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Stronach's next big plays: beef, health care and electric boats

You can take Frank Stronach out of the company, but you can't take the entrepreneur out of Frank Stronach.

Now that he's no longer the executive chairman of Magna International Inc. or chairman and chief executive officer of real-estate company MI Developments Inc., Mr. Stronach has the time to pursue a host of lofty business dreams. He's investing in a diverse array of new businesses, ranging from organic beef cattle to a health care venture to electric bicycles and boats.

"By being on my own now, having reasonable financial resources … I can be more innovative without the institutions looking down upon me and saying, 'You can't do this, you can't do that,' so hopefully I can create some more role models," the billionaire entrepreneur said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview in his office at Magna's headquarters in Aurora, Ont., north of Toronto.

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The new investments, along with his ownership of several U.S. horse racing tracks and control of a joint venture with Magna to develop electric vehicles and components for the company, represent a new chapter for Mr. Stronach, who turned the small tool and die shop he founded in a Toronto garage in 1957 into one of the world's largest and most successful auto parts companies.

Along the way, he battled institutional shareholders and regulators. Now, as he put it, no longer "stifled" by the need to win approval for new ventures, he is investing some of the $863-million (U.S.) in cash and shares he received as part of a buyout of the multiple voting shares with which he had controlled Magna since 1978.

One of the ventures already under way is in Florida, where about 600 head of free-range cattle are grazing on 70,000 acres of land he has purchased over the past few years. During the next few years he will build a processing plant for the cattle.

At the same time, he plans to get into health care by building a private diagnostic centre that will treat patients and also conduct research into alternative medicine.

Where the centre will be located has not been decided, but he hopes Canada will eventually permit such private health-care clinics.

"Health care the way it's done now is not sustainable," said the 78-year-old, who is now honorary chairman of Magna.

As a way of making sure the publicly financed system stays intact, he would require private health-care providers to set aside between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their time to treat patients at pre-set rates.

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"We would create more competition, we would have more health-care centres, we would be more efficient."

He has also invested about $30-million for a 60-per-cent stake in a company called Bionx, which was established by long-time Magna senior executive Fred Gingl and is already selling electric bicycles and is developing electric boats and other forms of electric mobility.

In addition to his success in building Magna, Mr. Stronach is one of the leading horse breeders and owners in North America.

But some of his other ventures have been less successful than either Magna or his personal horse racing business.

There were restaurants and magazine in the 1980s that were abandoned.

His most public failure, however, was the Chapter 11 filing of Magna Entertainment Corp., which owned some of the most storied horse racing tracks in North America, but collapsed under a load of debt in 2009.

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While he has acknowledged in the past that Magna Entertainment perhaps expanded too quickly in the 2000s and took on too much debt, he said Thursday that he was also hobbled by minority shareholders of MI Developments, which owned a controlling stake in the gambling and racetrack company. The shareholders spent years accusing him of using MI Developments as a way of financing a personal interest.

He will take ownership of several tracks as part of a deal to surrender the multiple voting shares he used to control MI Developments.

Now that the racetrack business is private, he said, "I can be constructive and I'm very optimistic that I can develop or create a nice business - a business of love - because I love horses."

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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