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Conrad Black: The Murdoch Of The North



The Canadian empire builder mounts his boldest offensive

Conrad M. Black has a thing for Napoleon Bonaparte. The Canadian newspaper tycoon always keeps a book with the emperor's handwriting nearby. And he even owns chairs that his hero sat in. Black's wife says that he likes to ponder weighty decisions while sitting in a chair that Napoleon once occupied while signing treaties--which Black dismisses as "affectionate spousal exaggeration."

Like Napoleon, Black is driven by his own empire-building ambitions. The globe-trotting Canadian, whose $2.2 billion newspaper empire ranks behind only Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Gannett Co. in circulation, is now mounting his boldest offensive yet. On July 20, Black announced he would acquire The Financial Post, Canada's national business paper, and fold it into a new, mass-circulation general interest newspaper that he is readying for an Oct. 5 launch."ENOUGH IS ENOUGH." The 53-year-old Black, whose operations stretch from Vancouver to Jerusalem, already has a lock on more than half of Canada's newspaper readers. But the remake of the Post into a flashier paper is still a big risk. Black must pour untold millions into the paper as he plans to triple the Post's 100,000 daily circulation. Demand for the product is unclear. And Black, who owns 61 of the country's 105 dailies, is criticized for controlling so much of the market. "There is a point at which enough is enough," says competitor John A. Honderich, the Toronto Star publisher.

Black clearly disagrees. He first got into newspaper publishing with a single small paper in Quebec in 1966 and ever since has been constantly looking for ways to build. Now, through Hollinger International Inc., Black controls 437 newspapers worldwide, of which about 247 are in the U.S., including the Chicago Sun-Times. He made a failed bid for the New York Daily News, and he has said he would like a shot at buying The Wall Street Journal someday.

Big bets and even bigger talk have always come easily to Black, who enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Toronto. Though clearly bright, he was a miserable student who preferred pranks--and worse--to studying. The son of a well-to-do brewery executive, Black recounts in his memoirs that he was expelled from the elite Upper Canada College primary school for stealing and selling exams at age 14. The following year he was nearly thrown out of a second private school for throwing ink at a teacher. In his freshman year at Ottawa's Carleton University, Black was so busy playing cards that he seldom found time for classes and nearly flunked out. He earned that distinction later when, consumed with playing the stock market, he was booted from Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School.

Black eventually did get his law degree, in 1970, at Laval University in Quebec City. With his conservative ideological bent and zest for rubbing shoulders with political big shots, Black was drawn early on to newspapers. He began by buying up small, distressed papers and streamlining them by cutting staff. But he spent much of his thirties multiplying his $2 million inheritance by dismantling a Canadian conglomerate he wrested control of in 1978. He then broke into the newspaper big time with his acquisition in 1986 of the The Daily Telegraph, a leading London newspaper, and followed up several years later by snapping up Southam Inc., Canada's biggest newspaper chain.

But business is not Black's only passion. He takes himself seriously as a deep thinker and student of history. At each of his three residences in New York, London, and Toronto, Black keeps libraries crammed with thousands of tomes. And he likes to show off his vocabulary with such ornate words as "rumbustious," and "fissiparous."SOCIAL CLIMBING. In addition to books and ten-dollar words, Black likes to collect well-placed people. His ambitious networking--some would say social climbing--has aided his success, Black says. Over the years, he has surrounded himself with powerful and influential figures to advise Hollinger.

The roster includes William F. Buckley Jr., former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, as well as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Black meets with these tony advisers once a year to talk about his operations and the world scene.

Hobnobbing with luminaries is a passion for Black, says rival Rupert Murdoch. "He likes all the things in life that a good newspaper brings," says the News Corp. chief. "Certainly, newspapers at the very least increase his access to that world and he enjoys that, as I think we all do." Says Black's wife, columnist Barbara Amiel: "He doesn't Rollerblade, he doesn't play tennis. His pleasure in life is to be with intelligent, witty people."

One of the wittiest, says Black, is Amiel herself, whom he married in 1992, soon after his first marriage ended after 13 years and three children. Amiel is a former columnist for London's Sunday Times and the former editor at the Toronto Sun. When the couple got engaged, as a joke The Sun featured Amiel as its daily "Sunshine Girl," calling her "beauteous and brainy, right-wing and right on." Black regards Amiel as an ally: He named her a director and vice-president for Hollinger's editorial side.

Although newspapers have been Black's ticket into elite circles, he hasn't always thought so highly of editors and reporters. He once told a Canadian Senate committee looking into the media's coverage of the French separatist movement that many reporters were "ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised." Years later, when he was removing longtime Southam directors after he bought control of the outfit, he called them an "obdurate rump."

Not surprisingly, Black has made plenty of enemies. One ousted director, Adam H. Zimmerman, speaks for many when he calls Black "supremely egotistical" and someone to be "very wary of." Southam veterans still bristle at how he wrested control of the newspaper chain from its founding families, then moved swiftly to cut jobs. "His slash-and-burn was pretty ruthless," says former Southam Chief Executive St. Clair Balfour. For Black, though, the layoffs were essential to shore up the company's finances.

Investors have been troubled by what some call "the Black factor," despite Hollinger's improving financial position. Net earnings have jumped to $104.5 million from just $6.3 million in 1995, while sales have more than doubled, to $2.2 billion. But shareholders, who watched Hollinger International's stock price slump from 13 at the May, 1994, IPO to around 9 in early 1997, remain wary of his tactics. One example: In 1993, Black sold stock in The Daily Telegraph a month before announcing a price cut in the paper that reduced revenues.

A passionate monarchist, he has been criticized for pushing his own views in his papers. But Black insists he's no ideologue. "What you do is try to hire editors that you agree with, so you don't get apoplexy reading the paper," says Black. As for investors, he insists they have no reason to be dissatisfied. "There is no Black factor," he says. "Hollinger has had a respectable performance." The stock now trades at 17 1/2.

Now, Black must turn to building his new general interest newspaper. Buying The Financial Post may be a good start. But as he seeks to transform it, Conrad Black will no doubt be spending many early morning hours stroking his chin as he sits in Napoleon's chair.By Joseph Weber in TorontoReturn to top

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