The Current

'Nobody wins in a family war': Billionaire Charles Bronfman on Seagram's demise

He always had a big job. Charles Bronfman was born into wealth and privilege and stepped into the family distillery business, Seagram. But he faced self-doubt and complicated family relationships all of which he's sharing in a new memoir, Distilled.
Seagram Co. president and CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. (C) is flanked by his father Edgar Bronfman (L) and uncle Charles Bronfmam. The Bronfman family's colorful 76-year era as the barons of booze ended as Seagram Co. shareholders approved the company's $24 billion merger with France's Vivendi to form a global media giant. (Reuters)

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As one of the heirs to Canada's whisky empire, the Seagram company, Charles Bronfman grew up surrounded by unimaginable wealth. 

"I was very naive as a kid," Bronfman tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"I didn't think a lot of the trappings of wealth were perks at all because it seemed to me that was the way life was led."

Bronfman says growing up the youngest of four, he had no ego and thought his siblings were smarter and more sophisticated.

"I made my own rather difficult life for myself."

Charles Bronfman is a dual citizen and says he'll be voting for Hillary Clinton. He tells The Current, Trump is 'a clear and present danger.' (David Rubinger)
Now in his mid-80s Bronfman looks back at his life as a billionaire businessman and owner of the Montreal Expos in his new memoir, Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball and Philanthropy.

Bronfman tells Tremonti in hindsight after his father, Sam Bronfman died in 1971, the Seagram company should have had an outsider run the company.

"I don't know of if Dad could have had another CEO — an outsider in that slot — I doubt he could have. But where I think my brother and I made a… serious mistake was in the next generation."

Bronfman says it was always known that his older brother Edgar would head Seagram and he had no interest in taking on this role.

"I was too sensitive. I didn't want to fire people and raise prices and I'm not a bottom line guy," he tells Tremonti.

But his relationship with his brother grew to be complicated both personally and professionally.

"We had different ideas of partnership. His partnership idea was that he was up high," says Bronfman.

Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., son of legendary Canadian liquor magnate Samuel Bronfman, died in 2013 at the age of 84. (David Karp/Associated Press)

"[My brother] did not regard me very highly from a brain's standpoint, or from a business standpoint."

And from Bronfman's point of view, he thought of his brother as "the entitled one. Period."

When it was clear the future of Seagram was at risk in 1995, Bronfman tells Tremonti he didn't want a family feud by aggressively opposing the companies move into the entertainment business.

Eventually, in a deal spearheaded by Edgar and his son, Edgar Jr,. Seagram would be sold in a deal that would wind up costing the family billions of dollars.

"Nobody wins in a family war. Nobody."

In 2013, Edgar died and Bronfman tells Tremonti  he was by his brother's side.

"You know I loved him in many ways...I resented him in other ways.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.