Belinda Stronach has had incarnations galore in her remarkable life. The list includes auto-parts magnate, elected politician, horse-racing executive, beauty-products entrepreneur and, now, defendant in a sensational lawsuit launched by her loving father, Frank Stronach, the irascible old billionaire who built the Magna International car-parts empire.
Family feuds are more common than you think and almost always end in tears, or worse, after lawyers on both sides skim off millions from the family fortunes. Think the Koch brothers, and Barry Sherman, the late Canadian pharmaceuticals billionaire who had several suits filed against him by his cousins, and the wine-making Gallo brothers, whose crippling legal battles would go on for decades.
In ancient, medieval or baroque eras, family feuds were often settled with the slash of a sword or the drip of poison; in today’s less efficient times the weapon of choice is the courts, generally a last-resort option embraced after years of unpleasant family dinners that failed to end in a truce.
We now know that the rumours of a rift between Ms. Stronach and Mr. Stronach were not made up and that their efforts to reach a discreet settlement, away from the media glare, have utterly failed. On Oct. 1, Mr. Stronach, who is 86 and lives in his native Austria, filed a suit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto that alleges his 52-year-old daughter mismanaged the family’s assets and trust funds and conspired to eliminate any control he had over the family fortune he created.
Mr. Stronach’s legal team said the lawsuit was launched “as a last resort, after having made considerable efforts over a period of almost two years to resolve the matters at issue on a consensual basis.”
Mr. Stronach is seeking some $520-million from Ms. Stronach and her perceived allies for breach of fiduciary trust, losses and harm, and punitive damages. The lawsuit alleges “a complete breakdown” within the Stronach family, with Mr. Stronach’s wife, Elfriede, named as a co-plaintiff and Ms. Stronach’s two children, Frank and Nicole Walker, rounding off the list of co-defendants. Elfriede happens to be Ms. Stronach’s mother, giving this battle the makings of a full-on generational war.
None of these allegations have been tested in court.
For decades, there was little public hint of any tension between Mr. Stronach and Ms. Stronach and both seemed tolerating, even encouraging, of each other’s eccentricities and picaresque forays beyond the core auto-parts business.
However, a former Magna insider, to whom The Globe and Mail has granted anonymity because he maintains a relationship with members of the Stronach family, said that Mr. Stronach, as the adoring father and mentor, had a Pygmalion-like relationship with Ms. Stronach; he was always pushing her into ever more challenging roles within Magna and involving his outside interests, such as publishing and politics, in the hopes she would blossom. The source said the effort didn’t always work, noting that her tenure as Magna’s boss was both short and undistinguished.
Mr. Stronach, who emigrated to Canada in 1954, was the founder and builder of Magna, which would become one of the world’s biggest auto-parts companies, eventually assembling entire cars for top-tier automakers, such as BMW.
He paid himself lavishly, worked hard and played hard. He owned a few Toronto bars and restaurants, one of which was called Belinda’s, suggesting that his daughter was the apple of his eye. He once owned a media group and a glossy magazine called Vista (launched in 1988) that didn’t last long, picked up a lot of real estate and turned his love for horse racing and gambling into a separate empire that exists to this day. Held under The Stronach Group (TSG), its vast array of assets includes some of the United States' top racetracks, among them Santa Anita, Gulfstream and Pimlico.
His eccentric ride, which seemed to please and anger shareholders in equal measure, saw him make a losing 2007 bid for Chrysler and, a couple of years later, a losing bid for Opel, which was then owned by General Motors. About the same time, he invited Oleg Deripaska, said to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favourite oligarch, to become a significant investor in Magna. (Mr. Derispaska, who would land on the U.S. Treasury’s sanctions list under the Donald Trump presidency, unwound his Magna investment in the 2008 financial crisis.)
Lately, Mr. Stronach, who sold his Magna shares in 2010 and stepped down as chairman a year later, has been busy assembling farmland in central-north Florida and now owns around 90,000 acres devoted to raising grass-fed cattle (never mind that he is close to being a vegetarian). He also sat in the Austrian Parliament as the leader of Team Stronach for Austria, a pro-business, Euroskeptic populist party that enjoyed middling success in the 2013 election, only to fall apart and cease to exist by 2017. One of his bizarre campaign tactics was to doff his shirt during a media interview. “I don’t have to be ashamed of my body,” the then-80-year-old said.
Ms. Stronach’s career was only slightly less eccentric. In 2001, she was appointed CEO of Magna, but soon swapped car parts for politics and was elected as a Conservative MP. She crossed the floor to join the Liberals and held a junior minister’s position in 2005 and 2006. A year later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatments were successful. Since then, she has concentrated on charities and has worked at TSG, where she is president and chairwoman.
Ms. Stronach was always better known as a celebrity with a glamorous lifestyle than a businesswoman. She had an A-list of paramours, who included Norwegian Olympian Johann Olav Koss, her second husband (her first was Don Walker, Magna’s current CEO and the father of Ms. Stronach’s children); Toronto Maple Leaf Tie Domi; and Conservative hotshot Peter MacKay. According to the gossip pages in the United States and Europe, former U.S. president Bill Clinton was a close friend.
She was once ranked second by Fortune Magazine on the list of most powerful women in business, and landed on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential list. She was spotted on the arm of Prince Andrew and other members of the international rich and famous club.
Notably, Mr. Stronach did not make her CEO of TSG and its equine businesses, suggesting that he did not have full faith in her executive abilities. That role went to Alon Ossip, an Osgoode Hall law graduate who had careers at racing groups, including Red Bull Racing, and real estate (he is listed as a co-defendant with Ms. Stronach in Mr. Stronach’s lawsuit). Still, as president and chairwoman, Ms. Stronach appeared to exercise considerable control over TSG, where she was trying to modernize the so-called sport of kings, according to various media reports, and lure a younger audience.
In a 2017 story by the Washington Post, Ms. Stronach said horse racing “hasn’t evolved, hasn’t embraced technology. We haven’t reinvested in this sport to create more owners and new fans.”
Certainly, she became the public face of TSG, and she and Mr. Ossip, according to Mr. Stronach’s allegations, pretty much ran the show, to the virtual exclusion of Mr. Stronach. Quoted in a Thursday article in The Capital, the daily newspaper of Annapolis, Md., Alan Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said there had been “rumblings” of a rift between Ms. Stronach and Mr. Stronach. “There were allegations that he had lost control of the company,” he said. “She was certainly gaining more control, and certainly she was the face of The Stronach Group.”
Mr. Stronach’s 73-page lawsuit exposes the gaping rift between father and daughter. Mr. Stronach accuses her and Mr. Ossip of mismanaging TSG’s assets and the family trust funds, and forcing Mr. Stronach out of the business. The lawsuit states that “Belinda and Alon seriously neglected the business of TSG and [had] abused their positions of authority. They did so in order to conceal significant cash flow issues, and to favour their own personal interests at the direct expense of rights and interests of other members of the Stronach family.”
In addition to the $520-million in damages, Mr. Stronach wants Ms. Stronach and Mr. Ossip to be removed as corporate officers of TSG and from trustee positions. Ms. Stronach has denied all the allegations made by her father. In a statement, she said: “Family relationships within a business can be challenging,” adding, “My children and I love my father.”
Over the decades, Mr. Stronach pushed Ms. Stronach hard and she shows every indication that she will fight back just as hard. In that sense, the Pygmalion effect worked. Mr. Stronach has apparently passed on the scrapper gene to his daughter. There will be no happy ending to this blood feud.