Media mogul Ted Rogers dead at 75

Ted Rogers was determined to outlive his father, who died at 38, and build a legendary communications empire.

He succeeded at both.

Rogers, who passed away early Tuesday at the age of 75, created a sprawling $11 billion media giant whose properties include small trade magazines, five TV stations, 53 radio stations and a professional baseball team, anchored by a cellular phone company with 7.5 million subscribers.

“It’s quite an extraordinary career,” said telecommunications consultant Iain Grant of the SeaBoard Group. Indeed the rise of Rogers Communications Inc. is almost an epic story.

Starting from an insignificant Toronto FM radio station in 1960, Rogers expanded the company into cable and publishing, defied his board by going into cellular and burdened it with enough debt that it came close to bankruptcy. But today RCI is considered one of the strongest publicly-traded companies in the nation, despite the current financial upheaval.

“Everything he touched was not pure genius, but by stint of hard work and considerable risk-taking he built up quite an amazing company,” said Grant. “It will be interesting how it evolves now that the firm hand on the rudder is now a committee and not just one man.”

One of his two smartest moves, in Grant’s opinion, was buying cable giant Maclean Hunter in 1994, which took Rogers from being a small regional cableco to almost a national media company. The other was Ted Rogers’ determination to personally invest in a national cellular franchise after his board refused to get into the business itself because of its debt. Eventually Cantel was bought by the Rogers corporation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today Rogers Communications can offer quad-play products – cable, wireless, IP TV and Internet – which makes it unique among North American providers. In fact, says Grant, wireless is so lucrative now that it supports the rest of the empire, which he described as “an interesting collection of assets.”

About 54 per cent of the conglomerate’s revenues come from wireless, says Lawrence Surtees, IDC Canada’s vice-president of telecommunications research. With Bell Canada in temporary disarray, he sees the race for telecommunications leadership is between Rogers Communications and Telus Corp. “What an achievement,” he said. “Eleven years ago this would have been unthinkable. RCI had incurred massive debt.”

David Neale, senior vice-president of products and services at Telus consumer solutions Inc., worked for Rogers for 12 years as a vice-president of Rogers Wireless, before moving to Telus about two years ago.

“He had astonishing intuition,” Neale said. “He was chasing things most people couldn’t see,” Neale said, referring to Rogers’ decision to purchase spectrum in the early 1980s.

But Rogers made some mistakes.

Among the biggest mistakes, Grant said, was not being able to finish off a $5.6 offer to buy Quebec cableco Videotron in 2000 from the Chagnon family. However, the Quebec pension fund, a minority shareholder, forced the Chagons to sell Videotron to Quebecor, denying Rogers a cable footprint in the province. Grant also said the purchase of Sprint Canada ended up a disappointment after Rogers “washed its hands” of Sprint’s enterprise business.

Rogers’ possible successors include his son, Edward, president of Rogers Cable; his daughter, Melinda, RCI’s senior vice-president of strategy and development; and Nadir Mohamed, president and chief operating officer of the company’s communications group. The board will create a selection committee to search for candidates. In the meantime chairman Alan Horn will be the CEO.

The mercurial Rogers was an energetic force who would take over a meeting, even if it wasn’t his. Grant recalls a 1991 meeting with company executive Phil Lind when Rogers “bounced into the room and took over … It was like talking to a fountain. He was full of ideas, full of enthusiasm. We went for a 20 minute meeting and came out two hours later.”

On the other hand, Rogers was a hands-on executive who could be brutal with everyone. “He could be ruthless, difficult and demanding,” says Lawrence Surtees, who knew Ted Rogers for over 27 years, first as a reporter and then as an industry analyst. Surtees is also author of the 1994 book Wire Wars, about the early years of the cellular business.

“This was a man who would not take no for an answer,” as Surtees found out one morning in 1994 when Rogers called the reporter at his home to expand on the Maclean Hunter deal. There was a blizzard outside and Surtees was looking after his four-year-old daughter, but Rogers wanted him to come downtown to his office to talk. “It’ll take me two hours to get there,” Surtees recalls protesting, and he had a youngster to look after. “No problem,” replied Rogers, “we’ll take care of her. I’ll see you in an hour.”

[There’s a longer version of this story. The day started with Surtees’ daughter picking up the phone to hear someone asking for her father. “Tell him it’s Mr. Rogers,” the caller said. Surtees was baffled and couldn’t understand why a children’s TV host was calling him. “Dad,” said his daughter, “it’s Ted.” While the pair talked in the office, Rogers’ secretary taught his daughter how to play Solitare on a computer.]

Journalists are loathe to praise people they write about, but Surtees insists Rogers was a “technological and business visionary. He didn’t always make the right call but that was also a great strength. When he believed in his gut something was the right thing to do he wasn’t just prepared to take risk – which is a defining aspect of any entrepreneur … He always had an entrepreneurial bent to his leadership. His risk-taking accordingly was on that bigger scale.”

For all of RCI’s strengths, the company does not have a monopoly in every communications product. Nor can the company offer all of its products in every province. For the time being, Rogers’ cable has the advantage of speed over the DSL offerings of Telus and Bell, a considerable advantage depending on how it’s priced. Will consumers turn to getting their TV or Internet from other sources? A year or so from now RCI will face several new wireless competitors, which will squeeze cellular profits. One will be the well-funded Globalive Wireless, which has the backing and expertise of Orascom Telecom Holding. Another, keeping Rogers’ stake in Quebec limited, will be Videotron. A wild card is cableco Shaw Communications, strong in western Canada and starting to push into Ontario. Will Shaw also take advantage of its recently-purchased cellular spectrum? Finally, Rogers is still largely a consumer play that has yet to exploit opportunities to bring Internet and wireless to businesses. These are among the challenges the new CEO will face.

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