The Ultimate Canadian Capitalist: Gerry Schwartz is Born

“I’ve always liked transactional things,” says Gerry Schwartz. “And I always knew that I’d go into business. But the person I was in high school wouldn’t recognize me today. I had no inkling, not even a slight one, of building a company as large and as much fun as Onex.”

Most Canadians might not know who he is by name, but Schwartz’s impact on the landscape of Canadian business is almost unmatched. After founding Onex Corporation in 1983, the holding company has grown to become one of the largest in the country, with annual revenues nearing $16 billion and almost 90,000 employees around the world. Today, this motivated and perfectionist son of an auto parts dealer stands out as one of Canada’s wealthiest and most well-connected individuals. It was, however, a fate Schwartz knew he was destined for.

Gerald W. Schwartz was born on November 24, 1941 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As an only child, he would spend much of his time engrossed in his family’s business. “As a kid, I worked Friday nights and Saturdays in my family’s retail store,” recalls Schwartz. “I remember a salesman who was just fantastic. I marveled at his ability. I didn’t close any big deals. But I loved having customers and closing a sale.”

Schwartz knew from a young age that he wanted to be a big player in the world of business. In high school, he said he wanted to be “an executive and to have a big job that would pay at least $10,000 a year. I thought $10,000 was a big deal.”

With those dreams, Schwartz enrolled in the University of Manitoba, where he graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor of Commerce. He then went on to earn his law degree from the same school in 1966. For the next two years, Schwartz articled with the well known tax lawyer Izzy Asper, but could not ignore his business calling. After all, he says, “I can’t remember a day growing up without my father talking to me about business. If he bought real estate, he’d explain how and why.”

Schwartz left the law firm and headed to Boston, where he was accepted into the Harvard Business School. In 1970, after receiving his MBA, he was hired by the New York brokerage firm Estabrook & Company. After two years, he joined Bear Stearns & Company, a global investment bank and brokerage firm, where he learned the techniques of deal-making and leveraged buyouts.

In 1977, Schwartz decided to leave Wall Street and take his young family back to their native country. He had made the decision after spending the night in a Manhattan jazz club with his old boss Asper. Together, the two believed that they could take the Canadian buyout field by storm.

Asper and Schwartz founded CanWest Capital Corp., today’s CanWest Global Communications, and ran it jointly until 1983, acquiring several small companies along the way. But soon their business relationship would come to an end. “I believe in planting trees, growing them and then eating the apples,” Asper would later say. “Gerry believes in growing trees, selling them and then looking for other trees.”

The two businessmen decided to split CanWest 50/50, but Schwartz was not yet finished. Using $2 million of his own money and almost $50 million from investors, Schwartz launched a Toronto-based holding company, Onex. It would not be long before the business world would hear Schwarz’s name again.

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