Ted Rogers: A visionary leader

Ted Rogers thrived on risk, hard work and a drive to link the country with new technology

A visionary leader

No one equalled his daring.

Ted Rogers spent most of 50 years in business guided by his viscera and the message on his business card that carried the self-designated title, “Senior Salesperson.” His profession was selling himself, and he succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings. Ted’s reputation had been forged as an entrepreneur extraordinaire—the high-wire trapeze artist of Canadian business. But by the end of his life he had turned himself into the indispensable alpha presence within the Canadian communications community who recognized, harnessed and marketed the technologies of the future. While he was known better for being a risk-taker than a pioneer, the two strains came together to define his personal brand.

He prided himself on being the kind of entrepreneur who thrived as much on risk as its rewards. From a modest start, as the owner of a one-station FM network, and his moves into cable, then wireless and iPhones—he was always there, ahead of his Canadian competitors, suffering the penalties of being the innovator in a country where anybody who survives puberty thinks they’re ahead of the game.

Out of all of those tests by fire came a new and impressive maturity and the evolution of a dynamic communications empire worth $25 billion that Ted Rogers created from a standing start. In its various incarnations, Rogers Communications amassed assets worth $15 billion and employed 29,000. Under Rogers’ inspired hands-on management, it became a world-class operator and initiator of 21st-century communications technologies. (Rogers’ private fortune was estimated at more than $7 billion.)

Ted and I attended Upper Canada College, the boys’ private school in Toronto, as boarders at Seaton House. We kept in touch and I later wrote up his various exploits in my several Establishment books, where I dubbed him the Canadian corporate world’s “Riverboat Gambler.” It was a title he amply earned, not by frequenting riverboats, but by creating the country’s most innovative and most powerful media empire based almost entirely on his nerve and his bank loans.

In the early 1990s, when he took a run at Maclean Hunter, then Canada’s premier publishing house, I described the standoff in Maclean’s as an epic showdown between a Riverboat Gambler and a Village Parson. “I guess that’s true,’’ Rogers quipped, the next time I met him. “But I don’t know why they keep referring to me as a Village Parson.’’

Now, upon his death of heart failure at age 75, his early exploits seem hard to credit—even in retrospect. Ted Rogers only occasionally slowed down long enough to be called an incurable workaholic, but most of the time he made that category seem comically inadequate. Negotiating deals and financing them was life to him; everything else (except his family) was distraction. His work habits more closely resembled the schedule of one of those donkeys that used to drive water pumps in tropical penal colonies. He never stopped.

His backers were Scotia and Toronto-Dominion bankers who treated him as a phenomenon in the art of financing. He could extract almost any loan from their nervous hands and in the process made these virago number crunchers feel graced for having financed his bounty. Still, each transaction took its toll. Robin Korthals, former president of the Toronto-Dominion Bank where Rogers did most of his initial banking, once confided in me that Ted had burnt out 14 of his most senior credit officers during their 20-year association, with his debts running as high as $5 billion at one time. One of his closest scrapes coincided with the endangered financial status of Brazil, which for some long-forgotten reason Canadian banks felt duty-bound to return to solvency. “No problem,” Ted told a startled Bay Street credit officer. “Just think of me as Brazil.”

Rogers cited many Golden Rules to live by, but his belief system came down to a single axiom: what he lacked in evidence, he made up for in conviction. He preached that loans in his capable hands created opportunities—the chance to sponsor and exploit the profit side of newness, which proved to be the case. With one exception (Unitel, his challenge to Bell’s long distance network), his plans always panned out. There was something un-Canadian about his unbridled enthusiasm, even more so because he believed as much in his country as in himself.

Edward Samuel Rogers, Jr. was always special. He was treated as the hero of his own soap operas, instead of just another panting loan applicant. Apart from his solid credentials as a patriotic Canadian, Rogers relied on his Establishment pedigree to get him through a wondrous life, filled equally with singular achievement, the almost sensual thrill of the risk taker, plus an eternally boyish sense of wonderment that he got away with it all.

His brushes with bankruptcy were real. He not only survived to tell the tale but each time persuaded the same lenders to reopen their coffers even wider. He was the most daring entrepreneur in Canadian business history. By his own calculation, he borrowed an astonishing total of $30 billion from the banks (without a single default) and floated equity financing worth $4.5 billion.

In permanent overdrive, Rogers’s idea of reality was whatever he claimed it to be. And he had a point. He had been right before. In 1960, while still a law student at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, he bought CHFI, the tiny, 940-watt radio station that pioneered the new frequency modulation (FM) sound at a time when only five per cent of Toronto homes had FM receivers.

The deal set a pattern. For the next four decades, he would spot a new technology with public appeal and charge into it head-long, so that he could exploit the benefits of that first rush of interest and dollars. Most of the time that approach worked fine, except that the pace of new technologies accelerated, and he would still be trying to pay off the loans he required for jumping into the one before, when another required even greater investments. By 1967, he was in the cable television business and eventually put together what was at one time the world’s largest cable network, with over two million subscribers.

It was much the same story with mobile phones in the 1980s, where Rogers was far in front of even his closest associates. By late 1982 he had become enamoured of the new cellular technology, but his board of directors emphatically was not. When Ted approached them in 1983 for a modest $500,000 to invest in wireless, every one of the other 16 board members—including his wife, Loretta—voted against him, forcing him to put his own cash on the line. Although Rogers had no idea just how big wireless would become, he was sure it would be the next big thing. Now mobile phones provide $3 billion in yearly cash flow for Rogers and make up almost 80 per cent of its $25-billion market capitalization. Had Ted not been so stubborn, and enough of a gambler to go into wireless on his own, Rogers Communications wouldn’t be a fraction of the company it is now.

His pursuit of the new showed again with fibre optic technology in the 1990s, and most recently with iPhones. More than a quarter-million Canadians signed up for the iPhone 3G during the third quarter of 2008, doubling the firm’s net income. Though Rogers had to spend $95 million on marketing the iPhone, total revenue climbed 14 per cent or $370 million. It’s a bit ironic that in these desperate times, Ted’s company is better placed and much more secure than most North American ventures.

That he was driven was obvious. That his ambitions might have some limits was less clear. We talked about his future many times, and the anatomy of our discourse was invariably dominated by the obsession with his father, but that ambition was a moving target: “He died early, when I was five and I always wanted to be in his tradition, to be as good as he was,” Ted recounted. “The problem is you never felt as if you’d really done it—because once you feel you have, you’re in trouble.”

The defining anecdote about Ted Rogers dated back to the time when he was a Big Tory on Campus at the University of Toronto—instead of merely looking like one, which he still did at age 75. Hyperactive in Conservative politics, he needed to see then Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker on a policy issue but couldn’t get an appointment. Finally, granted precisely 10 minutes in his parliamentary office, he was squeezed in between the prime minister’s more urgent chores. But when Rogers got in to see him, the Chief spent half the allocated time telling a political joke. Then, he excused himself to use an adjoining bathroom. Realizing that his time was just about up, young Ted barged into the toilet and made his case standing next to a startled but temporarily immobilized prime minister.

Phil Lind, the Rogers Communications vice-chairman who worked with Ted for most of his lengthy career and was one of his best friends, admitted that he was a demanding boss: “Ted worked all the time so, yeah, you could expect calls from him at odd hours.”

Rogers readily admitted, “I’m in charge of the department of discontent. I’m discontented with pretty much everything. I like the role. You can really stir things up. It keeps the company moving. When I return from one of my working holidays, I’ll say to people, ‘Why isn’t this done? Why isn’t that done? What’s been going on around here, anyway?’ ’’

When John Tory, president of the cable company, switched offices from the old Maclean Hunter building to Rogers HQ, he was surprised to find in his new digs a dartboard with a picture of Ted’s face on it—presumably to work off the expected frustrations with his boss. The upside of working for Ted was that his senior people felt part of his unique vision, a man who had a sense of how Canadians might one day use future technologies that all too often had made their boss appear almost mad—until it turned out that he was right about it all. They recognized that he was one of a kind and felt privileged to have helped make his vision a reality.

Running a large company, especially a utility like a major cable network, can be reduced to a series of occasions. And Ted’s worst occasion—the nightmare that invaded his life—was the day he decided to force subscribers to buy a negative option plan. In the past, Rogers kept increasing the number of channels he offered and raising his monthly rates accordingly. Few subscribers objected because the only way to get a clear TV picture was to buy his service, which enjoyed a monopoly everywhere he operated. But when he decided to institute his compulsory negative option plan, automatically billing subscribers an additional $2.65 each month for five new Canadian specialty channels, while threatening to remove some popular stations if the extra fee wasn’t paid, subscribers revolted and forced him to back down.

“I was stunned,” Rogers confessed when it was all over. “Now I know how those turbot must have felt swimming toward the Spanish fish boats. From now on, our customers will determine what level of service each one of them will get.”

Despite such drawbacks, soon overcome and corrected, Ted Rogers kept insisting that “the best is yet to come”—occasionally adding, under his breath, “because it can’t get any worse.” He did reduce the corporate debt by selling his local phone assets to the MetroNet Communications Group of Calgary for $1 billion in the spring of 1997 and pledged his company would start paying dividends on Dec. 31, 2003. “I would then like to go into more long-term technical pursuits,” he proclaimed, “be out of the business, move to another location, and be running some small project, just enough to keep me busy.” Yeah, right.

The last time I felt Ted’s presence was in April of this year, when I spotted his floating communications capsule, disguised as the luxurious 35-metre $10-million yacht Loretta Anne, anchored off Belize, a tiny Mayan republic of a quarter of a million people wedged between Mexico and Guatemala. At that pre-crash time the underdeveloped paradise was the in-vogue destination for sophisticated billionaires.

Along with a few colleagues, I was in a small motorboat powered by a 150-h.p. outboard engine, captained by Bob Dhillon, a senior Calgary real estate operative with major investments there. We were about to venture up an alligator-infested river that snaked through a rainforest where jaguars roamed free, to visit a wilderness spa. I had thought vaguely of visiting Rogers’ floating vacation HQ but decided against it, not because I might be disrupting his holiday, but knowing Ted I was certain that I would be interrupting his latest business venture, possibly negotiating wireless rights for the planet Mars over his satellite phone. I remembered Tony Fell, when he was head of RBC Dominion Securities, telling me that he was invited out on Ted’s vessel several times but had never seen him at rest: “Being on that boat of his was no holiday. He had a satellite telephone and was on it all the time.”

This time, afloat in the Caribbean Sea, it turned out that he had a more intriguing private agenda. While I was there, Rogers secretly purchased an island from Dhillon in the same archipelago where the Four Seasons chain was already building its first “green” hotel, and near another private isle that had just been bought by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The utopia that Ted Rogers had in mind might have been his final escapist domicile. Perhaps after half a century of galley-slave devotion to deifying his late father’s inventive spirit, Ted finally realized it was time for him to take a break. That sun-washed island in far-off Belize would have been his ideal sanctuary.

There was something of the mountaineer in Rogers’ countenance, something about his eyes that had the permanent poached look of living on an abyss, and looking down too often. He was in so many ways a false extrovert. More characteristically, he was remote and private, an unquiet spirit who never made peace with himself. He was terminally baffled by his inability to find some form of exemption from the laws of cause and effect which taunted him, taking the edge off his triumphs.

If I could choose a final epitaph for that irreplaceable man, it would run something like this: when George Leigh Mallory, the first man to climb Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to conquer the great mountain in 1924, he shrugged and famously replied, “Because it is there.” Over 60 years later, on Sept. 29, 1988, when Stacey Allison became the first American woman to scale the great peak, and was asked the same question, she smiled and shot back, “Because I’m here.”

That reply could also have served Ted Rogers well. So much of what he accomplished was an offshoot of his physical presence. Being there, nurturing his business vision, taking a lead in any action that was in play, gambling on the future, being the token Texas-style entrepreneur in a Canadian sea of porridge-weaned WASPS who had been toilet-trained to believe that being careful was the ultimate virtue—those are his essential legacies.

He ended his autobiography, aptly titled Relentless, by offering this valid advice: “Throughout my life, my business drive has been to get my father’s name back as a leader in communications. Most of my financial efforts have been to survive. Risky levels of debt were a consequence, not a choice. I am truly amazed how well it has turned out! If my life has a lesson for others, I think it is that everyone has a shot. Don’t follow a dream; live it. No matter what it is you want, take your best shot. Be passionate and work hard, maybe harder than you ever dreamt, but the opportunity is there. You’ve got to be lucky at times and having a supportive spouse and solid family sure helps.”

Too many Ted Rogerses would have made this country ungovernable, because ultimately they might have bankrupted or even maimed one another in the hunt for ever more daunting challenges. But we were immensely fortunate in having had one.

May Edward Samuel Rogers II rest in peace.

He sure deserves it.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.