Business

Who is Gerry Schwartz?

Onex Corp.'s offer to take over Canadian Airlines and Air Canada in a $5.7 billion deal fits right in with the massive corporation's strategy of buying up undervalued companies.

But Onex's founder and head Gerry Schwartz does not like to be called a corporate vulture.

The Winnipeg-born lawyer, who has counted Finance Minister Paul Martin and television mogul Izzy Asper among his close friends, insists that Onex is interested in improving the numerous businesses it owns through long-term "partnerships".

Skepticism about Schwartz's committment to the companies he buys is based on his past. He apprenticed in the world of Wall Street leveraged buyouts -- taking over companies with borrowed money and paying debts from the company's cash flow -- and was one of the first people to bring the concept to Canada.

Onex, which has 53,000 employees around the world and assets of $6.8 billion, owns a large number of companies. Those include Sky Chefs (the world's largest in-flight caterer), Hollywood production company Phoenix Pictures, electronics manufacturer Celestica, and Eastern Canada's Lantic Sugar.

Schwartz is married to Heather Reisman, the head of Indigo Books. The couple live in a Toronto mansion dubbed "Fort Schwartz" and hold regular dinner parties for powerful politicians and business people. They also own a 1940s-style clapboard house in California.

Schwartz is a high-profile major fundraiser for the Liberal Party of Canada, but perhaps he was best known before the airline announcement for his big pay cheques -- like the $19 million he pocketed in 1997 -- and his unswerving dedication to increasing shareholder value.

He was raised in Winnipeg and worked in his father and brothers' auto-parts business. That experience fostered Schwartz's great interest in cars -- as a teenager, he took apart and reassembled his 1938 Plymouth.

That project worked. It remains to be seen if Schwartz's attempt to overhaul the Canadian airline industry will be as successful.