Billionaire Stronach’s family feud heats up

Belinda’s statement of defence and counter-suit intensifies a feud that has torn apart one of Canada’s richest families

MONTREAL • Former Magna International Inc CEO Belinda Stronach is rejecting claims of mismanagement made by her father Frank, saying she was instead trying to prevent him from pursuing “idiosyncratic and often unprofitable projects” that threatened the family fortune.

Belinda, a former Canadian lawmaker, is seeking about C$33 million (RM103.25 million) from her father, according to a statement of defence filed on Monday in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Belinda is seeking about RM103.3m from her father (Pic: Bloomberg)

The amount includes funds “gifted” to Frank for his 2013 Austrian political campaign, and for a subsequent tax settlement with Austrian authorities.

The statement of defence and counter-suit intensifies a feud that has torn apart one of Canada’s richest families.

In October, Frank sued Belinda and individuals including The Stronach Group (TSG) CEO Alon Ossip for C$520 million, claiming mismanagement of the family fortune.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Belinda “has engaged in no unlawful conduct. To the contrary, she has taken steps to rectify the irregular affairs of (the group) she inherited from Frank”, according to her 78-page statement of defence, obtained by Bloomberg News. “She has paid particular attention to ensuring that TSG is operated in a manner that is to the benefit, rather than the detriment, of future generations.”

One of Frank lawyers referred a request for comment on the dispute to Dennis Mills, a former Canadian lawmaker and Magna executive who knows both the Austrian-born billionaire and his daughter. Mills said he’s not seen any of the legal documents filed on Monday.

“I’m confident Frank and Belinda will figure this out,” Mills said by telephone. “Frank’s whole life has been dedicated to his family. He would want peace in the family.

Nothing is more important to him.”

Passion Project

Frank failed “passion projects” amounted to about US$850 million (RM3.51 billion) in investments over the years, according to a separate statement of defence filed on Monday by Stronach Consulting Inc, a unit of TSG.

This includes US$324 million on agriculture and US$157 million on thoroughbred horse operations, according to the filing.

Frank sued Belinda and individuals for RM1.6b (Pic: Bloomberg)

At the heart of the dispute lies “a fundamental disagreement over the proper test to be applied to managing the business and affairs” of the closely held TSG, Belinda said in her statement of defence.

Neither she, nor her father, have any involvement with the day-to-day operations of Aurora, Ontario-based Magna, Canada’s largest car-parts maker.

A separate statement of defence from Ossip, an executive and trustee of TSG, paints a similar picture of a successful businessman who may have lost his way.

“Today, at 86 years of age, Frank’s business judgement is not at all what it once was,” according to Ossip’s claim.

“His refusal to let go of his failing business ventures has become financially disastrous. These ventures, combined with his excess spending, have eroded the net worth of both his family and Ossip.”

Bronze Statues

Among Frank’s “passion projects” were two bronze statues of a 12-storey high Pegasus horse defeating a dragon that wound up costing US$55 million, according to the statement.

One statue is at a race track in Florida, the other is in storage in China. In all, these investments in golf courses, restaurants and farming have resulted in a net loss of US$380 million for the group, according to the claim from Ossip.

Frank’s October lawsuit represents “an attempt to force TSG to fund Frank’s imprudent and, in some cases, fanciful schemes to the detriment of TSG and its stakeholders”, Belinda said in her filing.

While successful in building up Magna, the elder Stronach “has also experienced significant failures in nearly all of his other non-auto parts business ventures and his political affairs”.

After a few years of working as a machinist in his native Austria, Frank arrived in Canada in the early 1950s with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and built Magna into a company with a revenue of US$28.7 billion and net income of US$1.1 billion by 2011 — the year he stepped down as chairman. Magna had sales of about US$40 billion in 2017.

Auto Ventures

Frank non-automotive businesses and investments have included magazines and multimedia operations; a restaurant; a residential development at a ski resort; a tennis equipment company; thoroughbred racetracks; an energy drink company; and Austrian soccer league television and marketing rights.

Over time, Frank “began to engage in activities, many unauthorised, which placed the business and assets of TSG at considerable risk. These activities escalated to a point where they became a significant distraction for the management” of TSG, Belinda’s suit said.

In the original suit, Frank claimed Belinda was starving his grass-fed cattle farm of financing, selling off assets over his objections while using company funds to bankroll an extra- vagant lifestyle of parties, vacations and limousine rides.

Frank and his wife Elfriede said their relationship with their daughter has suffered a “complete breakdown”. The lawsuit against her is a “last resort” after trying for 20 months to find a settlement, according to a 73-page statement of claim filed in a Toronto court on Oct 1.

TSG holds racetrack assets such as Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields in California, Florida’s Gulfstream Park and the Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. Under Belinda and Ossip, TSG is generating “signi- ficant positive cashflow”, Belinda said.

TSG also has an agriculture unit, which includes Adena Farms, a grass-fed cattle ranch located in Florida. The unit was unprofitable under Frank’s direction, according to Belinda’s lawsuit.

The billionaire family feud is good for business at Toronto’s biggest law firms. Blake, Cassels and Graydon are working for Belinda. Davies, Ward, Phillips and Vineberg are on for Frank; Ossip is represented by Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt; Goodmans is working for Belinda’s children and Torys is with Stronach Consulting. — Bloomberg