Frank Giustra | BCBusiness

Frank Giustra | BCBusiness
Giustra, who is known for his charisma as much as his business instinct, made the move from mining magnate to movie mogul.

Frank Giustra changes direction as regularly as the wind, turning whatever catches his interest to gold. He wanted to be a stockbroker, so he became a legend on Howe Street. He dreamed of Hollywood, so he built Lions Gate Entertainment. And when he wanted to truly give back, he called Bono and the Clintons. Now with a black book of personal contacts who literally change the world, Giustra can’t wait to tell you about his new venture.

Catch the elevator up to the 31st floor of the Bentall Three tower on Vancouver’s Burrard Street and you will find the corner office of Canada’s master of extracting the planet’s buried resources and transforming them into stock-market riches. But today Frank Giustra, a man who has raised billions of dollars that have created mines around the globe, doesn’t want to talk mining. His mind is on another commodity and his newest passion: oil. Not the kind you drill for and put in pipelines stretching to the Pacific, mind you. This kind literally grows on trees: olive oil.

Sitting beside Giustra is Cesare Bianchini, an Italian farmer who is the CEO of the Giustra company that has spent the past few years amassing a grove of 9,000 olive trees in Italy. It’s part of Giustra’s plan to produce the planet’s best olive oil and launch a food production business he says will aim to give people the food they want and deserve. “This is what must come out: beautiful, green, emerald, intense,” gushes Bianchini, eyeing the boss as he shows pictures of his latest harvest flowing from the presses.

“Green gold,” whispers Giustra with a chuckle.

“Yes, green gold!” repeats Bianchini, smiling like an alchemist who has hit the motherlode.

Giustra has branded his oil Domenica Fiore, named after his Italian mother. A sample sits on his office coffee table, contained in a gleaming silver bottle that looks like it may be the valve of a rocket ship. It’s made of carefully milled aluminum, Giustra explains with evident pride. Each bottle gets a lot number, like a collectible wine or precious art print. And with the pride of the perfectionist he is, Giustra has instructed that every bottle be injected with nitrogen to keep oxygen away from the precious fluid. “Our plan is to make the best olive oil in the world,” he says. “Hillary loves it.”

Hillary is, yes, Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, to whom Giustra gave some oil to test. U2 singer Bono, with whom Giustra collaborates in international development work, has some of the oil, too. So does Bill Clinton, a Giustra pal who often darts around the globe on Giustra’s corporate jet, both men playing card games at 40,000 feet on their way to developing countries on the former president’s roster of relief projects.

Image: Courtesy Frank Giustra
Giustra at global philanthropic
initiatives with former President Bill
Clinton and Carlos Slim Helu.

Welcome to the high-flying world of Frank Giustra, not only one of Canada’s most successful businessmen, but perhaps one of its most intriguing and influential. The son of an Italian immigrant who came to Canada with little more than a suitcase and dreams, Giustra boasts a resumé that would challenge the imagination of Walter Mitty. At the age of 55, he can justifiably call himself a mining magnate who travels the continents creating billions in wealth; a movie mogul (founder of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.); the architect of a major brokerage house (past CEO and chair of Yorkton Securities); a local philanthropist (the driving force behind Vancouver’s Streetohome Foundation, dedicated to ending homelessness); a global influencer (joining billionaire George Soros as the main contributor to the International Crisis Group); and a major funder of the Clinton Foundation (having donated $130 million to date). His Rolodex contains the personal cell numbers of the sort of people most of us only see on TV or in People magazine.

So what’s the secret of this made-in-Canada Horatio Alger story? Giustra has the answer at the ready, attributing much of his success to the rules of leadership he read after graduating from high school: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Writing during the Depression, Hill boiled the principles of robber baron-turned-industrialist Andrew Carnegie and other success stories into an easy-to-read tome. It offers such folksy advice as, “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

“I can’t remember who gave me the book,” says Giustra. “I read it and I’ll tell you, something happened.”

To this day, says Giustra, it influences his business and life philosophy. One of his little-known charity passions is to mentor and inspire disadvantaged children in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He often goes to a high school and offers them the Napoleon Hill credo. “Really the core thing I got out of [the book] was if you really believe in what you are doing, you can do it. Almost anything is possible in life. And I mean it. When I mentor the kids at these schools, that’s what I tell them.”

He has also added one of his favourite insights from Steve Jobs, who in a famous speech to Stanford’s 2005 graduating class told the students they all shared one thing: one day they were all going to die. “We’re all goners anyway,” says Giustra. “Go for it. I live by this philosophy. I get up in the morning and say, ‘OK, do not waste this day.’ If you apply that philosophy to life, to the things you do in life, why would you be afraid of failure?”

From anyone else it may come off as a collection of clichés or prepackaged bromides, but as Giustra leans back in his plush office sofa, his back to the wraparound view that offers him an eagle-eye perspective on Vancouver, it’s convincing. When he launches into a 90-minute narrative of how he got to the top of the food chain, you are left with no doubt: this guy really did channel Napoleon Hill to transform himself from a wayward, working-class kid into one of the world’s richest and most influential men.

Image: Paul Joseph
Giustra is betting that through his next venture, the
production of Domenica Fiore olive oil, he will defy
the old adage and money will, in fact, grow on trees.

Growing Up Giustra

Like many Italians of his vintage, Giuseppe Giustra was looking for a way to flee the ruins of the Italian economy after World War II. He got on a boat to Canada, and headed for the Inco mine in Sudbury, Ontario. It was there that his wife, Domenica, gave birth to Frank Giustra.

It was often a hardscrabble existence. Giuseppe’s job took him deeper into the remote mining camps of the Canadian Shield. He felt compelled to send his family back to Italy while he toiled in the mines and sent money home. “It was in the middle of nowhere; he just didn’t think it was a place for us,” recalls Giustra of his father’s work. Eventually, Giuseppe sent word back to Italy that the family would be going to Argentina, where he found more work.

At the age of five, Frank Giustra found himself in Buenos Aires. But Argentina’s generals were running that country’s economy into the ground and Giuseppe again thought it was time to move. After four years, the family headed back to Canada and settled in B.C., where Giuseppe found work in a mine on remote Texada Island. “For a nine-year-old kid, it was the best place to live,” recalls Giustra, who would spend hours playing in the rainforest and exploring the starfish tidal pools with his brothers. “It was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: barefoot, building tree forts, swimming in the ocean.”

But the work ran out again. This time, Giuseppe put an end to the young family’s peripatetic lifestyle. He transported the family to Aldergrove, bought a home and then headed out to find work in mines or construction.

What work he could find often took Giuseppe on the road for weeks at a time, and the absence of his father had an impact on Giustra. “He came in and out of our lives and that wasn’t good for maintaining a strict discipline,” he recalls. “If you wanted to get away with murder, you could. And out of the four kids, I decided to be the one who wanted to get away with murder. It was a pretty troubled number of years. You can imagine: trying all sorts of things, car accidents, fighting, being brought home by the police. Just a complete orangutan.”

Images: Courtesy of Frank Giustra
Giustra at 13; and with older sisters Lina and

Giustra recalls failing in just about every class in high school, not sure of what he would do in life. The only thing that kept him in school, and offered a glimmer of a future, was playing trumpet in the high school stage band. “I was a pretty wayward kid,” he recalls. “I did it all. I had zero interest in school.”

Still, this was Aldergrove in the ’70s. Those who recall him remember less a dangerous rebel and more of a kid without a cause who did what he wanted. He drove around in a ’68 Charger and often flashed a wicked and confident sense of humour. “Frank was his own guy,” recalls Elizabeth Watson, who played clarinet in the stage band and went on to be a Crown prosecutor and expert in corporate governance. “Frank wasn’t a mean kid or a bully,” she says of the band’s lead trumpet player. “He just did his own thing. And he could be funny. Every time ‘In the Mood’ came up to play, he would say, ‘Just my luck: in the mood and the lips are shot.’ It always made me laugh.”

Eventually, Giustra says he had his “first epiphany.” It happened in his Grade 12 history class. His teacher began a lesson on the history of World War II by telling stories. “At that moment, and I remember where I was sitting in class, I had an epiphany. I wanted to learn. That was it. I wanted to learn.” Soon after, there was another voice in his head. It was an order: “Get out of here; out of town. Just go!”

After graduating from high school, Giustra moved to Burnaby and found himself a night job at a Supervalu grocery store, making the heady sum of $14 an hour, the most money he had ever made. In the daytime, he enrolled in Douglas College to devote himself to studying music. But he soon realized he lacked the chops to be a professional trumpet player. It was about then, when he was home visiting his parents, that he discovered his father doing something that set Giustra on a life journey.

Giuseppe was in the house, sitting back and quietly reading the stock-market quotes in the newspaper. He liked to dabble in the stock market, trading Vancouver’s penny stocks, though never with the success his son would eventually reach in the markets. “What’s that?” the young Frank asked. His father gave him a withering look. The two, says Giustra, “were butting heads throughout my entire teenage years. We barely spoke to each other.”

“You?” said Giuseppe, gruffly. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yeah, I do,” Giustra replied.

That was the day his father started showing Giustra how to read the stock tables. Father and son now had something in common: the markets. And it would prove a remarkable ride. Giuseppe took his son down to meet his Howe Street broker, a wizened veteran of the street who appeared to be about 70. “It was one of those old bucket shops. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is cool,’” recalls Giustra. “I felt energy. I felt action. I felt that someone was getting rich here.” Then he turned to his dad. “I want to be a broker,” he said, having no real idea what the job entailed.

While still attending Douglas College, Giustra decided to write the Canadian Securities exam and passed it easily. Then he went back to his father’s broker, asking for a job. The old man then did what Giustra calls the “greatest favour of my life.”

“You don’t want to work here,” the broker told him. “This place is bad. You want to work at Merrill Lynch.”

“What’s a Merrill Lynch?” Giustra recalls responding, laughing at the memory.

He looked up Merill Lynch in the Yellow Pages and called the branch manager, who agreed to see him. Then he bought a three-piece suit but was quickly told he was too young and didn’t have an MBA or enough experience.

“He was kind, but he threw me out,” recalls Giustra, reliving another life-defining moment where he once again channelled Napoleon Hill. “I remember as I was leaving, I turned around. I thought, ‘I have nothing to lose.’ So I said to him, really cocky, ‘If you hire me I will be the best broker you will ever have.’ And I walked out and I left and forgot about it.”

The manager didn’t. Three months later, he called and offered Giustra a job as an assistant trader, agreeing to also put his 21-year-old rookie through Merrill Lynch’s broker-training program. Giustra was sent to New York for the six-week course and passed. He was now a real broker – just in time for Vancouver’s penny-stock boom and the world’s expanding hunger for commodities.

The kid in the three-piece suits was noticed. He was soon offered a job at Yorkton Securities, then a little-known Toronto brokerage firm. It was there that he brokered the financing of a Breakwater Resources gold mine, his first big deal, which made him his first million. He promptly used the money to buy a 7.5 per cent share of Yorkton, which was eyeing a European office. The new partner got the job of setting up and managing the office in London, giving Giustra his first real break into the big leagues.

He was young and cocky, just 25 years old, but it took more than youth and Napoleon Hill’s lessons to succeed in London. “I started calling and calling and calling,” recalls Giustra. “There was a lot of phone slamming going on.” The big investment houses weren’t interested in an unknown from Howe Street, which was seen as the Wild West. “In the early ’80s, the Vancouver Stock Exchange was an embarrassment,” says Giustra. “It really was.”

Eventually, Giustra figured out a way to overcome the stigma, and created a new model for Yorkton. He realized that to give any mining deals credibility, they had to be backed by hard data and research, not just promises. Lehman Brothers was closing down its mining desk in London and as the talent walked out the door, Giustra picked off the best of them to create a team steeped in research and analytics. Soon, the deals started rolling in. Yorkton opened offices in Paris and Zurich. In 1990, at the age of 33, Giustra was called back to Canada by his delighted partners. They made him CEO.

It was perfect timing again. The Cold War had ended and all sorts of countries once sealed off by the Iron Curtain were now hungry for ways to develop their resources. Giustra was happy to oblige. In a shrewd move, he hired a Chilean ex-finance minister who had pioneered that country’s opening to foreign investors. Then he and Yorkton went on a road show, courting countries, unlocking their natural treasures and building massive mining plays. Yorkton was at the head of the commodities boom. Giustra became one of Vancouver’s wealthiest men and a legend on Howe Street.

Yet, in 1996, he decided to give it all up. He didn’t agree with the direction Yorkton was going. “I wasn’t going to get my way 100 per cent,” he recalls, revealing his stubborn streak. “I didn’t want to be a stockbroker the rest of my life. I thought about it for one day, a whole day. I came to the office on Friday morning and told the partners I was done.” Just a few months shy of his 40th birthday, he was rich enough to do just about anything he felt like.

For six months he did little other than exercise, travel and hang out with his family. Eventually, though, in another Napoleon Hill moment, Giustra came up with what many had written off as an impossible dream: “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to create a Canadian-based, American-style Hollywood studio?” It had never been done. Many thought it couldn’t be done, especially by a guy whose expertise was brokering mining deals, not movie screenplays. “Can it be done?” Giustra asked himself, ignoring the naysayers and embracing his love of movies. “Yeah.”

Image: Courtesy of Frank Giustra
Giistra in haiti with Mexican
businessman andphilanthropist
Carlos Slim Helu, the world’s
richest man.

It was an audacious idea. Those who have known Giustra over the decades, many of whom have found their business futures greatly expanded if he chose to back their endeavours, say it’s all part of the Giustra mojo. “When you are with Frank, you can think bigger,” says Tim Gamble, CEO of Thunderbird Films Inc., who became friends with Giustra when he was producing the film Cadence in the 1980s. A few years ago, Gamble informed his friend that a 50 per cent share to the future rights to the Bladerunner story and brand were up for grabs. It’s Giustra’s favourite sci-fi film, and Gamble was going to buy up the property. Then Gamble made an offer: Giustra should invest in Thunderbird and his film company would buy the rights. Today Gamble and Giustra are partners and the script is now being written for the next Bladerunner feature film. “Frank’s joy in life is to see people, and his friends, be successful because of his involvement. He brings a tremendous value add when he backs you,” says Gamble. 

A Man of Many Hats

A sampling of Frank Giustra’s formal titles


• President and CEO, Fiore Financial Corp.

• President and CEO, Fiore Fine Foods Inc.

• President and Chair, Fiore Capital Corp. 

• President and owner, Fiore Farms Inc.

• Co-owner, Sea to Sky Entertainment Inc.

• Board member, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.

• Board member, Eacom Timber Corp.

• Board member, Petromanas Energy Inc.

• President and Founder, The Radcliffe Foundation

• Founder and chair, Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative

• Board of trustees, The International Crisis Group

• Board of trustees, William J. Clinton Foundation

• Board of trustees, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

• Director, trustee, Streetohome Foundation

• Pure Freedom Yyoga Wellness Inc.

• Organiclives Enterprises Inc.

• Alter Eco Americas Inc.

• Sable Fish Canada Inc.

• The Great Ontario Food Company, Inc.

The result of Giustra’s striding into the movie business is Lions Gate Entertainment, the studio behind blockbusters such as last summer’s The Hunger Games and critically acclaimed films such as Monster’s Ball, Precious and others that have earned Lions Gate 10 Oscars and 47 nominations.

Dig a little deeper and you will find Giustra had done some preparation before casting himself as movie mogul. While in London, between making those multi-billion-dollar mining deals, he had also been dabbling in Hollywood. It happened, as usual, on something of a serendipitous, crazy whim. “I was kind of depressed because I’d just been separated,” he recalls, “I was sitting outside of my London flat. I looked up in the sky and I saw a jet plane. It was a beautiful blue sky. And this jet plane was flying across. And I thought, ‘L.A.’ I don’t know why I thought that. I’d never been to Los Angeles.”

The next day, he climbed aboard a plane to Hollywood, checked himself into the Beverly Hills Hotel and waited – for three months. Like many newcomers with money looking to get into the movies, he was discovered. “Soon enough I was found by these movie people,” he recalls. “And they quickly fleeced me for a whole bunch of money. I was young, and I was stupid. That money disappeared so quickly it made my head spin.”

Yet he persevered. Eventually he found himself involved in foreign distribution deals that got him into film production. They were hardly blockbusters. Giustra recalls that a memorable film he produced was Cadence, starring Martin and Charlie Sheen. Most were martial arts films, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Blood Sport, and others further down the cultural food chain. Still, it gave him a starting point to run a studio like Lions Gate.

Or at least he thought it did. The film worlds of Canada and Hollywood were taken by his audacity at Lions Gate, which Giustra funded with $18 million of his own money and $120 million raised in an offering to investors. But soon the Vancouver-based studio began to founder, particularly after a messy production deal with Mandalay Entertainment Group, run by Hollywood legend Peter Guber. Lions Gate’s share price dropped and investors were so scarce, Giustra discovered one day he would have to make payroll with his own money. Yet his pride wouldn’t let the studio go bust. “The embarrassment of going bankrupt – I just couldn’t do it,” he recalls.

Eventually, the studio righted itself. Hits were produced, many of them starting an impressive run of Academy Award nominations. He had done it. By 2003 Giustra sold his share in the studio, his record of business success still untarnished. Best of all, Giustra also came out of the experience with a Rolodex of celebrities that would be the catalyst for yet another new role in his life. Like Andrew Carnegie, the inspiration for his guide Napoleon Hill, it was time for Frank Giustra to become a major philanthropist.

Giustra’s charity started small, at the age of 12, when he signed up to help a foster child in Asia, sending a few dollars and letters every month. By the time he was in college, he was giving to local food banks. Every Christmas, he recalls, he and a friend would “load up a truck of 100 or 200 turkeys and take them to a food bank, the Christmas bureau on Commercial. That made me feel pretty good.” Decades later, he would be helping on a global scale.

When the tsunami hit southeast Asia in 2004, killing a quarter-million people, Giustra decided it was time to dip into his Rolodex to hold a relief fundraiser at his West Vancouver home. His friends raised $1.8 million that night. To thank them, promoter Sam Feldman suggested getting a thank you video from Bill Clinton, who was leading the international tsunami relief efforts. It was the start of a powerful friendship.

Intrigued by Clinton and his foundation, Giustra started investigating what Clinton was up to in his global travels. He heard the Clinton Foundation was looking for a corporate jet so Clinton could visit projects in South America. Giustra offered up his own. To his delight, Bill Clinton accepted and invited him along. “I picked him up in New York and we flew in to Little Rock,” says Giustra, marvelling at a kid from Aldergrove hanging out with a former U.S. president. “I’ll tell you when I pinched myself. We had spent three days in Little Rock and we flew to Mexico City. We had dinner there and I was sitting in my room, in my house robe, ready to go to bed.” There was a knock at the door, Giustra recalls. A secret service agent was standing there, earpiece and all, with an invitation from Clinton. “Wanna play cards?” the agent asked. “I got dressed and played cards all night long.”

Clinton quickly reinforced Giustra’s desire to raise his ante in philanthropy. To date, Giustra has given more than $130 million to the Clinton Foundation for its work in developing countries, including a $100-million donation for the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative. That’s the plan Giustra created to encourage mining companies to create economies and programs that endure after the gold runs out and the workers are left behind.

These days, Giustra also keeps company with some of the world’s best-known international players in the job of preventing wars and poverty. Along with billionaire George Soros, Giustra has become the chief benefactor of the International Crisis Group, an NGO that does field research in conflict zones. He works closely with Soros, former general Wesley Clark; Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Canada’s Louise Arbour, former UN high commissioner for human rights and chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Giustra has always loved geopolitics, but he says he has chosen to be deeply involved in both the Clinton Foundation and the International Crisis Group because both are active in the countries they are trying to help, doing the sort of deep-core research and analysis he did for mines when he was a broker. He’s brought that perspective to Vancouver, most notably though the Streetohome Foundation, which he has backed with his own money and, more importantly, with a business plan that sets targets for building homes for the homeless.

The Giustra philanthropic philosophy is, like his life philosophy, easily summarized: It is no longer acceptable for business people to just write a cheque and leave the charities alone to spend it. Says Giustra: “I’m one of many people who treat philanthropy like a business. In other words, you have to understand what it is you’re trying to solve; get in there on the ground.”

“He’s a new kind of philanthropist,” says Arbour, CEO of the International Crisis Group. She believes Giustra, like Soros, has helped carve a new role that has pushed philanthropy beyond the traditional role of simply embracing a favourite charity or cause. They are geopolitical influencers, working on a larger mission to stabilize entire countries and societies. “I’ve asked him many times, why?” says Arbour. “It looks pretty abstract, what we do. But it appeals to him, this idea, as he put it before, that everything else depends on creating a secure enough environment so that development can take place.”

Wesley Clark agrees that Giustra is a new kind of philanthropist who can sometimes play as much a role in stabilizing a country as diplomats or soldiers. “What you would normally do is send a couple of diplomats in and help people steer away from conflict,” Clark explains. “But if the diplomats can’t do it, why not send in a couple of good businessmen like Frank Giustra to invest in the country and give people jobs and a stake in peace?”

Giustra calls being a philanthropist, apportioning out tens of millions of dollars a year, his most consuming task. He’s not actively doing any mining deals, partially because of the financial crisis and investors’ low tolerance for risk. He says he hasn’t put together a major mining deal in two years. That’s why he is mining the land for something else: good food. Over the past few years Giustra has been buying farmland, investing in a sable-fish farm on Vancouver Island, buying companies that grow local food in Ontario and B.C. as well as a San Francisco company making organic chocolates. And don’t forget the organic olive oil named after his mother.

He believes the quest for good food is the next big business. He’s studied it intensely, using much the same technique he used to predict the commodity booms and busts over the decades with uncanny accuracy. Giustra is convinced consumer desire for good, safe and quality food “is a groundswell and it’s everywhere,” he says, adding he plans on launching a major business around this idea in 2013. What that business is, he won’t reveal. Until then, making the world’s best olive oil is his passion of the moment and he’s promoting it. He gestures toward the two silver bottles of Domenica’s oil resting on his office coffee table, glinting in the light. “Don’t forget to take your olive oil,” he reminds me. “And let me know how it tastes.”