After 37 years, the storied Brascan name is about to disappear from the Canadian business lexicon as the company forges a new identity, severing a link with a history of colourful figures, dramatic takeovers and controversy.
Brascan Corp.'s new name -- Brookfield Asset Management Inc. -- might seem bland, but its chief executive officer, Bruce Flatt, said it picks up on the more visible "retail" image of the company's real estate subsidiaries. And it is another step in the company's plan to concentrate on property, power and funds management, he said.
With a nod of shareholders expected in early November, the company will be distanced from its roots. In 1968, Edward and Peter Bronfman -- nephews of Seagram Co. founder Samuel Bronfman -- hired 27-year-old expatriate South African accountant and master deal maker Jack Cockwell to run their investments.
Mr. Cockwell, legendary former CEO of Brascan and now group chairman, transformed the Bronfmans' modest inheritance of Seagram stock into one of the world's largest conglomerates by snaring undervalued companies.
The initial purchase of Brascan shares beginning in 1979 was their first investment in a major public company. It had been incorporated in Canada in 1912 as Brazilian Traction, Light and Power Co. to develop hydroelectric projects in Brazil.
During the 1980s, through an intricate and secretive web of cross-ownership, the enterprise controlled a diverse number of companies in diverse sectors, including oil, mining, beer, real estate, forest products, insurance and power companies. It went by a number of names, some including the moniker Edper, based on the first names of the Bronfman nephews.
"In the eighties, they were the number one guy in the country," recalled Ira Gluskin, president of investment manager Gluskin Sheff + Associates. "You couldn't open up the paper without reading they were buying things."
But Mr. Gluskin said the Brascan group conjured up a "negative image" because "they were so aggressive and were accused of having aggressive accounting." Mr. Cockwell ruffled a lot of feathers because he "was a very tough negotiator," Mr. Gluskin added.
"Jack was a very smart guy, but very stubborn" about hanging on to firms, he said. "He wanted to have this big collection of assets, and that's how they got into trouble."
The sprawling empire imploded during the recession of the early 1990s, and Mr. Cockwell was forced to sell prized holdings such as John Labatt Ltd., Royal Trustco Ltd., London Life Insurance Co., Trizec Corp. Ltd. and MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. The conglomerate finally adopted the name Brascan Corp. in 2000.
Mr. Flatt took over as CEO in 2002 and began shedding cyclical resource assets and focusing the company on three areas that generate strong, reliable cash flow.
Brascan, under Mr. Flatt, has managed to "turn around its image" in investors' eyes, but it "was Jack who gave Bruce the keys to the company," Mr. Gluskin added. "[Jack]is the classic power behind the throne."
UBS Securities Canada Inc. analyst Andrew Kuske sees the new Brookfield name as an effort to "change all past associations with Brascan, which has been historically been tied to notions of an unwieldy conglomerate."
"There are still a number of investors that still see Brascan as a conglomerate," he said. "They still have residual resource positions in Norbord and Fraser Papers."
Jim Hall, a portfolio manager at Calgary-based Mawer Investment Management, opposes the name change, and plans to vote against it.
"I have yet to see a name change that makes a significant difference to the economics of any business. It's a waste of time and money."
From booze to Brookfield
Edward and Peter Bronfman's empire was one of the most intricate and complex corporate structures in recent history. Their inheritance of Seagram Co. shares from their uncle Samuel Bronfman provided a wealthy base for an enterprise that transformed Canada's business landscape through the 1980s as they wheeled and dealed, and then through the 1990s as the holdings were unwound. The parent took a new name in 2000 -- Brascan Corp. And yesterday the company proposed changing again, this time to Brookfield Asset Management.
The brothers bought Brascan Ltd., which had evolved out of Brazilian Traction, Light and Power Co., and hired a sharp young accountant named Jack Cockwell. They used cash flow from Brazil to diversify into real estate, resources, beer and financial services.
At the peak, the conglomerate represented one-third of the stock value of the Toronto Stock Exchange. Brascan executives were among the most powerful individuals in the country, but critics were upset that the structure favoured the partners over outside shareholders.
The empire imploded as the real estate market crashed and the interlinked companies faced a severe cash crunch. The selloff of big-name holdings included John Labatt, Royal Trustco, London Life, Trizec and MacMillan Bloedel.
The company started shedding its resource holdings to concentrate on real estate, power and funds management. The name change is intended to distance the company even more from its conglomerate past.