It’s an extraordinary story about an extraordinary man who became one of the most legendary entrepreneurs in Canadian history.
But at its core it is also a love story. It’s a tale about Peter Munk’s life-long romance with Canada — the country that welcomed him after he and 14 members of his family fled Hungary and the Nazi’s death camps in the final year of the Second World War.
Since then the iconic entrepreneur and founder of gold mining giant Barrick Gold has donated $300 million to institutions in Canada, primarily to healthcare and education in recent years, before his death on March 28, 2018, at age 90.
Last November, Munk and his wife Melanie gave $100 million to the Toronto General Hospital’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre — the largest gift to a single Canadian hospital in history.
“We’re not talking about charity, we’re not talking about a gift, we’re talking about repaying a debt,” Munk said at the time. “I’m here to thank you … you guys who were born here, who take it for granted, will never appreciate the immense debt I have.”
Munk was 16 years old when the Nazis marched into Budapest in the spring of 1944.
“The Munks were an upper middle class, well-to-do Jewish family,” Munk told CBC’s Susan Ormiston in an interview in 2007. “Budapest was full of Jews, very assimilated — the Austral-Hungarian Empire liked them.”
Under the command of SS lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, the Germans began to round up Jews, forcing them into ghettos and then into cattle cars that would take them to Auschwitz, an extermination camp in Poland.
Before the Germans surrendered to the Allies in May 1945, they had deported more than 425,000 Hungarian Jews and murdered most of them.
The Munks and thousands of others owe their lives to Rezso Kasztner, a Zionist lawyer and journalist who negotiated with Eichmann and another SS officer, Kurt Andreas Becher, to save as many of his people as he could from the Nazi’s gas chambers.
“I first heard of Rezso Kasztner in 1999 from Peter Munk,” writes Anna Porter, author of Kasztner’s train: The true story of Rezso Kasztner, unknown hero of the holocaust.
It was late in the war and there were officers in the SS who were prepared to trade Jewish lives for goods, jewels and cash — preferably Swiss francs.
Porter’s book chronicles how Kasztner kept 20,000 Hungarian Jews alive for a deposit of $100 a head (“Eichmann called them ‘Kasztner’s Jews’ or ‘the Jews on ice,’” she writes). He also helped prepare fake identity papers for countless others, and organized a train that would take 1,684 Jews to a safe country.
The Munks were on that train.
“We did not know where the train was going,” Olga Munk, Peter’s mother-in-law, told Porter in an interview, adding that they had “no idea if we would be alive at the end of the journey.
“But we were absolutely certain we would not live to see the end of the war if we stayed in Budapest.”
The train’s passengers, Porter wrote, included “industrialists, intellectuals and Orthodox rabbis, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Polish and Slovak refugees from pogroms and concentration camps, the oldest 85, the youngest a month old. The wealthy Jews of Budapest paid an average US$1,500 for each family member to be included. The poor paid nothing.”
The train left Budapest on July 1, 1944, and arrived at Bergen-Belsen — one of the Nazi’s concentration camps northeast of Hanover, Germany — on July 9, where the passengers disembarked and stayed for weeks while Kasztner bargained for their freedom. From there, the train took them in two groups to Switzerland. Munk’s group arrived on Aug. 21, the second group on Dec. 21.
After the war, Kasztner moved to Israel, where he was accused by an Israeli trial judge in 1955 of collaborating with the Nazis. The judge declared Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.”
“Utter nonsense, utter nonsense, utter, total nonsense,” Munk told CBC. “He was a hero … probably the equivalent of a biblical hero.
“How do you thank someone who saved your life, your father’s life and your grandfather’s life?”
Kasztner was assassinated in 1957. The three assailants were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. A week later, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. They ruled, Porter said, that he “had acted in what he believed to be in the best interests of all the people, not only those he had managed to save.”
Munk arrived in Canada in early 1948. (His mother, Katharina — who was not on Kasztner’s train — was deported to Auschwitz a week after Munk and his father’s family escaped from Budapest. She and Munk’s father had earlier undergone an “acrimonious” divorce, Munk told CBC. He demanded to stay and protect his mother, he said, but she and his father and grandfather insisted he leave. Katharina survived Auschwitz and Munk brought her to Canada after the war. She committed suicide in 1988.)
Munk spoke no English when he ended up in Toronto at the age of 20.
In his speeches he often talked about the gratitude he felt towards the young Canadians and their families he met while attending Lawrence Park High School and the University of Toronto (U of T), where he studied electrical engineering.
“I was the only one not born here, I was the only one who was Jewish, and the only one who couldn’t speak the language, and you know what? They treated me like a brother — a brother in need,” Munk said in his speech last November. “They were there to accept me, help me, include me, make me feel at home … from then on, in every step of my career — which has been long, boring, and full of failures and successes — every step in my career, I felt that enormous desire to become more Canadian, to do more for Canada.”
Like his paternal grandfather Gabriel, a businessman who had accumulated wealth distributing a Viennese chocolate brand called Manner, Munk had entrepreneurship in his blood.
After stints working for other people — picking tobacco on a farm in southern Ontario while at university and then working at Toronto Hydro, CN Telegraph and Atlas Radio — he launched Peter Munk Associates in 1956, just four years after he graduated from U of T.
The company built and installed high-quality sound systems. He then founded Clairtone Sound Corp. in 1958 with business partner David Gilmour. The company’s high-end stereos designed in sleek Scandinavian-style cabinets became hugely successful, endorsed by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Oscar Peterson, among others.
Clairtone failed after Munk and Gilmour moved manufacturing to a big plant in Nova Scotia. Cost overruns, an ill-timed move into colour televisions and competition from the Japanese sealed its fate. Munk was turfed out of the company. In an interview years later with the New York Times, Munk described Clairtone as “the single most formative experience in my life, because it was so traumatic.”
“It was my first love, my first infatuation with the romance of business,” Munk told Peter C. Newman in his 1998 book Titans: How the new Canadian establishment seized power. “It was unrequited, it was immensely uncompleted, and maybe that’s why it made such a major impression on me. But it was an experience that formed the foundation for everything that I have accomplished in my life.”
Munk then threw himself into real estate, founding Southern Pacific Properties to develop a hotel and resort complex in Fiji, and took the company public on the London and Hong Kong stock exchanges.
In 1972 he acquired Travelodge, the largest hotel and resort chain in Australia and the South Pacific. He later renamed the company Southern Pacific Hotel Corp., and sold it to a consortium of private investors in 1981 for $100 million.
Other companies Munk created included Horsham Corp., which he founded in the late 1980s and listed on the TSX. Horsham later merged with Trizec Corp. to create Trizec-Hahn. Munk acquired Trizec from a group of banks, and grew it into one of the biggest owners and operators of commercial office properties in North America. In 2006, Trizec was sold to Brookfield Properties and the Blackstone Group for $9 billion.
Ian Delaney, who Munk recruited from Bay Street to be Horsham’s CEO in 1987, describes Munk as a “visionary who could see things that his colleagues and partners couldn’t. He was truly capable of thinking in the large-scale.
“Like any real, fundamental entrepreneur risk-taker, Peter made money, Peter lost money. Peter had partners, but they never ever felt that, win or lose, they had been abused by their partnership,” Delaney says. “I can think of quite a few guys who couldn’t say that.”
Delaney also noted that Munk was a “realist, but always believed that hard work and risk-taking would always stand him in good stead.” Munk was also “extremely generous with his partners.”
“He was a leader, and his people around him might get down, but Peter would stay the course, buck them up — he was pretty good, I’ve gotta say.”
Delaney remained a fan, even after Munk fired him.
“Well, of course he fired me,” Delaney told Newman in Titans. “He was the controlling shareholder, and I was the CEO, and I wanted to have things my way. Obviously incompatible … frankly, I would have fired me a year and a half before he did.”
In Newman’s view, Munk’s motives in the years after Clairtone blew up were: “restitution, redemption, revenge — the three great Rs in Peter Munk’s life. It’s about giving the finger to all those snotty guys who never waved goodbye as he snuck away for his 12-year exile in the South Pacific after the Clairtone fiasco in 1967.”
In 1980, Munk formed Barrick Petroleum to invest in oil and gas exploration, but his timing was off, and he shifted his focus to gold after figuring out that European investors wanted a safer place to put their money than in the gold mines of apartheid-era South Africa.
When the Economist asked Munk in 2014 why he moved to gold, he replied: “Because I’m a pretty good business person. I like business. And mining was to me an area that offered opportunity.
“I knew nothing about mining … what I did know was how to run a business. The investor doesn’t give a damn about what you know about mining. They want results.”
Rocco Marcello, who worked in investment banking and helped Munk with some of his deals in the early years, describes his friend as “brilliant,” and a serial risk-taker.
“He had a great imagination, he was a true visionary. If something didn’t work, he didn’t collapse his tent, he’d go on to the next thing.”
The biggest thing and his enduring legacy was Barrick Gold, which in its first year of production produced 57,000 oz. gold. By 1992 it reached the 1 million oz. mark and last year churned out 5.3 million ounces.
Munk set his new gold mining company apart from other juniors by focusing on acquiring producing gold mines rather than on exploration. His other strategies were to become a North American leader in the gold industry, follow conservative financial policies and lower risk by hedging.
Barrick’s first acquisition was a half interest in the Renabie mine in northern Ontario. But it was the deal to buy Camflo Mines — a mid-sized Canadian gold producer with a property in Quebec — that was really pivotal to Barrick’s story.
Camflo’s most valuable assets were people: Bob Smith, an engineer who would become Munk’s partner and Barrick’s president and chief operating officer; Alan Hill, another engineer; and geologist Brian Meikle. Unlike Munk, they understood the mining business, and provided critical expertise that would help shape Barrick’s future.
“Smith built, led and inspired the technical team that transformed Peter Munk’s vision into reality,” The Northern Miner wrote after Smith’s death in 1998. “It was one of the mining world’s most successful and enduring partnerships.”
After Camflo, Barrick picked up the Mercur mine in Utah for 40 million. Within one year, Smith and his team doubled its reserves, and within 18 months Mercur was worth five times its sticker price.
In 1986, Barrick bought Goldstrike for $62 million. Goldstrike was a small heap-leach operation in Nevada producing 50,000 oz. gold a year and had 600,000 oz. in reserves. But Smith and his team said there was more gold to be found, despite the challenging geology and water table.
At the time, many ridiculed Barrick for “overpaying” for Goldstrike, but it became the steal of the century. Barrick found 50 million more ounces of gold there and Goldstrike became the largest gold producer in the world, and the company’s flagship asset for many years.
“There was some luck in how big the deposit ultimately became over three decades, but with luck, it’s often what you do with it,” says Jamie Sokalsky, who worked with Munk for over two decades, including as Barrick’s president and CEO from 2012 to 2014.
The Goldstrike deposit, says Pierre Lassonde, chairman of Franco-Nevada, “turned out to be one of the greatest deposits of all time on the planet, and we were part of that ride — Barrick made Franco-Nevada and Seymour [Schulich] and myself. That’s really what made us and made him.”
Lassonde remembers meeting Munk for the first time after Barrick bought Goldstrike because he and Schulich held the royalty on the property and wanted to make sure the contract was bulletproof.
“The royalty agreement wasn’t very clean so we decided that we’d better meet with Peter and Bob Smith and see if we could hammer out the details of the agreement so we wouldn’t find ourselves in court, or anything like that,” Lassonde says.
“Peter already by that time had quite a reputation, as much a ladies man as he was a promoter and a world-class individual … I was still very young, in my mid-30s, and I felt like I was meeting a personality. He was already in his mid-50s and he was always dressed to the nines. I don’t know if he prided himself on it, but he was always dressed to kill.”
More importantly, however, Munk was decisive and didn’t draw out negotiations.
“He was very quick to understand what we were trying to do and extremely helpful, and frankly, in one meeting, we went through all the points we had on our agenda and we agreed on everything and how it would be settled and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy can make a decision! He doesn’t go to 20 committees, this is really neat. We can really do great stuff with him.’”
Lassonde describes Munk as “one of the greatest promoters of all time.”
“It takes a promoter to recognize a promoter,” he says. “Promoters love to hear a great story and Peter was one of the best when it came to hearing great stories and acting upon them.”
One of the deals that underscored Munk’s appetite for risk was in Peru. On the basis of just nine drill holes, Barrick snapped up Arequipa Resources for $1.1 billion in 1996.
Barrick had expanded earlier to Chile and Argentina through its $1.4-billion acquisition of Lac Minerals in 1994 (“the mining equivalent of an erstwhile bicycle-maker buying Chrysler,” the Economist editorialized in 1995). Buying Sutton Resources in 1999 also led to properties in Tanzania.
But its most audacious deals were still to come.
In 2001, Barrick acquired Homestake Mining Co., the oldest listed gold mining company in the United States. Homestake was Barrick’s introduction to Australia, where its properties included a half stake in the country’s biggest gold mine, the Kalgoorlie super pit.
In 2006, it completed a hostile takeover of Placer Dome for $10 billion, making Barrick the world’s largest gold company. Placer had 12 mines and four projects, and stretched Barrick’s footprint worldwide.
“He understood the value, the benefit and the upside of making bold moves,” says Sokalsky, now chairman at Probe Metals. “Not all of the moves the company made were successful, of course, and investors may not have agreed with everything that was done, but Peter always wanted what was in the best interests of the company, and that was paramount in his mind.”
Among Barrick’s less successful moves were the $7.3-billion purchase in 2011 of Equinox Minerals, which owned a large low-grade copper mine in Zambia, and spending years and many billions of dollars on trying to move the needle at the Pascua-Lama gold project, which straddles the Chilean-Argentine border in the Andes.
Munk was lucky too, when he lost a bid for control of Bre-X Minerals in 1997.
While hedging was an innovation at the time in gold mining and proved an effective strategy in the early decades, setting Barrick apart from its competitors and helping it pay for acquisitions that often took the industry’s breath away, it also cost the company dearly in later years.
“In the 1990s they made a lot of money doing that — they made something like $6 billion,” Lassonde says. “But where he got killed is that unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate the world of zero-interest rates. Who could anticipate that, to be very honest? And when that came around he ended up with the same dollar liability as he had made in the past 10 years. He had to buy back the hedge book for $6 billion, so at the end of the day it was neutral. It just goes to show that you can be smart for ten years and then one year comes and you can’t anticipate what the world can do … and unfortunately, very few of us could anticipate that.”
Munk also came under attack for what many shareholders — including leading Canadian pension funds — said was outrageous compensation for senior executives of the company, like the $11.9 million signing bonus for John Thornton, who replaced him as chairman.
Those who worked with Munk the longest speak of his dedication to the company and his hands-off management style.
Bill Birchill, an accountant and long-time friend and business associate, joined up with Munk in 1970 because he had finance experience in land development projects. He stayed with Munk from then on, well into the Barrick years.
“He pushed himself, he was on the job mentally 24/7, that’s what entrepreneurs do, they sweat blood, they sweat everything,” Birchill says. “But he would do that in formulating an opinion or a decision, and then he would spend a couple of days writing out a memo about why he was in favour of something, which would be in its tenth draft before he felt it was good enough to release to the group.”
Munk also knew which parts of the group needed him and which didn’t, and refused to micromanage.
“My job was to hustle the shares and I left the mining operation totally to miners,” Munk told the Economist.
“It was a management style done through complete trust,” Birchill says. “He trusted the people who were delivering the information and operating the company and its mines. Peter’s presence always put the bar higher. He would say, ‘OK, you think you can do this.’ Once he felt comfortable with the prospectivity of it, he thought, ‘Why not raise the bar and do that.’”
In addition, Munk never invested in anything significant when he was the only investor, Birchill notes.
“He always wanted to think big, which required the enterprise to be a public company, and he wanted people to share in that public company — employees, outside investors,” he explains. “He has been and always wanted to have a platform of something that was going to be meaningful, and it was his job to make sure it was going to be meaningful. And that was really his single-mindedness. It was his belief that this was our business, we had to perform, we had to do better, we all had to act as owners, and that it was shareholder’s money — and everyone had to pull together for the greater good.”
Marcello, who counselled Munk when he was transitioning from oil and gas to gold mining, remembers that he “listened and took advice.”
“He understood his limitations and his strengths, and his strengths were the ability to have a vision and then in terms of the operations he would turn them over to the most qualified individual,” Marcello says. “He was very smart that way. The success of any great entrepreneur is to understand your strengths and understand your weaknesses, and play on your strengths, and he was very good at that.”
Others say it was hard to change Munk’s mind.
“He had very strong opinions and you didn’t move him too far off his convictions, that was difficult to do,” Schulich says.
And like with most company founders, you had to bring your “A game” into meetings with Munk.
“You always had to be very prepared and clearly know your stuff when you met with him,” Sokalsky recalls. “He wasn’t a big fan of long presentations. At management or board meetings he was very sharp at assessing a presentation or a proposal and looking at the numbers. He could zero in on the main issues as he was always sharp and focused on what was important, and had the ability to assess things very well.”
Kelvin Dushnisky, who joined Barrick in 2002 and is now the company’s president, agrees.
“He put the Barrick brand above everything,” he says. “If you weren’t prepared … he was patient, but not if it in any way reflected badly on Barrick … at the same time he gave you a chance to improve, and if you showed you were prepared to improve then he had all the time in the world for you, if you were prepared to give 100% for Barrick, and he was right.
“You never left the room after meeting Peter when you didn’t feel a bit better about a situation, about yourself, or about the circumstances,” Dushnisky added. “There was a view that he could be a little mercurial in his approach to things, and to Barrick executives, but as long as you thought that anything you did or any decision you made was in the best interests of the company, he would support that decision 100%.”
In addition to the philanthropic donations to hospitals and healthcare and education, Munk was generous with his employees at all levels of the company and liked to give them skin in the game.
“The senior people had the most impact on the decisions of the company and would benefit more, but it was always a philosophy of sharing throughout the company,” Sokalsky says. “Barrick also has a scholarship program that, from its earliest days, has funded the tuition for children of all employees to attend post-secondary education, no matter where they were.”
One of Munk’s last enterprises, at the age of 80, was to convert an old shipyard and one-time Cold War era naval base in Montenegro into a marina for yachts owned by the super-rich. “When Munk spotted Tivat, the harbour was a wasteland of scrap metal and toxic detritus, home to 40 enormous Russian submarines and boats equipped with missile launchers,” Toronto Life Magazine reported in 2011. Munk sold Porto Montenegro last year to Investment Corp. of Dubai for an undisclosed profit.
“I look at every business like skiing a very steep new hill,” Munk told Newman in Titans. “The key is to look down, laugh and tell yourself it’s just like any other hill. You use the same techniques. The moment you panic — the moment you think, ‘Oh God, this is broken powder, there are rocks — you aren’t going to make it.”
It was during a ski trip in Gstaad, Switzerland, that Munk met Melanie, who became his second wife in 1973.
“Skiing is the only thing in life that I do well, apart from business,” Munk told Newman. “I can still power ski with any 25-year-old. I can get through any trees, can handle anything, so can Melanie. I know I could have a major accident, but life is full of risks. That’s the exciting part. After a day on the slopes, I feel elevated, youthful, sexually invigorated, physically rejuvenated, intellectually ready to tackle anything.”
One of Munk’s favourite homes was his ski chalet in Klosters, Switzerland.
“I’m not one of these guys with a super IQ,” he told Newman. “I’m not a workaholic. I never miss four weeks skiing in the winter or going to my island in Georgian Bay in the summer. I love women. I love good food. I love great wine. I love good friends. I am so focused, so consumed, so excited, about what I do. I love my family, I love my wife.”
Munk’s social life was rarely dull, with a wide circle of contacts from former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Conrad Black to Prince Charles and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.
“Peter had the deepest and best rolodex of anyone I have ever seen, and it was available to us at any time — he would call whomever needed to be called,” Dushnisky says.
Dushnisky likes to tell the story of how coveted invitations were to Munk’s annual dinner on the closing night of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. “It was the who’s who of the economic forum … and part of the reason why the dinner was so sought-after was because of the strong gravitational pull he had over people, he attracted people, people wanted to be around him.”
“He was a really good orator, he never used notes, and he could be quite spellbinding,” adds John Carrington, chief operating officer at Barrick from 1996 to 2003. “And he expected that anyone who spoke on behalf of the company, like the CEO or myself … would present well … it was an expectation that he had, you either presented well or you didn’t present.”
In the latter decades of his life, Munk and Melanie spent more of their time on philanthropy. They set up the Peter Munk Charitable Foundation in 1992, the Munk Centre for International Studies at U of T in 1997, the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at Toronto General Hospital in 1997, and in 2008, launched the Munk Debates, a biannual series in Toronto of debates on major policy issues. He also gave funds to Canada’s Fraser Institute and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
“Peter always said that he was going to be sure his children were educated and launched in business, but it was his intention to give the bulk of his wealth to Canada,” says former colleague Delaney. “And he has certainly been doing that.”
Munk stepped down as chairman of Barrick at the company’s 2014 annual general meeting, aged 86.
He is survived by Melanie; his children, Anthony, Nina, Marc-David, Natalie and Cheyne; and his 14 grandchildren.
“Let me tell you this was a hell of a trip,” Munk said in his speech after the $100-million donation to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.
“When you’re reaching ninety you can allow the luxury of leaning back a little and starting to dream. My dream was always about trying to repay Canada and to realize that dream … this is the best country in the world from every point of view.”