Descendants of Russian immigrant tobacco farmer Yechiel (Ekiel) Bronfman and his wife, Mindel, members of the Bronfman family owned and controlled huge financial empires that were built from the profits of the family liquor business (see Seagram Company Limited). The best known members of the family are Samuel Bronfman, founder of Seagram and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (1939–62), and his descendants. Sons Edgar and Charles Bronfman ran Seagram for decades, while grandson Edgar Miles Bronfman Jr. oversaw the sale of Seagram to Vivendi. Charles was also co-founder of the Historica Foundation of Canada and Heritage Minutes, as well as chairman and principal owner of the Montreal Expos. His sister Phyllis Lambert is a well-known architect who founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Their cousins, Edward and Peter Bronfman (sons of Allan Bronfman), developed a financial empire in their own right. The family has given generously to several charitable organizations and been involved in the Canadian Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress.
Bronfman Origins in Canada
Mindel and Yechiel Bronfman immigrated to Canada with their children in 1889, fleeing the anti-Semitic pogroms of czarist Russia. The Bronfman family settled at a homestead near Wapella, Saskatchewan, but soon moved to Brandon, Manitoba, where Yechiel started a wood-fuel delivery business with sons Abe (born 15 March 1882 in Russia; died 16 March 1968 in Safety Harbor, Florida), Harry (born 15 March 1886 in Russia; died 12 November 1963 in Montréal, Québec) and Samuel (born 27 February 1889 in Soroki, Bessarabia, or en route from Russia; died 10 July 1971 in Montréal). Samuel and his siblings experienced a childhood of poverty and hard work. In 1903, the family borrowed money to buy the Anglo-American Hotel in Emerson, Manitoba. Yechiel emerged as a leader in the local Jewish community and sent money to assist Jewish communities in eastern Europe.
The hotel business boomed with railway construction. By the middle of the First World War, the family was running three profitable hotels in Winnipeg. With the coming of Prohibition in Canada, the Bronfmans turned their energy to the interprovincial package liquor trade and purchased stocks of spirits that were sold at good profits.
Samuel Bronfman and Seagram
In 1924, Samuel Bronfman founded Distillers Corporation Limited in Montréal and, in 1928, merged with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons into Distillers Corporation–Seagram Ltd. As the driving force behind what would become known as Seagram, he developed a large business in export sales to the United States, despite the fact that Prohibition laws were stricter there than in Canada. When Prohibition ended in the United States in 1933, Seagram was ready with huge amounts of well-aged and carefully blended spirits that were sold to consumers in bottles through a network of distributors — a marketing approach developed by Samuel.
Success in the United States brought huge profits and led to the company’s expansion around the world. Seagram’s Seven Crown and Seagram’s VO became two of the bestselling brands of whisky in the world. Under Samuel’s leadership, the company invested in wineries and distilleries and, by the end of 1965, reached sales of over $1 billion in 119 countries.
The Next Generation at Seagram: Edgar and Charles Bronfman
After Samuel Bronfman’s death in 1971, his eldest son, Edgar Miles Bronfman (born 20 June 1929 in Montréal; died 21 December 2013 in New York), became chairman and chief executive officer of the company and ran its U.S. operations from New York. In 1981, Edgar became president of the World Jewish Congress and was instrumental in the 1997 deal that saw Swiss banks agree to provide restitution to the families of exiled and murdered Jews whose assets had been frozen during the Second World War.
Samuel’s second son, Charles Rosner Bronfman (born 27 June 1931 in Montréal), directed Seagram’s Canadian business. He holds dual Canadian and American citizenship. Charles joined the company in 1951 and became president of Canadian operations in 1975, when the company name was changed to Seagram Company Ltd. He became the company's co-chairman in 1986 and held that position until 2000, when Seagram was sold to the French mass media and communications conglomerate Vivendi. Charles also conducted business in Israel as chairman of Koor Industries Limited, one of the country’s largest conglomerates.
A Canadian nationalist, Charles owned the Montreal Expos baseball club from 1968 to 1990. In 1986, he created the CRB Foundation to promote studies on Canadian and Jewish affairs. Through the CRB Foundation, he created Birthright Israel, which has funded visits to Israel for more than 500,000 Jewish students from around the world since 1998. In 1999, he also co-founded and endowed the Historica Foundation of Canada, a charity dedicated to promoting Canadian history, which merged with The Dominion Institute in 2009 to become The Historica-Dominion Institute (now Historica Canada). Charles received the Order of Canada in 1981, and his experiences prompted him to consider the achievements of fellow Canadians with pride. It inspired the idea of short films about significant people and events in Canadian history, which eventually led to the creation of Heritage Minutes.
As chairman of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), which was formed in 1986, Charles was responsible for a network of international charities that operated in Canada, the United States and Israel. Designed on the spend-down model of philanthropy, ACBP was designed to encourage innovation in the next generation. In 2007, he founded The Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalized Medicine.
Not all of Sam Bronfman’s children were involved in Seagram. His daughter Phyllis Lambert (born 24 January 1927 in Montréal) became a celebrated architect and advocate for the cultural importance of architecture. Between 1954 and 1958, Lambert was director of planning for the Seagram Building in New York, an influential example of modern urban architecture designed by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. In 1963, Lambert earned her master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. She designed the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts (later renamed the Segal Centre for Performing Arts) in Montréal and was a consultant for the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto. Lambert founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture and was a consulting architect for the museum's building in Montréal, which houses the centre’s substantial collection. A champion of urban conservation and renewal, Lambert is a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Diversification and Sale of Seagram to Vivendi: Edgar Miles Bronfman Jr.
An American citizen, Edgar Miles Bronfman Jr. (born 16 May 1955 in New York, New York) spent time in Hollywood as a script writer and producer before joining Seagram in 1982. He became president of the company in 1989 and replaced his father, Edgar Sr., as CEO in 1994. Edgar Jr. was the main force behind Seagram’s expansion into the entertainment industry: In 1993, Seagram bought a 15 percent stake in Time Warner and, in 1995, bought 80 percent of MCA, Inc. In 1997, Seagram bought the 50 percent interest in USA Network that it didn’t already control and, in 1998, acquired PolyGram NV for $10.6 billion.
The global picture of big business shifted in 2000 with the announcement of the merger of AOL Inc. with Time Warner. This merger heralded the end of traditional media and the advent of the new. It symbolized an end to the distinction between new and old economies and the increasingly complex integration of companies in which only the largest could survive. The newly merged AOL Time Warner was a media behemoth.
Following this trend in big business, in June 2000, Edgar Jr. announced the sale of Seagram to the French mass media conglomerate Vivendi in a shares agreement that saw Vivendi pay $34 billion principally in the exchange of shares. The Bronfmans retained 24 percent of the merged company, called Vivendi Universal, with Jean-Marie Messier at the helm. The Seagram liquor properties were sold to Pernod Ricard and Diageo. The Vivendi operation proved to be unstable, and the newly merged company began to fail within months. Messier started buying more companies, despite the objections of the Bronfmans. By 2002, Messier had been forced to resign and the value of Vivendi shares had dropped from $77 per share to less than $25. In 2003, with the Seagram company gone, Vivendi auctioned the Seagram art collection to pay its debts. In 2011, Paris courts convicted and fined Edgar for insider trading while at Vivendi.
After Vivendi, Edgar Jr. became CEO (2004–11) and chairman (2011–12) of Warner Music Group (WMG) at a time when the music industry was in crisis due to mass downloading of free music. Under Edgar Jr.’s leadership, WMG embraced the new landscape of digital music and sales and market shares increased, despite the overall financial downturn within the music industry. A successful songwriter as well, Edgar Jr. wrote the lyrics to Céline Dion’s hit song “To Love You More.”
Edward and Peter Bronfman
Samuel Bronfman’s nephews, Edward (born 1 November 1927 in Montréal; died 4 April 2005 in Toronto) and Peter (born 2 October 1929 in Montréal; died 1 December 1996 in Toronto), became financiers in their own right. The sons of Allan Bronfman (born 21 December 1895 in Brandon, Manitoba; died 26 March 1980 in Montréal), they were excluded from Seagram and settled in Toronto. However, Edward and Peter founded Edper Investments Ltd. and built their own financial empire, which at one time rivalled that of Samuel’s heirs. For example, in 1987, Edper indirectly controlled Canada’s largest forestry company and largest trust company and, in 1992, it accounted for 10 percent of the Toronto Stock Exchange’s value. The brothers owned the Montreal Canadiens between 1971 and 1978 and owned stakes in John Labatt Limited, which they sold in 1993. In 1995, the brothers divested themselves of their Edper interest, and Edward became president of Maured Ltd and director of Ranger Oil Limited and Astral Communications Inc. In the spirit of the Bronfman family, Edward and Peter supported many charitable organizations.
Michael R. Marrus. Samuel Bronfman: The Life and Times of Seagram’s Mr. Sam (1991).
Charles Bronfman and Howard Green. Distilled: A Memoir of Family, Seagram, Baseball and Philanthropy (2016) .