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In retrospect, it probably isn't that surprising to find the Mannix name being mentioned in stories about Shell Canada's gigantic natural gas find, or at least the name of a Mannix company, Mancal Energy. The publicity-shy family of Alberta-born billionaires has its fingers in all sorts of investment pies, both in the province and elsewhere, and it stands to reason they would get a big payoff from one or another of them - just as they did in 1997 when they sold their coal and pipeline assets for more than $2-billion.

Those asset sales were probably one of the most brilliant examples of good timing and/or luck seen in recent memory. In one fell swoop, the Mannix brothers - Ronald Mannix and Frederick Mannix III - sold their family's oil and gas business, Pembina Resources, for more than $1.2-billion (Talisman Energy bought the oil and gas assets and the pipeline assets became an income trust), and then spun off their Manalta coal operations as an income trust for close to $1-billion as well.

Over the next year, the downturn in Asia sent the price of coal plummeting to the point where Manalta was bought by another coal income trust, Luscar Coal, for just $560-million, and the value of the combined company soon dropped to less than half that (Luscar later merged with the Fording trust). Crude oil, meanwhile, fell off a cliff as a result of lower demand from Asia and an increase in production from the OPEC cartel, and oil prices bottomed out at about $10 (U.S.) a barrel in 1998. All told, the Mannix brothers probably made $1-billion more than they would have if they had waited a year to sell.

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Until the two brothers held their press conference in 1997, however, many people had probably never heard of them before. Even in Alberta, the name Mannix was (and likely still is) not well-known, despite the fact that the brothers are worth several billion dollars. They have certainly never had anything like the public image that Ken Thomson or Conrad Black has, or B.C. billionaire Jimmy Pattison.

And that is just the way the Mannix family likes it. At the news conference in Calgary in 1997, Fred and Ron both looked more than a little out of their element under the TV lights, and they seemed particularly tense during the question period afterwards. According to Mannix family legend, Frederick Charles - father to both Ron and Fred, and son of founder Frederick S. Mannix - disliked publicity so much that he employed several staff just to keep his name out of the papers, and reportedly docked their pay whenever he saw the Mannix name appear.

Mostly, the Mannix family liked to stay out of the public eye and focus on one thing: the long-term wellbeing of the Mannix family (they also give generously to charity - in 1998 the family endowed a charitable foundation with $100-million). The name of the parent company, Loram Group, was an abbreviation of the name Fred II gave to a strategy group he called Long-Range Mannix. Loram also appears in the name of the family's biggest holding: Loram Maintenance of Way, one of the largest rail equipment and maintenance companies in North America.

Railways were what started the Mannix empire in 1898. Manitoba-born Frederick Stephen Mannix started laying branch lines for the Canadian Pacific Railway, after - again, according to legend - winning an earth-moving machine in a poker game. The company he built became a conglomerate that was involved in building both major railways as well as the St. Lawrence Seaway, the subway systems in Toronto and Montreal, the TransCanada Pipeline and the James Bay power project.

Many of Alberta's business leaders got their start with the Loram Group, including a young lawyer named Peter Lougheed, who would go on to become premier of the province. Despite his ties with the Mannix family, however, Mr. Lougheed later expropriated land from a 132-hectare ranch owned by Fred II to create Fish Creek Park in the 1970s, a large park in southern Calgary. That led to an acrimonious lawsuit in which Mr. Mannix sued the province for $41-million in compensation (he would later settle for $7-million).

Estimates of the net worth of the Mannix clan have varied over the years, with the most recent guess coming from Canadian Business magazine, which said Fred III, 62, and Ron, 56, were worth about $1.75-billion. That likely understates the family's holdings, however, since the two made more than that with just two deals in 1997, and have almost certainly expanded on it since.

It's difficult to come up with a value for the family's assets, however, because they are all privately held. The value of Loram Maintenance of Way is difficult to gauge, as is the value that Fred's various companies - such as Mancal Energy, Manvest and Mancal Properties - have gotten from their venture-capital investments in AltaGas, OPTI Canada and other companies, or their corporate and residential real estate. The Mannix family also controls a large chunk of Vannessa Ventures, a company that is fighting to develop the giant Las Cristinas gold property in Venezuela.

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In any case, the Mannix wealth - or at least Fred's, since he reportedly controls Mancal Energy - has just increased by a substantial amount, since the Shell deposit, which is 25-per-cent owned by Mancal Energy, could be worth as much as $2-billion at current gas prices.



E-mail Mathew Ingram at mingram@globeandmail.ca
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