Leo Kolber: 'Quite a ride'

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National Post, Saturday, January 17, 2009

Leo Kolber has led the life of a man of influence, seldom at the centre of the spotlight, but never far from it, in business, politics and philanthropy.

As the consigliere to the Bronfman family, he managed their investments for decades and built Cadillac Fairview into Canada's premier real estate developer. As the bagman for the Liberal Party of Canada, he raised untold millions for Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, and later became chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. In Montreal, he raised millions more for McGill University and the Montreal Symphony, and he is a legendary fundraiser in Montreal's Jewish community, notably for the Jewish General Hospital and Israel.

Along the way, he's known every Liberal prime minister from Lester Pearson to Paul Martin, and been on very friendly terms with Conservative P. M. Brian Mulroney. He's known every Quebec premier from Robert Bourassa to Jean Charest. In Israel, his close friend of half a century is Shimon Peres. He's had nights out with stars like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra. In business, he was a surrogate son to Sam Bronfman, and close friend and advisor to his sons, Charles and Edgar.

It has, as Kolber says, been "quite a ride." And tonight some 200 friends and family will join in a celebration of his 80th birthday, the latest milestone in his remarkable life. On his 40th birthday, Danny Kaye delivered smoked meat to his house. On his 50th, he sang a duet with Harry Belafonte. Kolber isn't saying, or doesn't know, what surprises are in store for tonight's black tie gala at Le Windsor.

Upstairs in the splendidly restored former Windsor hotel, Kolber still puts in full days in an eighth floor corner office at Claridge, the Bronfman holding company and associated foundations.

In a room where family photos outnumber shots of the rich and famous, there's one memento that stands out: a designer's sketch of the Toronto Dominion Centre framed in a brass teller's cage from the bank branch that was demolished to make way for the largest office complex in Canada.

Building the TD Centre in the 1960s, Kolber says, was the outstanding achievement of his business career at Fairview, later Cadillac Fairview, where he had started out building suburban shopping centres.

"It put us on the map, it put me on the map," Kolber said the other day. "It transformed Fairview from a small shopping centre company and put us in a position where real estate developers were bringing major deals to us."

The TD Centre transformed the Toronto skyline, announcing its arrival as a world class city and financial centre. The other big five Canadian banks all followed suit and built their own signature skyscrapers that form the centre of the Toronto skyline.

And it was all done on a handshake between Kolber and Allen Lambert, the CEO of the TD Bank who later said the TD Centre transformed the bank from a regional to a national player.

Decades later, Kolber says, people would say to him, "Hey, you're the guys who built the TD Centre." That was Kolber, and his architect, the renowned Mies van der Rohe, whom Kolber brought in at the suggestion of Sam Bronfman's daughter, Phyllis Lambert, famously a student of Mies who had hired him to build the Seagram Building in New York.

To this day, when he flies into Toronto and looks down at the TD Centre, Kolber recalls not only the pride in the achievement, but the anxiety about building and renting it. As he says: "I know as much about building a skyscraper as I know about nuclear fission." He was putting 1.25 million square feet of prime office space on the market, and the bank was taking only 10% of it. "I had many sleepless nights over that," he says.

Fairview and the TD Bank, equal partners in the massive project, each put only $6-million into it and financed the rest. When Cadillac Fairview sold its 50% of the TD Centre at the top of the market in 1987, it walked away with $500-million.

After putting the company on the map, the TD Centre led to the Eaton Centre a few blocks north, the first of the great downtown shopping malls in Canada. It also led to Pacific Place in Vancouver, and other massive projects across Canada. And when Cadillac Fairview more or less ran out of things to build in this country, Kolber and his associates turned their eyes south, building skyscrapers and regional malls in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, D. C.

The culture of the world-competitive Canadian company, says Kolber, is something he learned from Sam Bronfman and the Seagram experience. "Mr. Bronfman used to say you can hone your skills in Canada," Kolber recalls, "but if you want to be really successful you've got to look south to the U. S. and then to the rest of the world. Canada is a fabulous country, but there is not enough room to grow here."

As the Liberal Party's bagman for two decades, he raised millions at a time when there no were no limits on donations, and corporate contributions were allowed for parties and leadership campaigns. As the founder of the Liberals' Laurier Club, Kolber chaired numerous events at $10,000 per couple, and once even organized a series of small dinners at 24 Sussex. But Kolber was an equal opportunity donor -- he and Charles Bronfman donated $100,000 to Brian Mulroney's leadership campaign in 1983. They couldn't do that today -- it wouldn't be legal.

Kolber supported Chretien's 2003 campaign finance reform that banned corporate and union donations, and isn't troubled by Stephen Harper's 2006 bill limiting personal donations to $1,100 a year. He has always played within the rules. "The unfortunate part is that the Liberals haven't adjusted to it," he says. "The Conservatives are loaded with money. And when you look at Barack Obama, he raised $700-million, most of it in small donations online."

As chairman of Senate Banking, Kolber takes the most satisfaction from its recommendation to reduce the capital gains tax from 50% to 25%, as well as its landmark 2002 report supporting large bank mergers. Of the current turmoil in financial markets, he says only that "they created a bubble," and this is the reckoning.

For Kolber, there is no reckoning tonight, only a celebration of a life well lived. Mazel tov!

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