Billionaire philanthropist Frank Giustra revels in his life of giving

Feb 19, 2019

*This article appeared in The Vancouver Sun and Province on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.*

By Denise Ryan

In a private suite above a hockey rink, Frank Giustra is ignoring the puck and following the bobbing pink pompom of an eight-year-old named Nadette.

Nadette loads her plate with sushi, chicken strips, nacho chips. She pauses, surveys the bounty available to her, then dumps a bag of popcorn over the whole thing.

It’s her third trip to the buffet.

“Look how she pours that popcorn over everything, like seasoning! It’s wonderful,” says Giustra.

Nadette doesn’t speak English and Giustra doesn’t speak Swahili, so it would be a stretch to imagine any understanding between the two — she, a tiny scrap of a thing; he, the billionaire philanthropist — but they are connected.

Giustra led a team effort to raise $3.5 million to help bring 685 refugees to Canada from Sudan, Iran and the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2018, including Nadette’s family. The effort was the work of the Giustra Foundation, which put together a group of philanthropists, including Vancouver’s Aquilini Group, to fill in funding shortfalls so community groups could sponsor refugees under the blended visa office referred program.

High above the ice at Rogers Arena, where the Canucks are playing a losing game, it is the bouncing pink pompom on Nadette’s hat that signals an important win for Giustra. “Look at that,” he marvels as she skips away with her plate, leaving a trail of popcorn.

Nadette digs into some french fries as refugees and their sponsor families gather at a Canucks game hosted by philanthropist Frank Giustra. 

Nadette’s exuberance at this gathering, an opportunity for Giustra, Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini and others to meet the families whose sponsorship they helped to fund, is the ultimate payoff for the work that matters most to Giustra: philanthropy.

The man who made his first million by age 25, founded Lions Gate Entertainment, and became one of the most successful financial entrepreneurs in the world, heading up Endeavour Financial, a merchant banking firm that financed international mining companies, has found a higher calling.

The angel Giustra answers to, if there is one, is Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. “My favourite film,” he says. “I watch it every year.”

“That movie taught me more about the purpose of life than anything else: The message of that movie is that every person touches the life of another person. Just the fact that you existed, your time on Earth, you had the opportunity to impact people in a positive way.”

In the Vancouver boardroom of Giustra’s Fiore Group, with expansive windows overlooking the snow-capped mountains, it’s hard to imagine Giustra ever feeling the kind of dark reckoning that George Bailey did in that film, staring down at the cold waters, considering his own end, questioning the worth of his life.

The son of an immigrant mining labourer, Giustra had flipped the script to become a mining mogul — a success by any stretch of the imagination. But success brought its own reckoning.

“In my early years, my only focus was making money. Once I had it, it was wonderful,” he says. “It felt good. But that feeling doesn’t last long. For anybody. Once people make it, the thrill is gone.”

Frank Giustra walking on railway tracks at a refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece, in March 2016 with Greek interpreter Sandra Hakim. PETROS TSAKMAKIS

Everything changed in 2005 when Giustra met former U.S. president Bill Clinton. “He gave me a whole bunch of ideas about how I wanted to live my life.”

Giustra joined the board of trustees of The Clinton Foundation and travelled the globe with Clinton, seeing first-hand the work he was doing. “He had launched his HIV/AIDs initiative, a really brilliant idea he and his people had come up with to deliver the anti-retroviral drugs to the developing world in a way they could afford. I donated a lot of money to that, and helped him raise a lot of money.”

Giustra says, perhaps only half-joking, that he became “a born-again good guy.”

In 2007, Giustra pitched Clinton on a new idea — the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative. Giustra had been financing mining projects around the globe — projects that saw companies extract resources and then leave settlements once the mine was exhausted.

“Wherever we went, we saw poverty. I thought that we as the industry should create some means by which these communities could have sustainable incomes after the mines were gone,” says Giustra.

Giustra committed $100 million of his own money to the Sustainable Growth Initiative to work in partnership with mining companies, local governments and NGOs to alleviate poverty by creating employment and raising incomes in developing countries.

Why couldn’t he bring his entrepreneurial skills to the challenge of solving global poverty?

Through trial and error, and investment, the initiative tested different models and launched businesses, looking to find something that would work and could be replicated. It developed into Elevate Social Businesses, an enterprise that brings “scalable and sustainable” social entrepreneurship to communities.

Giustra says Elevate hit on the “farmers services model,” which uses a supply-chain model to connect farmers to buyers, an economic system that will remain healthy and profitable once their teams depart. The model eliminates intermediaries, so more income ends up in the farmers’ pockets.

He grows buoyant as he explains the concept, which has touched down in Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti and Indonesia. “You go to a region that produces certain products — vegetables, fruits, fish — and you find an end buyer, a large corporation, that can use that product, maybe a supermarket chain. They need product that stands up to their quality standards, with delivery that is consistent and reliable — something individual small farmers can’t do.

A lettuce farmer in El Salvador, where Frank Guistra supports a social agribusiness that connects smallholder farmers with national and international markets. In her 22 years of farming, Lilian has experienced unreliable and unfair buyers for the farm’s produce. Since working with Acceso and the Foundation, Lilian has been able to ask questions and receive answers, get technical help on her farmland, and sell her produce at a fair price. 

“We go to the buying source, figure out what their demand is in terms of quality and quantity, and we reverse-engineer that demand back to the farmers. We organize the farmers, train them, give them the right seeds and fertilizers and train them to be efficient, then have them deliver as a co-op to the end buyer.”

Once it’s sustainable, says Giustra, “The second step is to prove the enterprise works, then sell or bring in financial partners to grow that enterprise.”

Giustra says it’s working, and drawing the attention of large corporations and international funding organizations that want to invest, or try the model out themselves — and that’s exactly what he was hoping for.

“For me, it’s not about ownership. I wanted to create something others could use, a model that would be useful throughout the world.”

Giustra estimates that so far they’ve created the program for about 10,000 farmers, and generated about $30 million in farmer income.

Elevate neatly dovetails with Giustra’s interest in getting at the root cause of humanitarian issues. Since 2006, Giustra has been director of the International Crisis Group, a non-profit that aims to prevent and resolve conflicts through government and social advocacy that includes addressing food security, and economic infrastructure to help keep communities stable.

Giustra loves spending time with the farmers — his father’s family were farmers in Italy, growing oranges for perfume. “The coolest part of this is the people. The farmers. They’re telling you their life story — and it’s so cool when they tell you their income has gone up 40 per cent since they started the program. It’s the difference between putting their kids in school and not putting their kids in school.”

Giustra isn’t afraid to talk about the obvious and ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor, those with opportunity, those without — for Giustra it’s personal, and threads back to his childhood.

Born in Sudbury to Italian immigrant parents, Giustra experienced the instability that comes from income insecurity. His father sent the whole family back to Italy when the only work he could find was in the rough mining camps of northern Canada. Later the family joined him in Argentina, before moving to Texada Island, where his father worked in the local iron ore mine.

“The one thing that bothered me as a kid was inequality, and because I was on the poorer end of the spectrum there was a feeling that didn’t sit well with me. Certain kids had bicycles. We didn’t. They got Christmas presents. We didn’t. I was bothered by injustice.”

Giustra delivered newspapers, pumped gas, caught chickens, baled hay, worked at SuperValu as a stock boy. “If I didn’t work, I didn’t have money.”

Giustra had a few rough years in high school. His grades weren’t good enough to get him into university, but after a year of music studies at Douglas College, he switched to business, got a job at Merrill Lynch and the rest is Howe Street history.

Now that he has plenty of money, more than he could ever use, Giustra has been on the receiving end of criticism aimed at economic elites who, in his words, “caused the problem in the first place that are now coming in as saviours, whereas what you should do is fix the root of the problem” — criticism that Giustra says is “absolutely right.”

“I saw that speech at Davos,” says Giustra, referring to Rutger Bregman’s recent criticism at the World Economic Forum of billionaire philanthropists who benefit from tax breaks. “He’s not wrong. I am on his side. The system is broken.”

In 2015, after the death of a close friend, Giustra, now 61, began thinking about his own mortality and what he would leave behind. He started a regular column for the Huffington Post entitled Dear Rich People, using the “you can’t take it with you” argument to urge wealthy people to do more.

“Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, in addition to doing my own projects, if I could convince other rich people?”

The campaign had limited success. “You know how many people bought into that? Very, very, very few. It was a shock to me.”

“People don’t want to give up their wealth because it’s what they attach their identity to,” says Giustra. “What is more rewarding is to attach your identity to philanthropy.”

“Opportunity is not shared out equally,” says Giustra. Passing that message to his two teenagers is something he and his ex-wife, Alison Lawton, “work very hard at,” says Giustra. “We say to them, you’re privileged, you’ve led a very privileged life, so take that privilege and do something with it.”

Hosting the refugees and their sponsor families at a Canucks game is a privilege for Giustra, and an opportunity. “I want to get to know them,” he says, taking a seat on a stair. “Even if we don’t speak the same language.”