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Peter Crossgrove: Veteran corporate director was outspoken but humble

In addition to his corporate board work, Peter Crossgrove served on 23 volunteer boards and was a key player in bringing together downtown Toronto hospitals into one body, the University Health Network.

LOUIE PALU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Peter Crossgrove was one of those people who made Canadian business tick. In his 55-year career, he served as a director on 46 separate corporate boards, many of them mining companies, including Barrick Gold Corp., the largest gold miner in the world.

He wasn't just a board member, however; he was a working executive at many mines and was a director and chief executive officer at Placer Dome Inc. Unlike most of his fellow directors, he worked in a mine as a teenager and later as a prospector in the Northwest Territories, experiences that gave him an edge.

"He mucked out ore in mines in Sudbury when he was a teenager," said John Ing, president and CEO of Maison Placements Canada Inc., and a major figure in the country's mining community. "He was always pushing for more technical expertise. He would ask 'What kind of screen are you using?' because he knew what a screen was from working underground."

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Given his lengthy and varied experience on boards, Mr. Crossgrove titled his 2013 autobiography Boardroom Games: You're Fired!: When Core Values, Respect and Meaningful Business Practices Are Compromised For Money and Prestige.

"Peter was fired from a lot of boards, including Barrick and Eatons, for speaking his mind. He was never the compliant, silent director," Mr. Ing noted. "He was the real deal. Very generous but modest, not the type to have his name attached to hospital wings."

Mr. Crossgrove died of cancer on June 2, 2015, at his home in Sudbury overlooking Lake McFarlane, at the age of 78.

He was also an entrepreneur and ran a construction business in Sudbury and owned the President Hotel, the city's largest hotel in the 1970s, as part of a larger real-estate holding company with properties mostly in Northern Ontario.

Peter Crossgrove was born on Jan. 31, 1937, in Copper Cliff, Ont., within sight of the giant Inco smelter depicted on the 1951 Canadian nickel. His father was a mid-level executive at the nickel-and-copper mine that was raison d'être of Copper Cliff, which is now part of Sudbury.

It was very much a company town, as Mr. Crossgrove recalled in an interview earlier this year: "Inco looked after your house, like ours; they cut the grass, plowed the driveway and so on. The culture was pretty stiff. The management was all anglophones, the workers Italians, Croats, Serbs and Finns."

Copper Cliff was where the bosses lived, with their own hospital and private club. The houses were large, but they were right beside the slagheap. Young Peter went to Copper Cliff High School and then to McGill University in Montreal, majoring first in geology before switching to business. He then earned an MBA at the University of Western Ontario, followed by a doctorate in business from Harvard University, where he was a Sloan Fellow (named for Alfred Sloan, the man who built General Motors.)

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Mr. Crossgrove's first job was with Seagram Company Ltd., as a vice-president and confidante to Samuel Bronfman, a role he would play with many corporate leaders for the rest of his career. It helped that Mr. Crossgrove was outgoing and self-confident.

In his autobiography, he recounted how Mr. Bronfman invented the brand Boodles Gin: "Peter, I was in London and I was driving by this club, the Boodles Club, and I thought it would be a good name for a gin," he recalled Mr. Bronfman as saying. He then explained that "Mr. Sam" (as he called Mr. Bronfman) bought a company called Cock and Russell that had made saddles and reins since 1512. Boodles Gin was touted as being "Made by Cock and Russell since 1512," when in fact it was made at a Chivas distillery owned by Seagram in Scotland.

After his time at Seagram, Mr. Crossgrove become a consultant, working first in Toronto and then returning to Sudbury to run Pioneer Construction, which built roads. He also became involved in a number of deals in Northern Ontario, moving increasingly into the mining industry.

The family of his wife, Patricia Edward, was the principal owner of Pioneer and the real-estate holding company; when the couple divorced in 1977, he had to sell his shares, according to their son, Alec. Mr. Crossgrove then moved back to Toronto, where he became an adviser to some of Canada's wealthiest families.

"We did a number of deals together, including quite recently, and they always worked out well," said Conrad Black, who knew Mr. Crossgrove for 45 years. "He was a conspicuous expert in the mining industry, but a good, no-nonsense, hard-scrabble businessman. He really came into his own in the off hours, when he was a prodigiously good-humored raconteur and bon vivant, and his miner's love of a good and well-liquefied dinner never left him."

Perhaps Mr. Crossgrove's biggest deal, or at least the most lucrative, was not in mining but in doors. He built a company called Premdor and became its chairman. Premdor grew to be the world's largest maker of doors and in 2005, by then known as Masonite, was sold to New York-based KKR for $3.2-billion (U.S.).

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Mr. Crossgrove was also a director of 23 volunteer boards, including Cancer Care Ontario, Care Canada and Care International. As chair of the Toronto Hospital, he was one of the key players in merging major downtown Toronto hospitals into the University Health Network. In his autobiography, he said one of the stipulations when he hired Alan Hudson as head of the UHN was that he attend a three-month business course at Harvard.

"Peter got very little credit for all the work he did in bringing about the University Health Network," said Dr. Hudson, now retired as president and chief executive of UHN. "When I became CEO, Peter was a huge help and became my mentor."

Mr. Crossgrove was also involved with Laurentian University in Sudbury and helped set up the Goodman School of Mines there. During his illness, Laurentian University president Dominic Giroux visited him at his bedside and presented him with an honorary doctorate. He is also a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.

He was generous in helping younger people as well. "Peter was a friend and business associate of my father's in Sudbury," recalled Perry Dellelce, managing partner of corporate law firm Wildeboer Dellelce in Toronto. "When I was a 29-year-old lawyer starting out he gave me introductions to people I wouldn't have met otherwise. He was very generous that way."

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