Leo, A Life

by L. Ian MacDonald, Leo Kolber
ISBN: 077352634X

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A Review of: Leo, A Life
by John Ayer

In 1957 liquor magnate Sam Bronfman wanted to shake up a conservatively-run family trust called Cemp Investment in order to produce more exciting yields. The man he chose to accomplish this, Leo Kolber, was an unusual, even eccentric, choice. Kolber after all was just 28 and his successes were limited to a few small real estate developments in Montreal. Ostensibly Kolber's prime qualification was that he was a college buddy of Sam's son, Charles, from McGill University. Because of this friendship, Kolber had managed to become a guest at the Bronfman's Westmount mansion regularly enough that Charles's mother Saidye wondered whether Kolber wasn't just a gold digger. But Sam Bronfman liked Kolber. He recognized a hard-edged will to succeed in Kolber not unlike his own. Apparently, Bronfman approvingly told his wife that Kolber was "a little Jewish boy on the make."
Kolber was given the task and his success was decidedly stellar. Although Bronfman was personally nervous about real estate, Kolber was attracted to it to the exclusion of most everything else. In his autobiography, Leo: A Life, which he has written with the help of journalist Ian MacDonald, Kolber admits he was lucky. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. In the late fifties and early sixties, Canadian urban real estate was cheap just when there was a ferocious demand for new development. The results were business complexes like the TD Centre in Toronto and gargantuan enclosed shopping centres so beloved by middle class shoppers. Through Kolber's foresight in exploiting these trends, the Bronfman family managed to add a second real estate fortune to that of its well known liquor business.
Kolber wasn't just the mastermind. Because he was given a percentage of profits from the start, he became extremely wealthy himself. He gave lavishly to the arts and to Israeli causes. He became the bagman of the federal Liberal party and a senator who chaired the Senate Banking Committee. He managed to stay out of the limelight and he seems to have preferred it that way. Yet he did attract some decidedly unwelcome attention. In the summer of 1971, Kolber and Mordecai Richler used to hang out, and Richler drained him of anecdotes about the Bronfmans which ended up in Richler's work, particularly Solomon Gursky was Here. Kolber ruefully admits he turned up himself in the novel as the figure Harvey Schwartz with a poet wife who was quite like his own. In his novel, Richler had pilloried Harvey Schwartz as the "pet cobra" of the Gurskys.
There's not too much evidence of the cobra in Leo. If he wanted to allay any impression of that, he has done a good job. In the areas of his personal life he often overdoes the sentimentality and self-indulgence. He never tires of telling us about the social perks of being very wealthy. Because of Cemp's part ownership in MGM, he says, Cary Grant, who served like Kolber on the board, used to dine with him in Hollywood and call him in Montreal on his birthday. Similarly, he was able to open the door of his mansion on his 40th birthday to find Danny Kaye pretending to be a delivery man for the party's smoked meat. On his fiftieth birthday it was famous hollywood songwriter Sammy Cahn leading the orchestra at the Ritz Hotel reception. A more recent thrill was to schmooze with Tiger Woods.
When he talks about the Bronfmans and the operation of his businesses, he is much more sober and acute. Being so close to the Bronfmans, he is able to analyze the foibles and manifold differences of Sam and Saidye and their four children whose trust he was managing. Understandably he gives a glowing account of his personal friend, the amiable Charles, who was the least Bronfman-like of the Bronfmans. He shows a bit of caution towards the official family heir, Edgar, who had his periods of personal turmoil. Yet he agrees that Edgar managed to keep the Bronfman interests on track. It was Edgar who bought up attractive DuPont stocks. Kolber shows no patience with Edgar's son, Edgar Jr., whose poor judgment in investing recently destroyed much of the family's wealth. These facts of course are now well known. Edgar Jr. managed to convince the family to cash in their attractive part ownership of DuPont and invest heavily in Hollywood's MCA just at the time the value of its stocks horribly collapsed.
Kolber blames Edgar Jr. but also points to deteriorating business practices antithetical to his own conservative investment strategies. Creative accounting principles like EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) led to fantasies of riches and the collapse of large companies. Noting Edgar Jr. was a great fan of EBITDA, he adds that EBITDA was "one of the reasons we've had a crisis of corporate governance. By 2003 corporate America was rushing to restate its earnings. But by then the damage had been done, not only to investor portfolios, but also to confidence in markets and business leaders."
In the end, Kolber wants us to know that he has done very well in life. He has made enormous amounts of money and come to know the perks and fine life of the wealthy. But he has done so with a management style which rarely fails because it knows its own strengths and responsible limits.

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