by Ian Allaby
Most of us, given Ted Rogers's fortune, would vanish to a paradisical beach. But he lacks that freedom. His business is his life. He is, apparently, a prisoner of his own creation, Rogers Communications Inc. (RCI), which boasts $2 billion annual revenue, $4 billion in debt, and a keen ambition to construct the Canadian Corner of the Wired World. Running this hard takes a toll, but surgeons keep Rogers functioning. After an aneurysm in 1988, and again after a quadruple bypass in 1992, he was back working practically before the anaesthetic faded.
Ted Rogers, a quickie bio by the business writer Bruce McDougall, reveals much and little about this Upper Canada Tory who owns broadcast stations, video stores, the nation's largest cable TV company, the largest cellular phone network (Cantel), the publisher Maclean Hunter, and, since his launch of cabled Internet in December, the first strands in an info highway that will eventually slam a whole digitized phantasmagoria of text, voice, image, video, and E-mail into our living rooms.
In his own account of himself, he is driven by a need to compete with his father, Ted Sr., who invented an AC tube that let radios run on household current, started a radio station, and worked himself to death by 1939, dying of an aneurysm when Ted Jr. was five. A portrait of Ted Sr. hangs in his den above a radio-tube shrine. The prize in this Oedipal competition-the "vision" that holds his gaze-is Tomorrowland with its amazing products, cool lifestyles, and electronic embrace.
Mr. McDougall suggests that Canadians "have never embraced Rogers wholeheartedly," owing to our churlish resentment of rich, successful people. Rogers comes from well-heeled Loyalist stock, but the "plain dumb luck" of birth, Mr. McDougall cautions, does not itself guarantee success. Sure, it helps to have hauts bourgeois pals such as the Eatons and Bassetts behind you when you start your first cable enterprise in 1966, the beginning of the end of Toronto's gnawing problem of poor reception of US programs. But Rogers would not be the billionaire on paper he is today without the humble support of Ottawa bureaucrats who, seeing him as a semi-bulwark against foreign media giants that want to swamp us, grant him the monopolistic privileges that enable him to scrounge funds, build his networks, and charge what the traffic will bear.
What shall we make of the fact that RCI has produced net losses in eight of the past eleven years, as Rogers plows earnings back into the never-ending technology race? Certain churls view this as a strategy to gather tax breaks even as assets grow. Of Rogers's shrewdness there is no doubt. His $3.1 billion takeover of Maclean Hunter in 1994 displayed his personal connections, skill in using men, and predatory wile. Rogers wanted the company badly: it had cash flow and space to pile more debt on, leave aside the potential of its periodicals as grist for the electronic mill. But he refused to pay what Maclean Hunter fancied it was worth. So he dissuaded the likeliest competing bidders by promising them cuts from the carcass. Quebecor, for instance, would receive a printing plant. He hired as advisors the very consultants who previously had designed Maclean Hunter's anti-takeover defences. The takeover achieved, he recruited the former CRTC chairman Pierre Juneau to oversee Maclean Hunter while the CRTC mulled whether to approve. The CRTC approved.
In his preface Mr. McDougall vows "to cast a more irreverent eye upon the life of one of Canada's most fast-moving entrepreneurs." In the event, however, he leans on familiar motifs of business journalism: Rogers is the heroic entrepreneur who takes risks (mortgages the house, borrows from friends) in domains where critics scoff and rivals fear to tread, the David challenging the Goliath phone companies for control of the info highway, the self-sustaining individualist of capitalist lore, muted for Canadian consumption-"Rogers needs his sidekicks almost as much as they need him" (my emphasis).
McDougall is dismissive or defensive about episodes that might tarnish Rogers. Rogers unloads $2 million worth of his RCI shares days before RCI announces a new stock issue that dilutes share value. Coincidence! His wife Loretta smuggles $193,000 worth of gems through customs to avoid paying duty. Who wouldn't? Recounting the grass-roots rebellion when Rogers foisted a package of new channels on cable subscribers last year, Mr. McDougall manages to slag his critics and customers alike. Those subscribers cared more about a measly $2.65 increase than they did about Bosnia, the louts. They whined to the CRTC, some using Rogers-backed Unitel long distance, the ingrates. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon just so they could duck their scandals and win votes, the hypocrites.
This book, stylistically rather like a sequence of magazine articles, has shortcomings. Since Rogers has enlisted someone else to generate an authorized biography, Mr. McDougall was denied direct access to his subject and had to rely heavily (he acknowledges) on the work of other journalists. Still, Ted Rogers should succeed as snappy, useful reading for the audience of in-flight executives it primarily aims for.
The author might have merited wider appeal had he not pandered to corporate prejudices by characterizing Rogers's antagonists, especially NDPers and the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, as blathering meddlers. Mr. McDougall's writing is at times wry, at times coldly factual, but in the end he becomes too much a troubadour to the business warriors. He needed a populist streak here. On the question of the perils of media ownership concentration, it is not believable that Rogers is a mere technology pusher uninterested in content. Rogers is an old friend of Brian Mulroney and in the Airbus affair it appears the Mulroney camp had easy entry to the Rogers-owned Financial Post and Toronto Sun to put its story out. However that may be, we stand forewarned of the propagandistic potential of the info highway and of the need to learn more about this illustrious highwayman.