Rich 100: A decade of wealth

A look back at 10 years of poking and prodding into the lives of the rich.

It’s hard to believe this is the 10th edition of the Canadian Business Rich 100. What is now a flagship annual feature of this magazine — and one of the most fascinating lists in any Canadian publication — started out with a blank sheet of paper and a simple instruction from then-editor Arthur Johnson in late 1998: “I want you to do a ‘rich list’ for next summer.”

That was my daunting assignment. I started by visiting the editors of the Forbes 400 in New York for a crash course on how to find and evaluate the wealthy. I remember walking through the wing of Forbes dedicated to the project. Banks of filing cabinets and cubicles were stacked high with paper, with just enough of a trench carved out to allow staffers through. Someday, I thought, CB could look like this: a library of the most fascinating information on Canada’s wealthiest citizens, and a fire hazard to boot.

The second step was to put a crack research team in place — Ellen Himelfarb, the late Laura Janeshewski, Carolyn Pritchard and Peter Verburg — and get our hands on anything that had ever been written about Canada’s rich and powerful. We hit up family, friends, analysts, fund managers, financiers, CEOs and the rich themselves to ask a simple question, over and over: Who has money in this country? Coming up with the first 25 names or so was easy. It was obvious Ken Thomson, Galen Weston, the Irvings, Paul Desmarais Sr. and Ted Rogers would make the list, and we were pretty sure Conrad Black belonged somewhere (though, with his $295-million fortune and 83rd place, not as high as we had thought). But Céline Dion (No. 99, worth $240 million)? And how about all those new Internet titans nobody had heard of?

A fascinating educated guessing game ensued, more art than science. I chased down the late Izzy Asper after the Canwest Global annual meeting in Toronto to ask the size of his non-Canwest holdings. He didn’t hesitate. “About $150 million, give or take $10 million,” he said matter-of-factly. “Call my son David, he’ll know.” When we realized Joey Tanenbaum had given away so much of his inherited fortune that he wouldn’t qualify, we decided to write about him anyway to celebrate his philanthropy.

The first list was far from perfect, and subsequent issues have sought to uncover the fortunes that evaded our attention — or hadn’t yet been created. We knew some of our calculations would be well off the mark, while others would be more accurate than anyone could imagine. Some list members shared confidential financial information to ensure accuracy, while others refused to take our calls — and still do.

The point was to sketch a map of Canadian wealth, and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of the forces and personalities that shape the Canadian economy. I think we achieved that, and the magazine continues to do so. It’s not surprising that the Rich 100 is CB’s top-selling newsstand edition year after year.

The list has changed a lot over the years. More than 40% of the original 100 have since fallen off (sorry, Céline) or passed away, leaving their fortunes to the next generation. Getting on the list is also tougher. Steve Stavro squeaked into 100th on the first list with an estimated fortune of $235 million; you now need $464 million to qualify. Meanwhile, average net worth of those listed has increased by 54%, to $1.65 billion, while the number of billionaires has more than doubled, to 53. Of course, the collapse of capital markets this fall has sharply reduced many of the fortunes you’re about to read about. But don’t expect to hear any of them crying poor.

Sean Silcoff was project co-ordinator of the inaugural Rich 100 list, which appeared in the July 30–Aug. 13, 1999, edition of Canadian Business.