Interview: Prichard the Third

He's been an academic and an executive; now Robert Prichard discusses his new act — practising law for the first time, 36 years after graduating from law school.

Robert Prichard was the University of Toronto’s dean of law, and its president from 1990 to 2000. He led Torstar through the most challenging period in its history, then signed on to place the greater Toronto transit system on a solid footing as president of Metrolinx. Prichard sat down with senior writer Thomas Watson following his appointment as chair of international business law firm Torys and the Canadian arm of book publisher Penguin.

CB: You made headlines joining the new board at Penguin, but that’s not your day job. You’re working as a lawyer for the first time since graduating law school, right?

RP:: That’s correct. When I was looking for a job in 1974, Torys made me a wonderful offer, but I became a law teacher instead. Thirty-six years later, they made me an even better offer, making me chairman.

CB: What is it like to join a law firm at 61?

RP: Terrific. I didn’t have to article. I’m thrilled to be a working lawyer at long last. After teaching law and retaining lawyers for many years, it is a special pleasure to actually be one. My problem is that I got here by luck, and my co-workers got here through hard work. I have to bring my A game every morning just to stay in the race with these terrifically talented and dedicated people.

CB: What exactly is your role?

RP: My job is to advise clients, represent the firm, be part of the leadership team and recruit, coach and mentor talent.

CB: And at Penguin?

RP: The company’s local success requires having a very strong Canadian publishing program while simultaneously taking advantage of the worldwide resources of the Penguin Group. I’ve been asked to ensure local operations remain strongly committed to Canadian writers, agents and culture. I was responsible for the University of Toronto Press. While at the university, I worked with Avi Bennett to take 75% ownership of McClelland & Stewart, the iconic Canadian publisher. At Torstar, I was responsible for Harlequin Enterprises, Canada’s largest book publisher. I love books and writers and relish the opportunity to once again work, at least in a part-time way, in the industry.

CB: Was Penguin’s decision to create a local board damage control related to management’s recent sexual harassment scandal?

RP: No. The objective behind the new Canadian-led board is to make sure that, as we take advantage of Penguin’s global resources, in areas such as information technology and sales and marketing, we also maintain a distinct Canadian identity with passionate local leadership.

CB: Do you have a favourite lawyer joke?

RP: I don’t like them. But the lawyer joke I heard the most in law school involves two campers surpised by a bear. One of them, a lawyer, immediately puts on running shoes and his friend says, “You can’t outrun a bear.” The lawyer replies, “I don’t have to beat the bear. I just need to outrun you.”

CB: At Torys, you sit in former Ontario premier Bill Davis’s old seat. How does that make you feel?

RP: Premier Davis was with Torys since he left public office to his 80th birthday, when he joined his son’s firm in his favourite city on the planet, Brampton, Ont. He has long been a mentor, so sitting in his chair is a particular joy. It is an honour.

CB: Are your political stripes identifiable?

RP: I worked on Premier David Peterson’s transition team in 1985. I worked on Premier Bob Rae’s transition team in 1990. And I worked on Premier Mike Harris’ transition team in 1995. I served in the interest of good public policy and smooth transitions as Ontario’s leadership went from Conservatives to Liberals to New Democrats and back to Conservatives. To this day, I am more interested in policy than politics. Financially, I support political friends regardless of party.

CB: So there is no political run in your future?

RP: I don’t expect to seek public office, but I greatly admire people who do. They make the ultimate sacrifice.

CB: Under your leadership, the University of Toronto endowment fund rose to $1.4 billion, the most of any Canadian university at the time. Do you have a knack for raising cash?

RP: By historic standards, we raised a lot of money. But that’s about the University of Toronto being a great institution. People often ask me about fundraising. I have two pieces of advice. The first is to remember that people give to institutions that perform well and have high ambitions. The second is to hire professional fundraisers.

CB: What books first influenced your life?

RP: The first books I remember are Hardy Boys mysteries. The first book to influence my world view was [Heinrich Harrer’s] Seven Years in Tibet, which led to a one-way ticket to the Orient after my MBA.

CB: You sit on boards at Bank of Montreal, Onex and George Weston. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen as a director since Enron?

RP: The big thing is the high visibility of directors and public focus on the role of corporate boards. The quality of directors has not changed. It was good before Enron, and it is good now. But the seriousness of purpose and sense of fiduciary responsibility is considerably stronger today.

CB: How do you relax?

RP: I have a fantastic wife and three wonderful boys. I spend spare time with them on a family farm. It is a working farm, but I don’t do the work. A neighbour is responsible for the animals and crops. A typical Saturday night involves sitting by the fire, reading a book, or maybe board materials, always with a glass of wine.

CB: What did you expect to do in life when you started university?

RP: I imagined being an engineer and going into business, but I found engineering way too difficult, so I switched to economics and art history. I did an MBA, then law, and ended up a professor. So I ended up a long way from what my high-school yearbook says. I did end up in business, just late.

CB: When you joined Torstar, did you think the newspaper industry would ever face anything like the digital challenge?

RP: Virtually no one saw how radical and fast the digital revolution would affect value in the newspaper industry. It has increased the reach of journalists while badly undermining the newspaper business model, which depended upon high barriers to entry in the form of printing presses and the packaging of classified advertising with news.

CB: Torstar recently divested its stake in CTVglobemedia, which was made under your leadership. What was the expectation?

RP: We invested to own 20% of the best TV franchise in the country, believing it would diversify Torstar’s asset base and increase strategic options. We saw multiple advantages. But while we acquired the lead position in Workopolis, other opportunities proved very modest. As the world turned, it wasn’t to a convergence of newspaper and television companies, but rather to a convergence of pipes and content. Indeed, The Globe and Mail has now been separated from CTV. Torstar invested $378 million and it is getting back $345 million. Hard to call that a success, but media company valuations have retreated substantially over the past five years, so in relative terms, it isn’t that bad. Still, the objective was to grow value, not watch it shrink.

CB: How do you feel about Torstar today?

RP: Joining Torstar was a dream come true. My grandfather was a newspaper publisher in the U.K. and vice-chair of Reuters as well. I loved my eight years at the company and felt fairly treated throughout that time. I acquired a lot of shares when I was there and have not sold a single one. I take great pleasure watching David Holland, my successor, do an excellent job.

CB: What is the least known thing about you?

RP: I am tone deaf. I can’t sing or hear music.

CB: You did graduate studies at the University of Chicago and Yale. How do they rate?

RP: My father was a University of Toronto professor. I learned to swim and skate at the University of Toronto. I attended the University of Toronto. I met my wife at the University of Toronto. I learned my profession at the University of Toronto. I learned to lead as a dean and as school president at the University of Toronto. My youngest son is a graduate of the University of Toronto. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are graduates. Three of my brothers-in-law are graduates. And my oldest son is now on the faculty, marking my family’s third generation as University of Toronto professors. So while I have been privileged to be associated with a number of other fantastic universities, no institution could possibly hold the same place in my heart as the University of Toronto.