Gerald “Gerry” Schwartz was born in 1941 in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. His father, who was then serving with the Canadian Air Force, returned home a few times during World War II, but Schwartz did not live with his father on a daily basis until he was four. Schwartz and his parents lived in his maternal grandmother’s home until he was nine. His father was a trained pharmacist, but within a few years, his father left that career to work with his three brothers-in-law in a business started by Schwartz’s grandfather, who died when Schwartz was quite young. “It was a small enterprise that had everything to do with car parts,” he says. “They rebuilt engines, did wholesale distribution, and also had a retail shop. It made enough money to support my uncles and our family.”
Schwartz does not hesitate to talk about his father. “He was fantastic. He taught me a lot about life, people, and business. He was a good businessman and sparked an interest in business for me at an early age. He used to tell me not to expect things to come easily. He was a man who believed in hard work, self-discipline, and ambition. We had a great relationship and I loved him dearly.”
Schwartz’s mother was acutely deaf. Hearing aids helped her a little, but Schwartz thinks her disability kept her somewhat distant. “She was a quiet person,” he says. “I would probably say I had a closer relationship or was influenced more by my grandmother. Regardless, I had a happy childhood that was largely fueled by my close relationship with my father.”
A curious child, Schwartz—like his parents—read a great deal. He also enjoyed his many friends and sports, especially baseball and basketball. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be involved in some sort of business when he grew up, and he was a bit of an entrepreneur in his youth. He remembers that one year when the circus came to town, he got a job carrying water to the animals. He also created his own backyard circus for neighborhood children, putting up posters announcing the circus and charging a nominal fee for the event. By the age of 10, Schwartz began working behind the counter in his father’s store. When he was a little older, he worked in the distribution side of the business. “I liked hanging around the store,” he says. “I liked working there.”
When he was 17, Schwartz and a friend acquired a clothing store whose previous owner had died, and Schwartz saw an opportunity. “We cleaned up the store, named it The Stag Shop, and opened for business,” he says. “I worked there on Friday nights and weekends for the next couple of years.”
School had always been easy for Schwartz. He received good grades, and it was always assumed he would attend college. During his undergraduate years at the University of Manitoba, he lived at home and, using proceeds from his clothing shop, he invested in a carpet store with a friend. “We had carpet stores in Calgary and Edmonton,” he says. “My friend ran the stores. I didn’t earn any money from the stores until we sold them.”
Schwartz did not enjoy his undergraduate classes. In those years, he felt more engaged in his own entrepreneurial dealings and in his father’s business. Following his graduation, Schwartz married, moved out of his parents’ home, and began law school at the University of Manitoba. He did not plan to practice law but was not sure what else to do in the immediate future. From the start, he excelled in his classes. “Law school was much better for me than my undergraduate experience,” he says. “I got a job with a tax firm, and I really excelled at it. I worked incredibly hard.”
During his first year of law school, Schwartz started a coin business that sold government-issued mint sets. He did very well the first couple of years and made a few hundred thousand dollars. However, when the government changed its policy involving mint sets in 1964—after Schwartz had already purchased many sets—the price fell from $30 per set to less than $3. “I lost about all I had made in the previous two years,” he says.
Schwartz’s employer at the tax firm became a mentor, giving him a wide range of experiences denied to most law students. He was earning $25,000 a year while his classmates’ internships paid only $200 a month. He finished his law degree in 1966, worked as a full-time lawyer for two years, and left to attend Harvard Business School.
“I loved my time at Harvard,” says Schwartz. “I love Canada, but I’ve always been an Ameriphile, and I loved being in America. I learned so many new things I had not been exposed to before. I learned about finance, social psychology, marketing. I liked my fellow students and the professors. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”
Upon completing his master’s degree in business, Schwartz planned to get a job on Wall Street. He received several offers, but when a former professor—a partner in a Florida land sales company—offered him a large package with stock options, he took it. “I got greedy,” says Schwartz. “I thought I would make some quick money on the company’s rising stock, but it was a dumb move on my part. I hated it. I didn’t like anything about it once I got there, and knew I’d made a big mistake.”
Schwartz was fortunate that the president of a securities firm he had interviewed with previously called to offer him a job at the newly-acquired firm. “I couldn’t say yes fast enough,” he says.
Soon after, in 1971, Schwartz received an offer from Bear Stearns. He worked there until 1977, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. When an opportunity arose to become a full partner in a new venture, Schwartz accepted. He and his partner started CanWest Capital Corp., a major Winnipeg-based media company, with Schwartz as president.
In 1984, Schwartz and his associate dissolved their partnership, and Schwartz took with him the industrial assets of CanWest to start his own company, Onex. For the first year, he worked out of windowless, borrowed offices. Besides himself, his staff consisted only of his assistant from CanWest and his secretary. “It was a scary time for me,” he says. “I had to raise money, and I didn’t know for sure that I could do it. I had to find businesses I wanted to run, make better, and then be able to sell them again. I started with an empty plate.” However, Onex soon became one of the most successful private equity firms in North America.
“My secretary was with me for 24 years, and my assistant became the chief financial officer of Onex,” says Schwartz. “We built a wonderful business with wonderful people. I love what I’m doing and with whom I’m doing it.”
While integrity is of utmost importance to Schwartz, he believes that much of Onex’s success came from giving his employees room to grow and develop. “I have seen many of my colleagues at Onex do well financially and in their personal lives, which is very satisfying to me. That is how I define success—people close to me, including my four children, building their own lives and making their way in the world. I always told my children when they were growing up to pursue something they love. Making money, I told them, should not be the goal.”
Another piece of advice that Schwartz shares with young people is to keep growing. “You have got to put yourself into a position where you’re back in kindergarten, learning,” he says. “Whenever I am learning about a new business or an industry I have not dealt with previously, I am back in kindergarten learning all I can about it and how it works. That approach has allowed me to grow as a person.”
When asked about his Horatio Alger Award, Schwartz says, “I am honored by it, of course. I am especially happy about the Horatio Alger scholarships, because I love helping young people get an education. If you are undereducated, you will have a tough time in life.”
In 2004, Schwartz was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, and in 2005, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has received numerous other achievement awards, as well as several honorary doctorates.
Schwartz and his wife, Heather Reisman, have donated $28 million to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where Schwartz served as vice chairman. In 2004, he founded the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy. The following year, he started the Heseg Foundation for lone soldiers—servicemen or servicewomen without immediate family in Israel. Heseg has provided full tuition and living expenses to more than 1,300 scholars. He also sponsors student exchange programs between Canadian and Israeli universities, and he supports Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University, whose business school was named for him.
Schwartz and his wife were both raised with tzedaka (a Hebrew word meaning “charity”) as part of their daily family life. “My father was always involved in the community and doing things for others,” he says. “He was generous in a way that was appropriate within his means. I spend a significant amount of time in philanthropy, and I find the work Heather and I are doing with the Heseg Foundation hugely gratifying.”