Samuel Belzberg, 89; corporate raider built a family dynasty
Samuel Belzberg, a feared corporate raider of the 1980s who perfected the contentious practice known as greenmail to build one of Canada’s foremost family dynasties, then reinvented himself as a successful private-equity investor, died Friday night in a hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 89.
He had suffered a stroke, his daughter Wendy Belzberg said in confirming the death.
Apart from his business career, Mr. Belzberg, who lived in Vancouver, was widely known for his philanthropy devoted to Jewish causes, among them the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, one of the world’s leading organizations dedicated to Holocaust research and education. He was its founding chairman.
“Sam was both a visionary and proud Jew,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the center.
Mr. Belzberg will be remembered primarily as a self-made businessman — a get-out-of-my-way entrepreneur who rose from the Canadian prairie to the pinnacle of the corporate world.
Starting out by selling used cars in Alberta in the 1940s, he went on to join his brothers, Hyman and Robert, in 1963 in founding what became First City Financial, a financial services giant and holding company, originally based in Vancouver, that would be used by the family for its high-profile corporate takeovers.
Mr. Belzberg first attracted attention outside of Canadian business circles in 1979, when he amassed shares of the Bache Group, at the time one of the largest retail brokerage companies in the United States. Bache was vulnerable, having been squeezed by a silver-market gamble, but its managers bitterly fought the Belzbergs’ demands for board seats.
Sam Belzberg angrily dismissed that notion, although he did acknowledge that his brother had vacationed at the Acapulco Hilton in 1970 and, he said, mingled unwittingly with underworld figures from the United States and Canada.
In the end, Bache took refuge in the arms of Prudential Insurance, selling itself to Prudential in a deal that made the Belzbergs roughly $83 million in today’s money.
Seizing on the junk bond boom and sometimes teaming up with US raiders like T. Boone Pickens, the Belzberg brothers — with Sam Belzberg running the show — quickly became known as greenmailers. The term refers to investors who accumulate stock in a company, threaten a takeover and then drop the threat after the company agrees to buy back the shares at a premium.
Mr. Belzberg rejected that characterization as unfair. In an interview with The New York Times in 1986, when First City’s assets were worth roughly $18 billion in today’s money, he said he had never set out to sell stock back at a premium.
Samuel Belzberg was born in Calgary, Alberta, on June 26, 1928. His father, Abraham Belzberg, had been a fishmonger in Poland when he emigrated to Canada in 1919 and started a furniture business. Samuel’s mother, the former Hinda Fishman, had also emigrated from Poland. They had three sons (Samuel was the middle one) and two daughters, Fanny and Lil, who were the oldest siblings.
Samuel Belzberg was the only son to graduate from college. He studied business at the University of Alberta.
The business that he and his brothers built began as City Savings & Trust Co. in 1963 and became First City Financial.
He married Frances Cooper, a model and aspiring actress living in Los Angeles whose parents had come from the same small town in Poland as his. When he was 21, his father drove him to Los Angeles to meet her. She survives him.