Descendants of a Russian immigrant tobacco farmer, Yechiel (Ekiel) Bronfman, members of the Bronfman family owned and controlled huge financial empires that were built from the profits of the family liquor business. Until recently the best-known member of the family was Samuel Bronfman (born at Soroki, Bessarabia, or en route from Russia 27 Feb 1889; died at Montréal 10 Jul 1971).

In 1924 Sam founded Distillers Corporation Ltd in Montréal, merging it with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons of Waterloo, Ont, in 1928 and building the new company into the world's largest distilling firm. Sam played a leading role in Canadian Jewish affairs and was president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1962.

Bronfman Origins in Canada

Soon after their arrival in 1889, the Bronfman family left their homestead near Wapella, Sask, for Brandon, where Ekiel started a wood-fuel delivery business with sons Abe (born in Russia 15 Mar 1882; died at Safety Harbor, Fla 16 Mar 1968), Harry (born in Russia 15 Mar 1886; died at Montréal 12 Nov 1963) and Sam. In 1903 the family borrowed money to buy the Anglo-American Hotel in Emerson, Man.

The hotel business boomed with railway construction and 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 energies to the interprovincial package liquor trade, purchasing stocks of spirits which were sold at a good profit.

Building Wealth

During the later years of prohibition in the US (1920-33) Sam Bronfman began Distillers Corporation Ltd in 1924 and merged it in 1928 with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, into Distillers Corporation-Seagrams Ltd. As the driving force in Seagrams, he developed a large business in export sales to the US. When prohibition ended in 1933, Seagrams was ready with huge amounts of well-aged and carefully blended spirits which were sold bottled to the consumer through a network of distributors, a marketing approach developed by Sam.

Success in the US brought huge profits and led to the company's expansion throughout the world. Seven Crown and Seagram's VO became the largest-selling brands of whisky in the world. Under Sam's leadership the company invested in wineries and distilleries and by 1965 reached sales in 119 countries of over $1 billion.

In time, the Seagram Company Limited was controlled by Sam's descendants, along with large real estate and financial investments. Edgar Miles Bronfman (born 20 June 1929 in Montréal; died 21 December 2013 in New York), Sam's eldest son, was chairman of the board and chief executive officer (until 1994) of the company. He ran the US operations from New York and in 1981 became president of the World Jewish Congress. He was instrumental in the 1997 deal which saw Swiss banks agree to provide restitution to the families of exiled or murdered Jews whose assets had been frozen during WWII.

Sam's second son, Charles Rosner Bronfman (born at Montréal 27 Jun 1931), directed Seagrams' Canadian business. He joined the company in 1951, becoming its president in 1975 when its name was changed to Seagram Company Ltd. He became the company's co-chairman in 1986, a position he held until 2000 when Seagram was sold to the French conglomerate Vivendi. Charles also conducted business in Israel as chairman of Koor Industries, 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. As the chairman of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies Inc (ACBP), Charles Bronfman is responsible for a network of international charities operating in Canada, the US and Israel. In 1999 he co-founded and endowed the Historica Foundation, a charity dedicated to promoting Canadian history, which merged with the Dominion Institute in 2009 to become the Historica-Dominion Institute.

Sam's daughter, Phyllis Lambert (born at Montréal 24 Jan 1927), founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture and was consulting architect for the museum's building in Montréal, completed in 1989, to house the centre's substantial collection.

Diversification

Financiers in their own right were Edward (born at Montréal 1 Nov 1927; died at Toronto 4 Apr 2005) and Peter (born at Montréal 2 Oct 1929; died at Toronto 1 Dec 1996), the sons of Allan Bronfman (born at Brandon, Man 21 Dec 1895; died at Montréal 26 Mar 1980). Sam excluded his brother Allan's family from Seagrams. However, Edward and Peter had, through Edper Investments, built their own financial empire, at one time considered by many to rival that of Sam's heirs. For example, in 1987, Edper indirectly controlled Canada's largest forestry company and largest trust company, and in 1992 accounted for 10% of the Toronto Stock Exchange's value. The brothers divested themselves of their Edper interest in 1995, and Edward became president of Maured Ltd and a director of Ranger Oil Ltd and Astral Communications Inc.

Edgar Miles Bronfman Jr (born at New York, NY 16 May 1955) spent time in Hollywood as a script reader and producer before joining Seagram in 1982. He became president in 1989 and replaced his father Edgar M. Sr as CEO in 1994. Edgar M. Jr was the main force behind Seagram's expansion into the entertainment industry: in 1993 Seagram bought a 15% stake in Time Warner Inc and in 1995 it sold its $12 billion interest in E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Co to buy 80% of MCA Inc (renamed Universal Studios). In 1997 Seagram bought the 50% interest in USA Networks it did not already control, and in 1998 acquired PolyGram NV for $10.6 billion.

End of an Era

The global picture of big business shifted in 2000 with the announcement of the merger of AOL 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 the new and old economies and the increasingly complex integration of companies in which only the largest could survive. The merged AOL Time Warner was a media behemoth.

In June of 2000, Edgar Bronfman Jr announced the sale of Seagram to the French conglomerate Vivendi in a shares agreement that saw Vivendi pay $42 billion principally in the exchange of shares. The Bronfmans retained 25% of the merged company called Vivendi Universal, with Jean-Marie Messier at the head. 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 days. Messier began buying more companies over the objections of the Bronfmans. Within a year, Messier had been dismissed and Vivendi Universal share values had dropped from $77 per share to less than $25. In 2003, with the Seagram company gone, Vivendi sold the Seagram building and auctioned the Seagram art collection to pay its debts.