12/28/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
Seagram's $638,000-a-year chairman found himself in an enviable corporate position last spring: He had $3.7 billion burning a hole in his pocket and was looking for something to buy. Making such a colossal investment in a shaky economy would have daunted many industrialists, but Edgar Bronfman found the challenge, well, intoxicating. "Business is like a game," says Bronfman, 52, who personifies more than any other figure the merger mania of 1981. "And winning is fun."
Bronfman's opening gambit was to try to buy the St. Joe Minerals Corp., but he withdrew when Fluor Inc. pushed the price too high. Then he went after Conoco, buying up 27 percent before he was outmaneuvered, this time by DuPont. As it turned out, conversion of the shares left Seagram owning 20 percent of DuPont, more than any single member of the DuPont family. To ease fears that Seagram might move to take over the company, Bronfman agreed not to buy more than another five percent of DuPont's outstanding stock during the next 15 years. In return, Edgar and his brother, Charles, were added to the DuPont board.
In a year of giant acquisitions, Bronfman came away with a lion's share—a sizable portion of future profits from Conoco's oil and natural gas operations and a major investment in DuPont's chemical and health care business, which Bronfman believes can only grow. Seagram itself last year grossed $2.5 billion.
For all the stir it caused on Wall Street, Bronfman's $2.6 billion spending spree followed months of judicious planning at Seagram's 38-story Manhattan headquarters. To be sure, there was intrigue; at one point, St. Joe was code-named "Mary" because, as Edgar puts it, "St. Joseph and Mary seemed like a natural." Bronfman resisted the urge that sometimes overcomes him at art auctions, where he will outbid anyone for an appealing addition to his vast personal collection. "When you're talking about shareholders' money," he observes, "you can't afford that luxury. A lot of mistakes are made in business because your ego gets in the way of your judgment."
Quebec-born Bronfman (who became a U.S. citizen in 1955) learned how not to make mistakes from his legendary father, Samuel, who built Seagram into the largest liquor company on earth. After graduating with a B.A. in liberal arts and history from McGill University in 1951, Edgar took his first major job as chief blender at the family's Montreal distillery. (He still describes himself as "an expert whiskey taster.") Anxious to move out on his own, Edgar discovered he could do so within the family firm when he took over Seagram on his father's death in 1971. Since then Edgar has presided as chairman while Charles, 50, serves as deputy chairman. With their 85-year-old mother, Saidye, and sisters Minda and Phyllis, they own 40 percent of Seagram stock. An admiring Irving, Shapiro, the former chief executive officer of DuPont, notes, "Sons of strong and wealthy fathers sometimes have difficulty building worthwhile careers, but the Bronfmans overcame that, establishing identities of their own."
Edgar runs a mile and a half to work every morning and then puts in an eight-hour day at the office. Since he is on the road four months a year for Seagram and for the World Jewish Congress, of which he is president, he never takes work home. He sets aside an hour a week for piano lessons and one month a year to vacation with third wife Georgiana, 31, and their children, Sara, 5, and 2½-year-old Clare. Bronfman also has five grown children from his 20-year marriage to Ann Loeb (of Loeb Rhoades banking) that ended in divorce in 1973. A second marriage, to Lady Caroline Townshend, was annulled after 13 months in 1974.
"I make a very serious effort to spend time with my family," Bronfman says. "You can become a stranger to your children pretty quickly." His relationship with his own father was always complex. When Edgar had all that money to spend, he asked himself, "What would Father do?" Then, he confides, "I realized, hell, he never had $3.7 billion."