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