The Bronfman Enigma

There have been lots of conversations among Seagram alumni since it was announced on Friday that Edgar Bronfman Jr. was convicted of insider trading in a French court.

The news reports I read raised a number of questions. According to Crain’s NY Business, “The conviction came even though the prosecutor had recommended acquittal…” That’s curious.

The report went on to say that “the prosecutor felt the executives did not have enough information themselves about the company’s health.” What? Are we talking Edgar Jr. here? Didn’t have enough information after having bet the heritage and fortune on a guy who referred to himself as Master of the Universe?

I wonder what the judge heard and saw that the prosecutor missed.

Edgar Jr. sometimes referred to the ease and depth with which people in Hollywood were capable of lying. He described studio executives as people who can swear on their mother’s life that it is raining outside when you and they know it’s a beautiful sunny day. Yet, he couldn’t wait to do business there.

Every year since the 1950’s, Seagram ran the Seagram Family Association (SFA) meeting, an annual session for senior managers and distributor principals. At what turned out to be the last SFA, while it wasn’t known at the time, the deal to sell the company was in the works. Rumors were widespread and felt to have more than the ring of truth. Every conversation, among distributors and management alike, dealt with the speculation. Junior was at the event but hardly visible. Stayed in his suite the entire time, and based on subsequent events, was probably cutting the deals.

He showed up at the last session where customarily the owner addressed the distributors to remind them that Seagram was a family in both the literal and figurative sense of the word and to provide remarks on the state of the business and the future.

When he walked into the back of the room, he stopped and asked what we thought he should touch on in his remarks. What was the tempo, what were the top issues, what’s on their minds?

The answer was candid. “What’s on everyone’s mind is — are we going to be sold?” “The concerns are palpable…they, we, all want to know what’s going on.”

He just looked at us and went on the stage. Immediately, he began to address the topic of a sale in no uncertain terms. He said emphatically and repeatedly that Seagram was not for sale. He didn’t say this — but it was almost as though he swore on his grandfather that would not happen. Less than a month later the announcement of a sale was made.

It was a sunny, beautiful day in southern California but inside the meeting room the rain was pouring down.

In a previous blog on the Bronfman’s I wrote about pity or scorn. This is another occasion for pity. Junior orchestrated the end of his family’s spirits and wine business in favor of the idea of integrating media, entertainment, information and communications in one hand held device. The Smartphone. The idea he had was ahead of its time and with the wrong people.

Quel dommage.

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2 comments

  1. Arthur, a very good anecdote which reminds me of the last meeting Steve Kalagher (SSWG CEO)and I had with the Swedes (Absolut top management) and EBJ. I briefed Edgar that the Swedes flew from Stockholm to hear it straight from him about the rumors the company was being sold, so he told them he was not selling the company and proceeded to engage all of us in discussion about how we would join forces to buy out one of our competitors. He actually got the Swedes excited, or maybe they were better actors than him (some people are born actors/liars).

    After Seagram I worked in Hollywood (Warner Bros.) where I saw real professionals practice this craft of “telling peoplle what they want to hear” rather than our Seagram old school practice of starting with “what you need to know”.

    -Tony Rodriguez, former EVP to the CEO, Seagram Spirits & Wine Group

  2. Arthur – good blog. I just think you’re giving EBJ too much credit as a technology visionary. He got wrapped up in the allure of internet funny money of the late 90’s. Convergence, TIME, media clouds etc. He bet the family fortune on a wet dream without understanding the fundamentals – mobile networks. It would take ten more years for the underlying technology to get up to speed. But I guess it would be good timing to throw some more money into into a similar pit – digital music. Napster, Pirate Bay and others loved it.

    Meanwhile, Pernod Ricard (ie Chivas & Martell) is printing money in China. China now accounts for 10% of total PR sales – sounds to me that this would translate into close to USD 1.5 billion. Not to mention India.

    – Per Karlsson. Ex Seagram China Schlepper and former President Ericsson Internet Solutions (China).

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