||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
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
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.