Trying to understand Edmonton's most powerful man is tough when he's also the city's most elusive
by Omar Mouallem
“Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld.”
That’s the only quote I got from Alberta’s richest man.
After a six-month quest to meet Daryl Katz, the reclusive owner of the Edmonton Oilers and Rexall drugstores, to find out, in his words, what drives him – what ticks, pains and inspires him – this is what I have. Six automated words sandwiched between a third interview request and the response his publicist promptly gave me, presumably after Katz forwarded it to him: “Omar, What was the purpose of this?”
My purpose, to put it simply, was to understand Edmonton’s most powerful and elusive man.
Since November 2012, my attempts to decrypt him ran from futile on the best days to absurd on the worst, like the afternoon I spent at the Edmonton Jewish archives poring over what he ate for dinner on his 40th birthday. What more could I take away from canapés and butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster but wealth and good taste?
In an archived booklet, I found a grainy black and white photo of his family with a sofer, a Jewish scribe whom the Katz family gave $200,000 to create religious scrolls for the local synagogue. I could hardly make out the billionaire, as his family and the sofer took the foreground, but there he was, his unmistakable coiffure behind his mother Ida’s grinning face. Even in glorious moments like these, or like when Edmonton City Council finally approved a new arena for the Oilers last may, he prefers to stay in the background.
And while the 51-year-old may be reviled by some for unzipping the public purse to fund the arena, he is well-regarded in the Jewish community. I thought that if I could get a peek into his personality from anyone, it would be Russ Joseph, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. However, Joseph wouldn’t go much further than to say that his generosity is “well known.” But, of course, nothing about Daryl is well known.
Other friends and associates, including longtime friend and communications VP Steve Hogle, turned down my interview requests. Edmonton lawyer Doug Goss agreed but later cancelled via email, saying, “I am not comfortable speaking on the subject.” Sam Abouhassan, a well-known tailor and businessman who throws an annual charity golf tournament sponsored by Katz, told me that Katz sends associates to the tournament in his stead.
In journalism, writing about someone without his or her involvement is called a “write around,” and it usually leaves the author to tell the story through the perspectives of people who know the subject personally. When even the people who know him won’t participate, though, a writer is left to use sonar.
And so, I triangulated what I could from old interviews, legal documents and experts on various facets of Katz’s professional and personal life. These include people who specialize in the pharmacy industry, corporate strategies and sports management, as well as Brad Klontz, a psychologist to the one-per cent who hypothesizes that men like Katz are often misunderstood. “The further you are from the centre of the herd, the more anxiety you have, the more you worry, ‘What are people going to think of me?’” he told me. “They have to change their entire social network, their entire family system. They basically have to get a new herd. It would be normal for them to feel judged and misunderstood.” People in this position often feel like they need to bring friends into their new herd, otherwise they’ll be left behind.
That may explain, in part, why Katz surrounds himself with people that he’s known since he was a teenager growing up in west Edmonton. Steve Hogle, the Katz Group’s vice-president of communications, and Bob Black, its executive vice-president, both went to Jasper Place High School with Katz, and they were so close at the time that they were known as the “Rio Trio.”
It may also explain the massive house on the hills for which he has become either famous or infamous, depending on who you ask. At 25,000-square-feet and an original price tag of $20 million, his Edmonton home, 4 Valleyview Point, has its own legends. Far from a fortress guarded by Chevy Tahoes filled with lumbering bodyguards, the stone-clad mansion has an open brick driveway that leads to the front door. A single black SUV was parked in front of the gate that opens up to the rest of the palace, but from the sidewalk it looked to me like another ritzy house that any child selling cookies could walk up to.
I am not a Girl Guide, of course, and so the black car door swung open. But instead of a hulking man in a black suit and shades, it was, well, “Kevin,” a man with disarmingly kind face shaded beneath a bent Oilers ball cap and wearing khakis, a polo shirt and no earpiece – that I could see, anyways. He approached me cordially, hands in pocket, and before he could ask I told him I’m a journalist. “Of course,” he said. He took my card and gave me my space, allowing me to note some of the home’s features: a Rexall logo in a personal ice rink, a row of cedar hedges, closed blinds.
After a time he said, “You can get a better view of it from the river valley.” I don’t think Kevin meant it as one, but the metaphor for Katz couldn’t have been more appropriate.