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Asper vision.

Canada's private television czar's empire takes on the world

On this September morning, the mellow sun brightens the deep verdant back lawn of I.H. "Izzy" Asper's Wellington Crescent home. The king of Canadian private television is standing under the trees with his wife, Babs, chatting with a landscape architect about placement of the last of a collection of bronze statues of children at play, specially cast for the Aspers' yard.

Izzy, a cigarette smoldering between his fingers, offers directions to his wife on the location of one of the pieces close to the house. The familiar voice of the lawyer, politician, television executive, federalist, capitalist, jazz aficionado and communications magnate is clear and as strong as ever, even on such matters as garden ornamentation.

"Let's just make a decision and we won't have to discuss it again," he says decisively, in the manner that comes from the I.H. Asper of many boardroom directives, but in a kinder, gentler voice.

"But, if it's over there, will you mind if it hides the view from the couch," Babs asks, in a tone confidence which comes from years of being his partner and friend.

"No, that's fine," Izzy says. "That's fine. I have to go. I have a meeting."

He then turns his attention to his 10:30 a.m. interviews, speaking in the genial manner he saves for subjects he enjoys - like business.

Asper, now 63, heads CanWest Global Communications Corp., Canada's largest private television conglomerate. This past year, the brokerage house Wood Gundy was glowing in its review of CanWest and recommended buying the stock. The company reports that since 1991, CanWest has quickly evolved into a world-class communications company by aggressively pursuing offshore broadcasting properties. CanWest's strategy has been to acquire control of properties on a relaunch from a receivership position. Buying up cheap, poorly run television networks like Network Ten in Australia has worked for CanWest. In fact, the turnaround has been so successful that Network Ten accounted for 64 per cent of CanWest's consolidated profits last year. Add to that the company's international holdings - TV3 in New Zealand and La Red, in Chile - and CanWest looks exotic to say the least.

In Canada, CanWest is the most profitable private television broadcaster in the country with some 16.5 per cent of audience share, reaching 73 per cent of the English-speaking marketplace. The company owns and operates U.TV in Vancouver, CFRE-TV Regina, CFSK-TV in Saskatoon, and CKND-TV in Winnipeg. Under Global Ventures Western Ltd., it operates the hugely successful Global Television Network in Ontario, and MITV in Atlantic Canada. And plans for expansion continue. The company is currently pursuing a television licence for an English-language station in Quebec City in a joint-venture proposal to go before the CRTC in December.

But boldest and the most important move so far in terms of big-time acquisitions was its unsuccessful $85-million bid for the last national broadcasting licence in Britain-Channel Five.

Recalling the quest for the final channel, Asper says, "We stayed out of sight in London, in low-rent hotels, so our presence wouldn't be known until the deadline for filing. We didn't want anyone to know we were there."

Although the bid was rejected, CanWest served notice that it will continue to expand internationally. Asper is optimistic that the company can land an acquisition in the highly desirable and potentially profitable British broadcast market.

Asper feels that the recent bid for the UK channel puts CanWest en route to being in the same league as Time Warner. The Canadian broadcaster is financially healthy and appears to have the internal strategists to spearhead large deals.

CanWest share valuation hit the one-billion-dollar mark this year reflecting the confidence of the capital markets, and marking a milestone for the company.

Asper likes to keep tight control of what he refers to as "executive productivity" by staying lean on the management side. The company generates about 30.5 per cent of the total profit in the industry and its productivity per employee is twice the industry standard. The 11-member core executive staff is based in Winnipeg with about 10 support staff.

"One of the other things that is on my mind is making sure that CanWest endures into the second generation," says Asper as he contemplates the future. "I want to beat the odds out there, that so few family corporations succeed. My children are involved and I want them to know what it takes to make things grow."

Now in his 60s, Izzy Asper shows no signs of slowing down. His eyes are still firmly focused on expanding his impressive media empire, with the odd moment committed to considering his next career.

"Turning 60 was hard, but you have to keep on reinventing yourself or you'll become a bore, I think," Asper reflects. "I wanted to be four things in life. I have been a lawyer, politician and television executive. I don't know what I want to be next, but I think I want to be a television producer." No doubt, this too is in I.H. Asper's future.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Manitoba Business Ltd.
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:I. H. Asper
Author:Gage, Ritchie
Publication:Manitoba Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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