Read Part 1 here.
A friend who was acquainted with Belzberg gave me a preview of the meeting. He said: “try to keep your pants on the whole time”, meaning that Sam was a charmer. We met in a small conference room along with Travis Dowle, a portfolio manager working for him as well as his grandson Cooper Zelnick, who was doing a summer internship. (Cooper is also the son of Strauss Zelnick, a mogul in his own right).
The meeting consisted mostly of him asking me about my best ideas and drilling down into my reasons. After that, he took me to his office, which is the biggest office I have been in, the size of an apartment. And that's where the real charm operation started - on the couch. He said he had all this flow of information and trading ideas from decades of contacts, but he had no one to execute on those. Then, he said: "You are more opportunistic like me". He also had more praise for another PM then working for him, Johnny Ciampi and made a point of telling me he was setting him up with his own fund with $35m in seed money. Those are the highlights I remember of the meeting and can reveal. Then he got my jacket back, put it on me like a sales guy at Suitsupply and sent me on my way. That jacket move was probably a standard part of his charm operation. I swear I kept my pants on the whole time though. Full disclosure: our next two meetings were in his suite at the Château Laurier in Ottawa and at the Lombardy Hotel in New York. Read into that what you will.
Move over Icarus, Sam Belzberg crashed way harder
Things didn't turn out well for First City at the turn of the 80s. A failed attempt to take over building supply company Armstrong World Industries signaled the beginning of the end. Armstrong resorted to convincing the legislature of its home state, Pennsylvania, to pass a law that made the takeover impossible. This was the first in a series of losses, where, in a disastrous fourteen-month period, First City gave back almost all the gains it made in the 80s. The company decided to move away from speculating in takeover stocks. After 35 years of running First City, Sam was forced to surrender the reins to his nephew Brent. A painful workout followed, including the restructuring of $2.3 billion in debt. Lots of high-fliers in the 80s crashed like this in the early 90s. Donald Trump nearly went bankrupt, only his hardball tactics saved him. Brent eventually started now-thriving Toronto private equity firm Torquest. Apparently, the uncle and nephew have not spoken since the fateful board meeting where power passed from one to the other.
Of course, you can’t keep a man like Belzberg down for long. Next time, I will tell you how he rebuilt himself, wheeling and dealing right up to the time he had a stroke that proved fatal.
Part 3 is here.
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