TORONTO — Barrick Gold Corp.’s visionary founder Peter Munk, a man of lofty global ambitions who fulfilled them like few others, died Wednesday at the age of 90.
He racked up an impressive series of accomplishments in everything from custom stereos to tropical resorts, and established himself as one of Canada’s great entrepreneurs.
Munk will always be most renowned, however, as the founder and builder of one of the world’s largest gold mining empires while at the helm of Barrick Gold. It was there where he most displayed his willingness to take risks, spot overlooked opportunities, and challenge the status quo.
He was born in Budapest in 1927 and fled Hungary with his family in 1944 when Nazi Germany invaded. He arrived in Toronto in 1948 at age 20 and undertook a number of entrepreneurial business activities before founding Barrick in 1983.
“This is a country that does not ask about your origins, but concerns itself with your destiny,” Munk said in 2011.
He is survived by Melanie, his wife of 45 years; five children, Anthony, Nina, Marc-David, Natalie, and Cheyne; and 14 grandchildren.
Munk, whose cause of death was not disclosed, leaves behind a legacy of business success, charitable donations, and an outspoken defender of the benefits of capitalism.
Toronto-based Barrick Gold grew into one of the world’s biggest gold producers under Munk’s leadership.
“When I joined Barrick in 2002, the company was in the news on an almost daily basis,” said Barrick President Kelvin Dushnisky.
“Words like innovative, entrepreneurial, instinctive, agile and astute were used regularly to describe the company. They could just as easily have been talking about Peter Munk himself, and, in many ways they were. Barrick is, after all, an extension of Peter’s personality.”
Starting in 1983 with a small Ontario underground mine producing 3,000 ounces of gold a year, Munk set Barrick on a path of exponential growth.
The company’s biggest break came in 1986, when he bought an underperforming mine in Nevada called Goldstrike. Few saw the potential of the mine, then producing 40,000 ounces of gold a year, but Munk made a bet on it and struck it big.
Before long, the mine was producing over two million ounces a year and remains one of the company’s core mines, producing over a million ounces a year.
Not one satisfied to settle on a tidy profit, Munk would continue to buy mines and take over companies.
By 2006, Barrick would established itself as the world’s biggest gold producer after gobbling up miner Placer Dome for US$10.4 billion.
Munk was able to continue to grow Barrick in part because he was an outsider to the mining world and approached it from a financial perspective, bringing in innovate hedging programs and financial discipline.
His continuous push for growth, however, also led him to trouble. Multi-billion-dollar bets on Zambian copper and a mega-mine in the Andes at the height of the recent commodity boom weighed heavily on the company, and threatened to tarnish Munk’s legacy at Barrick.
And as the company’s mining empire expanded, so too did the social criticism, with accusations of abuse at mines in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania drawing protests and reprimands.
But Munk was unapologetic, and held fast in his convictions that the company was overall a source of good as part of a globalized world of capitalism.
“Someone has got to create and generate wealth,” Munk said at his last annual general meeting in 2014.
“I count Barrick’s biggest achievement in Canada … the fact that we’ve been able to successfully employ young Canadians, young people globally, and provide them with opportunities.”
Munk had always been grateful for the opportunities that Canada, and his alma mater the University of Toronto had provided him.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1927, Munk was forced to flee to Switzerland 1944 after the Nazis invaded.
Later following his uncle to Canada, he picked tobacco to fund his electrical engineering tuition, then got his entrepreneurial start with a Christmas tree business on the holiday break.
He went on to co-found Clairtone Sound Corp. with his friend David Gilmour, selling high-end custom stereo systems that were popular among the likes of Frank Sinatra and Oscar Peterson.
A move into manufacturing in Nova Scotia for subsidies, however, proved a flop. By 1971, the company was in trouble and Munk was forced out amid insider-trading accusations, leaving the province on the hook for more than $20 million.
From there Munk looked abroad to Fiji, helping to transform a single hotel holding into a $150 million enterprise eleven years later, before selling it and setting his sights back on Canada to start Barrick.
While growing Barrick, Munk would also establish himself as a real estate investor though Trizec Properties, which was sold to Brookfield Properties for US$8.9 billion in 2006, and as a marina developer for super yachts after buying a port in Montenegro.
With the significant wealth Munk generated from his exploits, he was able to donate many millions in charity through his Aurea charitable foundation.
He became one of Canada’s best-known philanthropists, including a $175 million donation to the Toronto General Hospital in 1997. Barrick said he donated nearly $300 million to causes and institutions over his lifetime.
A Toronto cardiac centre bears his name thanks to more than $65 million in donation, as does the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs after a $40 million pledge.
“Peter Munk frequently told me that he derived the most joy and satisfaction from people that would stop him on the street, ask if he was Peter Munk, and when he said ‘Yes’, they went on to thank him for saving their mother or father or other family member’s life through the care that was provided at the PMCC,” recalled Dr. Barry Rubin, medical director at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.
Munk’s entrepreneurial and philanthropic legacies were made possible by his soaring ambitions, as rival Canadian gold miner Goldcorp’s chairman Ian Telfer said ahead of Munk’s retirement in 2014.
“He wanted to build a Canadian champion, he wanted to build a world class Canadian company, and we have very few world class Canadian companies.”