John A. Tory, who died this past weekend at the age of 81, was a quintessentially Canadian mover and shaker. Described as quiet, gentle and unfailingly modest, he guided some of the country’s biggest companies through their most important decisions—particularly the Thomson family empire and the communications behemoth built by the late Ted Rogers, which owns Maclean’s. But he rarely found himself in the spotlight for his work—and that was exactly the way he wanted it.
In an age where fame is often confused with success, Tory’s approach to business—work hard, keep your head down—feels like it’s from another era. But, according to his son, John H. Tory, a businessman and a former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, his father believed there was much to be gained from staying behind the scenes. “He used to shake his head at me when I was in politics because so much time was taken up by what was in the newspaper, magazines, and on the radio,” Tory says, although he stressed that his father was supportive of his political aspirations and a big believer in public service. “He thought a lot of it—probably correctly—was unproductive. So he stayed away from it.”
Instead, he spent much of his career working on behalf of others who, unlike himself, became household names. A lawyer by trade, Tory first crossed paths with the Thomson family, now among the world’s most wealthy, when he worked on the late Roy Thomson’s 1955 purchase of the Sudbury Star. The paper would eventually become one of many in Lord Thomson of Fleet’s newspaper empire, which spanned the globe. He later co-founded the Bay Street law firm Torys LLP with his brother, but was lured away in 1973 to work for the Thomson family’s holding company, Woodbridge Co. There, he helped Thomson’s son, Kenneth, and later grandson, David, transform the business from a media company into a global electronic information giant, now Thomson Reuters. Although Tory officially stepped down from the job in 1998, he remained a trusted advisor to the family right up until his death last Saturday at his home in Florida, where he spent winters away from Toronto’s freezing temperatures. “He became, by far, the family’s closest confidant,” Tory says.
The exact scope of Tory’s influence within the Thomson empire was a constant source of speculation and a closely guarded secret. He was once described in the pages of this magazine by author Peter C. Newman as “a kind of secretary general of the multibillion dollar corporate confederacy, prodding, solving, appointing, acquiring, divesting, troubleshooting, running the damn thing—but never quite making the ultimate decision by himself.” And Tory, of course, didn’t go into details when asked. “I’m a professional and I never worry about my image,” he told Newman. “As a business person you can have too high a profile and there’s no upside to that whatsoever.”
But while Tory’s disdain for the limelight fit with the often reclusive nature of the Thomsons, the same can’t easily be said of Tory’s long-standing relationship with Ted Rogers, who was one of the Canadian business world’s few larger-than-life figures. Tory first met Rogers when he was a recent law school graduate and budding entrepreneur. The future cable baron had approached Tory’s father about an articling job at the family law firm. Though his law career didn’t go far, Rogers nevertheless became close friends with the younger Tory who, ultimately, asked him to join his company’s board of directors, which, at the time, was little more than a handful of radio stations. “He went home and told his wife, Liz, who replied, ‘Why would you want to sit on the board of that crappy little company?’” Rogers wrote in his official biography, Relentless. Fortunately for Rogers, Tory took the position anyway and remained there for decades. He proved to be a sober counterweight to Rogers’ driving enthusiasm. Tory was a “voice of restraint when it comes to my spending,” Rogers wrote, referring to his well-documented penchant for taking big risks with borrowed money.
Even so, Tory knew a golden opportunity when he saw one, which is why he encouraged Rogers to pay $1.4 billion for struggling wireless firm Microcell in 2004. Rogers later credited the deal for transforming his cable empire into a major player in wireless, now the company’s most important division. “They were a great pair,” says the younger Tory, who also worked for Rogers, initially as a cub reporter at one of his radio stations and later as head of the all-important cable division. “Because my dad was so quiet and analytical whereas Ted was the consummate entrepreneur—colourful, impulsive and all the things my dad wasn’t.”
One attribute Rogers and Tory did share was their belief in the value of—and enjoyment in—their work. His son recalls ski weekends at Collingwood, north of Toronto, where his father would plop down in an easy chair and pull out a deal-related document and proceed to begin marking it up. “He took pleasure in that,” Tory says. “But he had a fun side to him too.” He liked to spend time with his family, play golf and had lots of friends, according to Tory. And he says it wasn’t unusual for his father’s colleagues, often decades his junior, to take him out while on business trips. “They said they genuinely had fun with him even though he was 75 or even 80, and everyone else was 50 or 55.”
After taking business calls as late as last Thursday and Friday, Tory began to feel unwell and later suffered a stroke. His wife of 58 years and most of his family were at his bedside when he died a short time later. “He was a man who was never old,” says son John. “I mean, he was 81 years old, but sharp as a tack right up until the last day. I was in meetings with him 10 days ago where he was discussing tax law points that I was having trouble comprehending myself.”
When it comes to his father’s legacy, Tory not surprisingly says that his dad wouldn’t have wanted people to make a big deal about his work or his philanthropy, which included longtime support of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “He wouldn’t want anything to be said, other than he was a good man and led a good life.”