BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 27 May 1933
Cable-TV czar, communications mogul, cellular telephone magnate, newspaper and magazine publishing company owner, the Canadian information highway creator—Ted Rogers is all of those things, but he is also a man carrying a huge and growing debt load, a risk-taker par excellence.
Either he will push and prod Canada into the new millennium with his companies shaping the future, or the crash of his vast empire will shake Canada to its foundations.Rogers’ father, Ted Sr, was born to wealth in a “Fine Old Ontario Family” of Foyalist and Quaker origins, but he added to it through his own inventive genius.
In the 1920s home radios were cumbersome, the sound generated sometimes exceeded by the hum of the power required. In his mid-twenties Rogers invented the alternating current radio tube, which resolved the problem, and a host of other devices.
These inventions led him into radio broadcasting, notably with Toronto’s CFRB, and manufacturing, and when he died at the age of thirty-nine his five- year-old boy was raised to venerate, emulate, and compete with his father.
He did. After Upper Canada College, the University of Toronto, and law school, Rogers put money into CFTO, one of the country’s first private television stations, purchased CHFI-FM, and in 1967, with a fortuneteller’s grasp of the future, went into cable in Toronto, the first concerted effort to end the city’s poor reception of U.S. stations across Lake Ontario.
His Rogers Cable-TV was one of the first cable companies and, while people scoffed, Rogers was ahead of his time. Today his company, its reach extending from Ontario to the West Coast, is the country’s largest, with 40 per cent of the English- Canadian market and 3 million subscribers who pay for movie packages, sports, and other specialty channels with ever increasing monthly fees.
Cable has been and remains the money-generating prop of the Rogers empire.Rogers also owns the Home Shopping Network, virtually the inventor of the cubic zirconium, and YTV, the children’s TV specialty program network. Rogers Communications Inc., the parent company founded, owned, and controlled by Rogers, in 1983 won a national cellular telephone licence and in 1986 founded Cantel, now with a million customers and, until 1995, controlled Unitel as well.
In 1996 Rogers linked Cantel with the American telecommunications giant, AT&T.In his efforts to create a giant media conglomerate and to own some of the content his cable enterprises delivered to Canadian consumers, Rogers purchased the Maclean-Hunter magazine and cable-TV empire in 1994 for $3.1 billion.
In the same year, he bought 62.5 per cent of Toronto Sun Publishing Corporation, a publisher of tabloid newspapers in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary, weekly papers and maga¬ zines, and 60 per cent owner of the Financial Post. In 1996, to raise cash, Rogers sold off the Sun chain and other non¬ core assets amounting to more than $800 million.
The Sun sale showed that once again Rogers’ acquisitions had begun to outrun his capacity to borrow. In 1981 he had been on the brink of financial disaster when, after selling off “everything we could just to keep afloat,” he was rescued by $300 million raised for him by U.S. junk bond king Michael Milken.
The lesson did not sink in. Free-spending and unable to avoid risk, Rogers’ companies in the mid-1990s laboured under a massive debt that was said to amount to just under $5 billion. Shareholders, watching the price of Rogers’ stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange plunge, were beginning to grumble, and the need to lower debt was clearly driving the sell-off of assets.
It was all relative, of course—a share purchased in 1983 for $7 was worth some $100 in 1996 dollars.Apparently unruffled, perhaps because his own yearly salary was regularly in the $700,000 range, Ted Rogers pressed ever onward.
His Rogers Communication Inc. in 1996 began touting WAVE, a new product that, for $55 a month, provides high-speed access to the internet.Upgrading of the cable network will make WAVE potentially available to all its cable subscribers, but newer technologies are already coming on-stream.
Greatly assisted by his close links to the Eatons and the Bassetts, his lifelong connections with the Progressive Conservative Party, and his ability to employ Canadian nationalism as a way to whip the Canadian Radio-televi¬ sion and Telecommunications Commission into supporting his ambitions, Rogers had made his company into Canada’s largest media corporation.
For more than three decades, his power has been immense, his influence reaching virtu¬ ally every home in the land. The collapse of his company, if it should ever take place, similarly would be felt all across Canada.Rogers’ health is beginning to break down—he had an aneurysm in 1988 and a quadruple bypass in 1992—but he continues his workaholic brinksmanship.
Married for more than three decades to the daughter of a British peer, Ted Rogers took the modest broadcasting company he inherited and turned it into a Canadian competitor to international media empires. Canadians must dominate at home to compete internationally, he says, adding with the character¬ istic faith of the visionary, “The best is yet to come.”