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The daily battle to keep Canwest Global alive

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In the dying weeks of Canwest Global Communications, the three Asper siblings huddled together several times a day in a desperate attempt to keep the one-time media giant afloat.

They were fighting what ultimately was an impossible battle to win, with bondholders banging down their doors and an advertising market that had gone south in a hurry.

"We had to form our own team (along with former Winnipegger Chuck Winograd from RBC). It became a battle of shareholders versus creditors. We were in the battle every day," Asper said during an interview at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café Thursday morning.

While no single event can be blamed for the demise of Winnipeg-based Canwest, Asper said the trouble started on Sept. 8, 2008, when Lehman Brothers, one of the pillars of the U.S. financial sector, went bankrupt.

That prompted virtually every bank in the world to question its own solvency, Asper said. The economy was then seemingly heading into a recession, and it took the advertising market with it.

"Up until Aug. 31 (2008), everything looked perfect. On Sept. 8, the world took a complete left turn and went off a cliff," he said.

Indeed, the company's profits had been up 15 per cent over the previous 12 months. Advertising revenues in television weren't hit nearly as hard as they were in newspapers. Canwest cut out $150 million in costs from its newspaper division, met with its unions and renegotiated a bunch of contracts.

The situation, however, wasn't so catastrophic the company couldn't continue to pay its obligations on its $3.5 billion in debt. (The newspaper division's annual profits fell from $300 million to $200 million.) But they were significant enough for creditors to be able to invoke a clause in Canwest's lending agreement and call the loans. The hedge funds, which held the debt, pounced.

"Their business is to take your company from you. They want to call your loan, push you out and take over the company, because they believe it's a good company and they'll sell it later and make a bunch of money," he said.

"That's what happened. It wasn't that we couldn't pay the interest."

Canwest entered bankruptcy protection in late 2009 and its newspaper and television assets were sold soon after to Postmedia Network and Shaw Communications, respectively.

Asper is now the head of Anthem Media, a Toronto-based media company that owns a number of specialty channels, most notably The Fight Network.

None of the Aspers needed to be reminded their late father, Izzy, had founded Canwest in 1974 with the purchase of a single North Dakota television station. But they weren't fighting to save the company for him, they were doing it for themselves, their shareholders and their fellow employees.

"There was a great sense of urgency every day," he said.

Asper said he doesn't pay any heed to critics who say the company wouldn't have failed if his father hadn't died in the fall of 2003.

"I don't think it's come up once between David, Gail and I. It's just a hypothetical, we don't dwell on it. You'd drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what Izzy Asper or anybody else would have done in that situation," he said.

Asper said he is buoyed by the fact he has been approached by a significant number of people over the last couple of years -- some of whom are billionaires -- who have told him they went through a similar crisis. In many cases, they lost their houses, but they rebounded better than ever. They told Asper he can make a great comeback, too.

"In the grand scheme of things, none of that ever happened to us. We still did quite well by the company. (Losing everything) has happened to a lot of people, it's just part of doing business," he said.

"My dad said it's very hard to have a business career and not collapse once or twice along the way. If you're going to dream big, you're going to have the risk of failing big. We happily took that risk. It happened, and I think there were a lot of external reasons, but I don't blame myself. My brother and sister and I don't look at it and say, 'somebody could have done something differently.' I think we pulled out all the stops."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2013 B6


Updated on Friday, February 22, 2013 at 12:16 PM CST: Corrects name to Chuck Winograd

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