Forget curling. (That was easy, wasn’t it?) No sport—no entertainment or soap opera, for that matter—riveted Canadians more in recent months than the corporate brawl among members of the Rogers family as they maneuvered for control of the country’s largest communications and media empire. That the sniping and backstabbing and butt-dialing—hold that thought—should have taken place in public, precisely as Rogers Communications attempted the multi-billion-dollar takeover of a rival, only added to the fun. Even though as a case history the episode will probably never be held up in any business-school Mergers, Acquisitions & LBOs course as a shining example of how it’s done.
Indeed, the real-life dispute has drawn comparisons to putatively over-the-top fictions such as Succession, The Young and the Restless, and Game of Thrones—that last an analogy supplied by Martha Rogers, who, as one of the key players in the Canadian drama, ought to know.
In 1960, Martha’s father, Ted Rogers, bought an FM radio station in Toronto, and over the years moved into cable TV, wireless communications, and the Internet, diversifying and acquiring as he went and building Rogers Communications into a $24 billion conglomerate that rivals Bell Canada. With 11 million customers, Rogers is Canada’s largest mobile carrier and has extensive sports interests: the company owns the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and has stakes in the NBA’s Raptors and the NHL’s Maple Leafs. (Showing some range, the family also put its name on the Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks.) Ted ran Rogers Communications until his death, in 2008, by which time he was the fifth-richest Canadian.
So there’s plenty to go around. But of course that’s never really the point.
After Ted’s death, his son, Edward S. Rogers III, Martha’s brother, became chair of the family-run Rogers Control Trust, which, owing to an unusual corporate structure, gave him 97.5 percent of the voting shares of the technically public Rogers Communications. In 2018 the board voted to appoint him chair of Rogers as well. But along with Ed’s consolidation of power, “the company has been forced to fend off criticism that it has underperformed industry peers,” according to The Guardian. “And with no clear successor named before Rogers’ death, questions over who in the family would eventually take charge have lingered for more than a decade.”
The lingering continued until September 26 of this year, when a board meeting was held, curiously, on a Sunday. As the Toronto Star reported, “Martha Rogers, a nonpracticing naturopath with a sideline in scorched-earth tweets, read aloud a resolution that would, once passed, upset the latest and most aggressive schemes of her only brother Edward, a man defined his entire life by the one thing he could never be: his dad.” Ed, 52, intended to dislodge Joe Natale, the Rogers C.E.O., and replace him with the C.F.O., Tony Staffieri. But Martha, her sister, Melinda Rogers-Hixon, and her mother, Loretta Rogers, were having none of it. And they were ready.
How did they get wind of the intrigue? This, happily, is where butt-dialing enters the picture.
“Mr. Staffieri was speaking with former long-time Rogers chief legal officer David Miller about the plan when he inadvertently dialled Mr. Natale’s number,” reported The Globe and Mail. “After learning of the plan, which included removing nine other senior executives, Mr. Natale informed an independent director, triggering an emergency weekend board meeting. The majority of the board and Rogers family backed Mr. Natale and his management team. Mr. Staffieri left the company three days later.”
A teachable moment: Do not accidentally phone the C.E.O. you’re planning to unseat while you’re discussing your plan to unseat him. This is especially mortifying when it’s a telecommunications empire, for God’s sake, that you intend to oversee.
No sport—no entertainment or soap opera, for that matter—riveted Canadians more in recent months than the corporate brawl among members of the Rogers family.
And so the battle was on. Loretta, Martha, and Melinda ousted Ed as Rogers’s chairman. (He remained head of the family trust, although soon Martha was calling for him to relinquish that position as well.) But Ed forged ahead, announcing that he had replaced five Rogers directors and that the reconstituted board had, surprise, re-elected him—even though a new chair, John A. MacDonald, was already in place.
“I see Ed has appointed himself the Chairman,” Martha tweeted on October 25. “LOL. This should be taken as seriously as if he appointed himself the King of England.” Meanwhile, the BBC noted that “two separate groups of directors are now claiming to represent Rogers—exposing old family rivalries and unwanted turbulence ahead of a pending $26 billion takeover of a rival telecoms firm [Shaw Communications]. Already, shares of Rogers have slumped as the family drama plays out. The fallout could affect everything from professional sports to local politics.”
Incidentally, that October 24 tweet was the tip of the Twitter iceberg for @MarthaLRogers. A small selection:
Unlike Ed I have no lawyers, PR spin firms, staff or media training. Don’t need it. I’m no one special, just a fairly ordinary woman put in extraordinary circumstances. Ted put me on the board as a check and balance to ensure nothing this insane occurs. This is for you Dad.
Next: the truth about his Trump scandal 5 mos ago, their involvement threatening us to suppress it or else they’ll be “severe personal repercussions” (and they very much can). Navigator must be shitting their pants, there’s so much more. I’ll gladly blow up my life to stop this.
Don’t care you’ll come for me, you have 3 wks straight, & we still get up every time you knock us down. My mother−the co-founder−is 82, what gentlemens. We’ll spend every penny defending the company, employees & Ted’s wishes, nothing you can do will deter us. Bring. It. On.
All of those are from October 23, by the way. Navigator, a PR firm, was according to Martha engaged by Ed. The Trump reference has to do with a photo that Ed’s wife, Suzanne, posted of the couple, their two sons, and the former president at Mar-a-Lago. “Their apparent affection for Mr Trump angered many Canadians upset by the former president’s response to Covid-19, his role in the 6 January Capitol riots, and his energetic dispute of the 2020 election results,” noted the BBC. (Canadians, it should be said, are saner about such things as Trump than their southern neighbors.)
While Martha tweeted, Ed filed a lawsuit arguing that he was legally entitled to appoint his own board without shareholder approval. And on November 5, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick, while observing that the squabble “would be more in keeping with a Shakespearean drama,” focused on “the narrow legal issue raised” and gave Ed a victory.
Rogers Communications said it would not appeal. Loretta, Martha, and Melinda called the decision a “black eye for good governance and shareholder rights.” The interim, and presumed permanent (or maybe that should be “permanent”), C.E.O. of Rogers Communications is the ambidextrous-and-then-some Tony Staffieri, now back in the fold. His first order of business is to see the Shaw Communications takeover through.
“Our family has disagreements like every other family,” Ed said in a statement, or understatement. “I am hopeful we will resolve those differences privately, as any family would.” Roger(s) that.
George Kalogerakis is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL