Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart, Ted Rogers used to say. Indeed, the life story of this great Canadian visionary—the myriad challenges he faced, and overcame—is proof of that.
Edward Samuel Rogers, or “Ted” as he was known, was born on May 27, 1933. A frail baby, his parents were told he may not survive: this would prove to be an ironic prediction, considering the strength and ambition for which Rogers became known. In fact, entrepreneurship was in his blood. His great grandfather, Samuel Rogers, founded an oil distribution company that was later sold to Imperial Oil. Philanthropy was, as well: Samuel went on to co-found the Hospital for Sick Children in 1892.
It was Rogers’ father, Edward Rogers Sr., who inspired Ted’s lifelong passion for broadcasting and telecommunications. Edward invented a radio that ran without batteries, and founded CFRB in 1927. Ted was just five years old when his father passed away in 1939. Edward had little capital or life insurance at the time of his death, and so his companies were sold off. (Ted vowed he’d one day regain control of CFRB; although he never did, he was pursuing its current owner, Astral Media Inc., even at the end.) From the time of his father’s death, Ted’s mother, Velma Taylor Rogers Graham, “instilled in me a great capacity to work and rebuild what had been lost and never, ever give up,” Rogers would say.
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After his father’s death, his mother sent her son to boarding school, where he would remain until he was 17. Even as a teen, he generated money-making schemes: in his dorm room, Rogers rigged an antenna to show TV shows and charged admission. He also ran a business supplying musical equipment for dances. After high school, Rogers attended the University of Toronto, where he studied law (he graduated in 1961).
In 1957, while visiting a friend in the Bahamas, Rogers met Loretta Anne Robinson, the daughter of British MP Jack Robinson. Ted and Loretta were married on Sept. 25, 1963. Rogers and his father-in-law bonded over politics (Rogers was a lifelong Conservative). Rogers’ risk-taking streak, however, left the older man worried at times: at the couple’s engagement, Robinson toasted them, saying, “What’s Loretta’s is Loretta’s; and what’s yours, is negotiable.”
By then, Rogers already owned CHFI, which he’d purchased with an $85,000 loan while he was still in law school. At the time, the station had a five per cent share of the market. Under Rogers, CHFI became Canada’s biggest radio station. “I may have Van Gogh’s ear for music,” Rogers said, “but I could see crystal clear that FM with its superior sound was the future for radio.”
In the early years, money was sometimes sparse at the budding company. One of Rogers’ favourite anecdotes from those days had him picking invoices out of a hat to decide which ones to pay. He would keep going until the money ran out and pay the remaining ones later. “Can you believe some creditors didn’t appreciate such innovation?”
Rogers’ investment in cable television in 1967 changed the company forever. Twelve years later, it became the country’s largest cable company after taking over Canadian Cablesystems. But Rogers wasn’t done. He entered the cellphone market in its infancy. With partners Marc Belzberg and Philippe de Gaspe Beaubien, Rogers launched Cantel, which eventually became Rogers Wireless. Around the same time, Rogers invested heavily in the long-distance landline business with the purchase of CN/CP Telecommunications. Unlike his foray into wireless, the move was a bust and cost the company $500 million. But it didn’t deter Rogers. Instead, his company pursued an aggressive business strategy, one that included the establishment of Rogers Network Services (which was sold to AT&T Canada for $1.5 billion) and a hostile takeover of Maclean Hunter Ltd. in 1994 for $3.1 billion, then the biggest in Canadian communications industry history. “This is somebody who just had limitless imagination in terms of what was possible,” says Perrin Beatty, the president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “He was a risk taker, a builder, somebody who believed and had a sense of optimism about what he could achieve.”
That aggressive approach to business mirrored Rogers’ own to his work. Known for 18-hour days and seven-day work weeks, rest was rarely on the agenda. “When we did the takeover of Maclean Hunter in 1994, we couldn’t sit and enjoy it,” said Rogers vice-chairman Phil Lind. Rogers drive was only matched by his generosity. Over the years, he and his wife, Loretta, poured tens of millions back into the community, including donations to the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Toronto General Hospital, Toronto Western Hospital and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “He touched the lives of countless Canadians outside of his business ventures through his generosity in professional sport, health care and education,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. In 1991, Rogers was inducted into the Order of Canada. He and Loretta were honoured as Outstanding Philanthropists of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2002. Dubbing him “Mr. Toronto,” Toronto Life recognized Rogers as its “Man of the Year” in 2000, the year he bought the Toronto Blue Jays. He bought the SkyDome, which he renamed the Rogers Centre, in 2005.
Today, with an ever-expanding portfolio of services, including digital TV, publishing (including Maclean’s), Internet and wireless (most recently, Rogers inked a deal with Apple to become Canada’s only distributor of the iPhone), Rogers Communications Inc. is worth $18 billion and employs about 30,000 people.
Early this morning, Rogers died peacefully at his Toronto home, surrounded by family. He is survived by his wife, Loretta, and their four children, Lisa, Edward, Melinda and Martha. Rogers was 75.