From making big money to giving it away.
A few years ago, Frank Giustra was having dinner in New York with a friend from his home base of Vancouver, Paul Reynolds. After much wine and merriment, Reynolds, CEO of the Canaccord Genuity brokerage firm, challenged Giustra to compete in the Lavaman Waikoloa Triathlon in Hawaii. Reynolds was in decent shape, had been training, and promised to kick his friend’s butt in the gruelling race. Giustra does not like to fail at anything and had no intention of losing. He hired a trainer and began a regimen of biking, running, and swimming in preparation for the March 2015 competition.
“I saw Paul on the beach before the race,” he recalls. “I headed into the water, finished the swim, the bike, and the run, and never saw him again.” Reynolds, it turned out, was stricken by an apparent heart attack during the 1,500-metre swim portion. He was rushed to hospital, but died a few days later. He was 52.
“It was a terrible shock, just awful,” Giustra says, in the spacious offices of Fiore Capital atop one of the Bentall Centre towers in Vancouver. “It’s a cliché, but you realize that any day could be your last. It makes you think about priorities.”
It wasn’t his first wakeup call. Another good friend, Art Deyrmenjian, had been Giustra’s jeweller for many years when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. “He’d bring Armenian food for lunch, and we’d sit on these sofas and talk about life and family and what’s really important. Have you read the book Tuesdays with Morrie?” Deyrmenjian’s message, says Giustra, was that “the cars, the homes, the paintings on the wall, it’s all just stuff. In the end, the only thing that matters is people—your family and friends, the good that you’ve done.”
Other things were making Giustra rethink his life as well: the long-term implications of parenthood (he has two teenagers, a boy and a girl, with ex-wife Alison Lawton); friends and acquaintances felled by illness and accident; elderly parents.
But it wasn’t until the fall of 2015, while on holiday in Europe, that he was galvanized into full-on action. A friend urged him to see for himself the struggles of Syrian refugees trying to reach Greece on overcrowded rafts. “He said the media reports weren’t conveying the scale and the horror of it.” So Giustra went to the island of Lesbos, where desperate people—those who survived the crossing from Turkey—were landing. One night, he found himself on the beach as flimsy boats materialized out of the darkness full of terrified families with nothing but the clothes on their backs. “A mother handed me her toddler. It’s an incredible feeling, realizing you’ve got someone’s life in your hands. That’s what started my involvement with the Syrian refugees.”
Eager to get his head around the refugee situation, Giustra travelled to Turkey, Jordan, Greece, and Lebanon. He learned that the crisis was vast in scope and devastating in consequence—and that aid agencies were largely ineffective in dealing with it. On Lesbos, refugees who had survived the crossing had to trudge 70 kilometres—the length of the island—just to catch a ferry to Athens. Through his Radcliffe Foundation, Giustra quickly donated $500,000 to build a reception centre and help provide warm clothing, food, and medical treatment. “It wasn’t a lot of money in the grand scheme of things,” he says, “but nobody else was doing it.”
Next, partnering with the Greek Ministry of Migration, Giustra’s foundation refitted an abandoned factory in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, as humane living quarters for vulnerable refugees (the number of residents has fluctuated between 120 and 200 as families get resettled in Europe and new families move in), mostly children, women, the elderly, and people with health issues and disabilities. “I’ve seen some government camps [in Greece],” says Giustra. “The conditions are just terrible. That first building we did, Elpída [Greek for “hope”], is just the start. The idea is to replicate the public-private partnership model. There are more than 60,000 vulnerable refugees in Greece alone.”
During the fall of 2015, while on holiday in Europe, Giustra was galvanized into full-on action after witness the struggles of Syrian refugees.
Besides creating housing, Giustra has purchased a search-and-rescue boat and supplies, funded training for search-and-rescue operations, even hosted parties at his West Vancouver home to raise money and awareness for the cause. His Radcliffe Foundation was instrumental in establishing both the Refugee Crisis Fund and the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, the latter a coalition of aid groups, international delegates, and government officials who see the advantage of a private refugee sponsorship model.
“People think the refugee problem is just too overwhelming to do anything about,” Giustra says. “I think we’ve shown that a business-like approach to philanthropy can have a huge impact. We access the best thinkers, get on-the-ground intelligence, understand the politics involved, and partner with bodies that know how to deliver aid. The refugee crisis has taken over my life in a way I couldn’t have imagined.”
His early life was mostly about mischief. As a teenager in Aldergrove, B.C., with three siblings and an often absent father—“He went where the work was”—Giustra ran with older kids, fighting and getting into trouble. “I don’t know how I made it through high school,” he says. “Actually, I do know. I played lead trumpet, and the principal didn’t want me kicked out.”
After learning the brokerage ropes at Merrill Lynch, he joined Yorkton Securities and eventually transformed it into a global powerhouse. Inspired by the book Think and Grow Rich, believing himself capable of almost anything, taking risks and getting lucky, he won big in resource development. Before he turned 40, he’d made more than he could ever spend; he could easily have retreated into a luxurious bubble.
Instead, recalling his origins, he began talking to kids at Templeton Secondary in East Vancouver, where Jim Crescenzo and Walter Mustapich had started Boys Club Network, an after-school group for at-risk youth with a summer camp component. “Frank doesn’t just write a cheque,” Mustapich explains. “He rolls up his sleeves and gets other business leaders involved. He comes out to the school and tells the boys, ‘I’ve been there. When I was your age, I could have taken the wrong path.’ His life’s an example of what’s possible when you establish goals and work to achieve them. He’s personally mentored several of the kids.”
One of those kids is Dzinh Nguyen. Growing up in a broken home in East Vancouver, Nguyen, now 24, got involved in some very dicey stuff. “Frank said something that really resonated with me,” says Nguyen, recalling one of those Boys Club Network talks: “ ‘I took my fighting from the streets to the boardroom.’ He’s helping me do the same thing. He’s a busy guy, but he always makes time for me.” Giustra also supported Nguyen’s post-secondary education at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).
Disturbed by the growing number of marginalized people in Vancouver, Giustra connected with Tom Cooper, a Presbyterian minister who’d founded the non-profit City in Focus. “Frank called out of the blue 10 years ago and said, ‘I want you to take me to the food bank. I want to see how it works,’ ” Cooper recalls. “Next thing you know, he was in a soup kitchen doling out meals, asking people about their stories. Nobody had a clue who he was.
“One night, he e-mailed me: ‘Tom, what can we do about the homeless situation?’ He wanted to get his head around the problem, so he went out with homeless advocate Judy Graves to do a homeless count, talking to people in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. He went out twice. What other billionaire would do that?”
As a teen at school, Giustra was mischievous and often picked fights. “[But] I played lead trumpet, and the principal didn’t want me kicked out.”
Out of those forays and discussions came Streetohome—a public-private partnership between Vancouver Foundation, the City of Vancouver, and the Province of British Columbia—dedicated to finding safe, affordable housing for those in need. Giustra quietly put up $5 million and took a seat on the board. “His knowledge and concern were obvious from the start,” says Faye Wightman, the former president and CEO of Vancouver Foundation. “An initiative might need an unbudgeted hundred thousand dollars, and Frank would quietly say, ‘I’ll look after it.’ ”
A student of the rise and fall of civilizations, Giustra visits ancient sites when he travels. That interest may explain why, in 2005, he became a founding sponsor of the International Crisis Group, a global think tank—made up of world leaders, military experts, diplomats, and analysts—mandated to prevent and resolve global conflict.
It also helps explain the initiative he started in 2007 with former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Giustra made headlines when he pledged $100-million toward the partnership and urged other people with excess wealth to follow suit. The guiding principle is to help disadvantaged communities develop social enterprises. The Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (CGEP) has had significant success lifting people out of poverty in a number of South and Central American countries, partnering with global corporations, and attracting funding from august bodies such as the Inter-American Development Bank.
“If you have substantial wealth,” explains Giustra, addressing the issue of wealth disparity, “the banks can’t loan you money fast enough. You can borrow huge sums, at almost no interest, and put it into appreciating assets—property, stocks, expensive art. Meanwhile, people who are just getting by, saving in a bank account, earn almost nothing. People with money might think it’s great, but really it’s not good for anybody.”
Giustra’s social justice work has been praised by everyone from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (in an address to the United Nations) to the Elton John AIDS Foundation (at a gala in New York) to the Dalai Lama (who honoured him with a humanitarian award in 2014). His focus on philanthropy—“It will continue for the rest of my life”—is all the more remarkable given his schedule. Even after narrowing his priorities and paring down his assets, he has a huge range of business interests that require his attention.
A food lover and eager cook, he owns Modern Farmer Media, which publishes Modern Farmer magazine. He has a stake in Canada’s Own food products, Alter Eco Foods, and Giardino, the storied Vancouver restaurant. From the 12,000 olive trees on his estate in Umbria, he produces Domenica Fiore (his mother’s name is Domenica), an award-winning organic extra-virgin olive oil. “We’re about to release an organic tomato sauce, using Datterino tomatoes grown on the property,” he says. “And organic honey, and organic vinegar as well.”
Long intrigued by the movie business, Giustra founded Lions Gate Entertainment in 1997 (current name Lionsgate) and built it into a major studio. He eventually sold his stake and is now the largest shareholder in Thunderbird Entertainment. A Blade Runner sequel (Blade Runner 2049, with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford) is due out in October; Giustra is an executive producer of the film. Meanwhile, Westsonic Music, the Vancouver recording studio he founded in 2014, grew out of his passion for writing song lyrics. “You only have so many years left. It’s all about priorities.”
Early last year, Giustra jumped back into the financing game, putting together half a dozen new deals with companies such as Leagold Mining and energy corporations PentaNova and Lithium X. No doubt these ventures have already made him millions. So, in a sense, he’s back to where he started? Wealth begets wealth. The more things change, the more they stay the same? Not quite. Frank Giustra used to make money to make money. Now he makes money to make a difference.
Never miss a story. Sign up for NUVO’s weekly newsletter.