julius ultimately ran his own successful women’s clothing business. Unfortunately, many young Canadians lack a good role model who can help them get their start in business, says Schulich. “There is a crisis of mentoring in this country,” he says. “A lot of kids are from broken homes, or they have blue-collar or immigrant parents who don’t understand the profession they are entering and can’t give them the kind of mentoring they need.”

Schulich still uses a lot of the advice his father gave him. For instance, he once asked his father how he managed to run such a successful business despite having no formal business education. His answer: Watch the cash. If the cash coming into the business is rising, don’t worry. But if the cash flow is falling, then it’s time to get concerned. “The companies I’m involved with still send the monthly cash sheets so I can see how they are doing,” says Schulich.

Get Smarter contains advice on investing (be wary of expensive growth stocks and avoid biotech companies “like the plague”), the importance of patience in waiting for a good business opportunity (a skill he learned while playing Texas hold ’em poker in Nevada) and avoiding the three traps that destroy many successful business people: ego, greed, and drugs and alcohol. The book also mentions a fourth trap. “Assistants with big breasts: They can destroy many careers, fortunes, families and marriages.”

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice in the book is Schulich’s description of how he makes decisions. The deceptively simple technique involves drawing up a pro-and-con list of all the good and bad things associated with a decision and then assigning a point value to each. It’s a tool Schulich has used for every major decision he has made over the past 50 years — including the decision to sell Franco-Nevada. “I still have the list somewhere,” he says. “The total came out 82 to sell and 25 to hold on…so we sold.”

Even with a book laying out Schulich’s advice, following in his footsteps — especially when it comes to picking investments — isn’t easy, says Lawrence Bloomberg, the former CEO of Toronto-based First Marathon Inc., who has been friends with Schulich since they were students at McGill University in the 1960s. One of their finance professors found that out the hard way after pestering them to share a stock tip when he learned of the pair’s reputation among classmates as savvy investors. “Shortly after hundred years from now, it won’t matter how much money you had, how big a house you lived in or what kind of car you drove. But if you are important in the life of a young person, you might make a difference.”

he told the professor to buy this mining stock, the company’s mill burned down and the stock tanked,” says Bloomberg. “He never asked for another pick after that.”

In 1963, Schulich invested $1,600 — scholarship money he was awarded to attend McGill — in a junior oil company and a junior chemical company that quickly earned him $5,000. That was enough for him to spend the summer travelling through Europe. “That was the most important money I ever received,” says Schulich. “Being able to travel like that changed my life.”

Schulich wants students today to experience that same sort of freedom with the more than 650 scholarships he funds annually. His benefactions are unlike many typical university endowments where millions of dollars are donated, but the students are awarded only a few thousand dollars in interest that the endowment creates. Many of Schulich’s scholarships are worth $15,000 or $20,000 — enough to make a big difference in the student’s life. “Endowments are the antithesis of what we should be doing,” says Schulich. “If you want to spend a nickel in business, you don’t set aside a dollar and then spend the nickel of interest it produces. A lot of endowments today memorialize people who hoard their money.”

His generous donations have changed the landscape of philanthropy toward Canadian universities, says Dezsö Horváth, dean of the Schulich School of Business at York University where Schulich has donated more than $30 million over the past 12 years. “When Seymour Schulich gave such a large amount, it was a real watershed moment in Canada,” he says. “Now it seems every other month individuals or corporations are funding new scholarships or research facilities that help to keep Canadian universities competitive.”

Schulich’s generosity predates his multimillion-dollar university donations, says his oldest business partner. Lassonde remembers the two men going to the downtown Toronto restaurant where the pair often had lunch in the late 1980s and finding their regular waitress in tears. When Schulich asked her what was the matter, she replied that the owner had sold the restaurant and she was now out of a job. “Without hesitating, Seymour wrote her a check for $3,000 to help her out and to thank her for giving us such great service over the years,” says Lassonde.

That generosity continues today. Schulich is a voracious reader who often orders dozens of books to share with friends and colleagues. Now, he is sending them his own book. And who knows, if Get Smarter does well, he may consider writing a sequel with advice for 40-to-60-year-olds. But any sequel aimed at older readers won’t have the same impact as this book, says Schulich. “One hundred years from now, it won’t matter how much money you had, how big a house you lived in or what kind of car you drove. But if you are important in the life of a young person, you might make a difference.”