One fam­ily em­pire rises, an­other de­clines

Shaw Com­mu­ni­ca­tions takes over Canwest’s broad­cast­ing as­sets


is pub­licly held.

The firm’s an­nual gen­eral meet­ings, held in the sun­drenched atrium of its sub­ur­ban Cal­gary com­plex, have the at­mos­phere of a re­laxed fam­ily get­to­gether rather than a stodgy cor­po­rate event. The 75-year-old pa­tri­arch of the Shaw fam­ily pre­sides over the brief meet­ings in his role as ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the board, be­fore invit­ing all those at­tend­ing to visit over lunch.

More cow­boy than Bay Street deal­maker, chief ex­ec­u­tive Jim Shaw, 52, made waves at CRTC hear­ings into the fee-for-car­riage is­sue, in which con­ven­tional broad­cast­ers like Canwest’s Global were ask­ing to make ca­ble op­er­a­tors like Shaw charge their cus­tomers for each chan­nel car­ried.

He lam­basted the CRTC process in a let­ter to Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper in April 2008, only to skip out on his highly an­tic­i­pated ap­pear­ance at the hear­ings a week later.

When asked by CRTC chair­man Kon­rad von Fick­en­stein why Shaw had sent its “B-team” to ap­pear at the hear­ings in his stead, Bis­son­nette would only say the chief ex­ec­u­tive was “do­ing some­thing else.”

Shaw later re­vealed in a pro­file in the Globe and Mail’s Re­port on Busi­ness Mag­a­zine that he was grap­pling with health is­sues at the time.

De­spite the CEO’s com­bat­ive pub­lic per­sona, Bis­son­nette says the fa­ther of three has a softer side.

“He’s very, very gen­er­ous and he’s very, very sen­si­tive and car­ing,” Bis­son­nette said.

“ They are like my broth­ers and JR’s kind of like my dad,” Bis­son­nette said of Jim and his brother Brad Shaw, who serves as vice-pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions for the com­pany.

The first in­car­na­tion of the Shaw em­pire was cre­ated in 1966, when JR Shaw founded Cap­i­tal Ca­ble Tele­vi­sion Co. Ltd in Ed­mon­ton. It was granted its ini­tial broad­cast­ing li­cense by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties four years later.

Since sign­ing on its first ca­ble cus­tomer in 1971, the firm has grown its ca­ble, In­ter­net and dig­i­tal phone sub­scriber base to 3.4 mil­lion.

Cap­i­tal Ca­ble Tele­vi­sion changed its name to Shaw Cablesys­tems Ltd. when it went pub­lic in 1983.

The deal el­e­vates the Shaw fam­ily from a “re­gional pow­er­house” to a na­tional pres­ence, me­dia an­a­lyst Carmi Levy said.

“ The Shaw fam­ily stands poised to take its place in the rel­a­tively thin ranks of me­dia-dom­i­nant fam­i­lies — a group that in­cludes the Rogers, Pe­ladeau and, for now any­way, Asper fam­i­lies,” he said.

“ There’s a bit­ter irony in­her­ent in the fact that the Shaws’ rise to na­tional promi­nence comes at the ex­pense of the Aspers’ demise. But no one ever said sit­ting on top of the Cana­dian me­dia heap was easy or safe.”

The me­dia busi­ness as a fam­ily af­fair seems to be the “Cana­dian way,” said Iain Grant, head of the SeaBoard Group.

The Pe­ladeau fam­ily dom­i­nates Que­bec through its Que­becor me­dia con­glom­er­ate. The Rogers clan dom­i­nates On­tario. The Aspers made Win­nipeg their seat of power. And the Shaws hail from Al­berta.

“I think it’s be­cause the fam­ily con­trolled cor­po­ra­tion can take a longer view about cor­po­rate strat­egy. They’re not nec­es­sar­ily as need­ful of manag­ing form quar­ter to quar­ter,” said Grant.

“ They know that in the long run it will prove out and they’ve got the votes to be able to stare down any chal­lenger.”

Izzy Asper died in 2003 at age 71. His son, Canwest chief ex­ec­u­tive Leonard Asper, is the last of his heirs to play a role in the me­dia con­glom­er­ate af­ter sib­lings Gail and David re­signed from the board of direc­tors this week.

The per­sonal as­pect is not some­thing Shaw takes lightly, said Bis­son­nette.

Be­fore buy­ing out Hamil­ton­based Moun­tain Cable­vi­sion last year, JR Shaw ac­com­pa­nied Bis­son­nette to meet one-on-one with Owen Boris, the pa­tri­arch of the fam­ily that owed the busi­ness out of def­er­ence.

“ They’re very, very, very classy and they’re very con­sid­er­ate. They’re sen­si­tive to the con­cerns that em­ploy­ees have when tran­si­tions take place,” Bis­son­nette said.

Shaw is also an ex­tremely prag­matic and con­ser­va­tive com­pany, known to take its time mak­ing big de­ci­sions.

“ They knew the op­por­tu­nity was there, we knew that the as­set was there, we knew that the po­ten­tial for syn­er­gies were there, but it sug­gests to me that the price wasn’t yet. The seller wasn’t suf­fi­ciently des­per­ate,” said Grant.

Shaw has been tak­ing a painstak­ingly cau­tious ap­proach to en­ter­ing the wireless busi­ness.

The Cana­dian Press

Jim Shaw, CEO of Shaw Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, waits to ad­dress the com­pany’s an­nual meet­ing in Cal­gary in this Jan. 14 file photo.

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