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Stephen Bronfman is betting big on Montreal’s future

Bronfman’s famous relatives fled the city long ago


 
The last of his kind

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

There are a couple of reasons why Stephen Bronfman seems to be smiling more than usual these days. Having failed in his bid to purchase the Montreal Canadiens last year, the eldest child of billionaire Charles Bronfman got quite a consolation prize by luring the Habs’ former president Pierre Boivin to Claridge Inc., the private investment firm the 47-year-old has run for 15 years. Scoring Boivin, who will serve as Claridge’s president and CEO, is a coup for the small investment house: as one of Quebec’s most respected business minds, he was reportedly courted by some of the biggest companies in the province.

Mostly, though, Stephen Bronfman is decidedly optimistic about the future of Montreal—which, coming from a Bronfman, is good news for the city. Though the family made their name and much of their fortune in Quebec through liquor behemoth Seagram’s, practically all of the members of the sprawling Bronfman family tree have left.

The reason represents a familiar narrative in Quebec’s history: the province’s political upheaval, beginning with the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, caused a monumental flight of capital, mostly to Toronto. This included Stephen’s cousins Peter and Edward, who departed shortly after selling off their ownership of les Canadiens in 1978. Stephen’s father Charles debarked for New York, while American cousin Edgar Jr.’s disastrous reign as head of Seagram’s is the stuff of dubious legend.

Throughout it all, Stephen Bronfman has mostly stayed put in Montreal. “I guess I’m a bit more of a traditionalist, and very proud to be the last man standing, so to speak,” he says from his downtown office. “There’s a sense of history, tradition, pride of being third-generation Bronfman in Montreal.”

Bronfman joined Claridge, the boutique investment firm started by his father, in 1991; four years later he negotiated a deal to buy Labatt’s broadcast assets; the ensuing company was sold to CTV in 1999, nearly doubling Claridge’s initial $45-million investment. That same year, Bronfman joined a group of investors attempting to keep the Expos in Montreal. One of Claridge’s recent successes was investing in SunOpta, an Ontario-based and publicly traded purveyor of organic foods. Claridge’s initial investment was $2 million in 2001; SunOpta’s sales have since grown sixfold to nearly $900 million in 2010. Canadian Business magazine deemed SunOpta stock to be the best cash-flow generator of 2010.

Claridge has two new major construction projects in Montreal—Les Bassins du Nouveau Havre, a 2,000-unit housing development on 23 acres bordering the Lachine Canal, and Le Seville, a $120-million housing and retail development plunked down into what has been a decrepit void of western Ste. Catherine Street. The 450-unit development wasn’t without its hiccups: namely, a plan to bring organic grocer Whole Foods to the site fell through. “I think they got nervous about the climate, about doing business in a predominantly French market,” Bronfman says.

These investments aren’t happenstance; as Bronfman notes, Montreal’s real estate market is doing quite well. Last year saw a nine per cent increase in housing sales volume, according to the Greater Montreal Real Estate Board. The city’s GDP, meanwhile, has increased by roughly 20 per cent since 2000—nothing flashy, but without the drastic dips faced by many North American cities recently.

Bronfman’s decision to stay in Montreal through thick and thin has had a positive effect on the city’s anglophone community in particular, says McGill business professor Karl Moore. “The Bronfmans have a storied history here, and it’s encouraging to Anglo Montrealers that he’s stayed close to his roots here,” he says. “It’s good for the community, and suggests we should do the same.”

As a smaller and private investment firm, Bronfman says Claridge is well-positioned to reap the benefits of Quebec’s peculiar business climate: the wariness to search out funding from big, out-of-province firms. “There’s always a bit of trepidation with local business people,” he says. “They’ve invested their life and their emotion into their business and they don’t want to have someone strip out their management just for the almighty dollar. We’ve won out a few deals where we’ve beaten multinationals by buying, say, a food business, maybe paid a little less, but the entrepreneur is much happier to do business with a local family office than a large corporation.”

But what of Quebec’s old (but ever-present) political ghosts? After all, unpopular as it may be right now, the question of Quebec sovereignty remains a stubborn constant. Regardless, Bronfman is staying put. “That’s the nature of the beast,” he says of Montreal. “There’s always going to be ups and downs. It’s what makes Quebec an exciting place to live.”


 

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