Edgar M. Bronfman, who led Joseph E. Seagram & Sons — a Canadian distillery founded by his father during Prohibition — when it was the dominate marketer in the U.S. liquor business, died at home in Manhattan Saturday of natural causes at 84, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, the family charity, announced.
Bronfman also became a groundbreaking advocate for Jewish causes as the head of the World Jewish Congress from 1981 to 2007, and he dispersed many millions of dollars annually in philanthropic causes as president of the foundation named for his father — an endeavor he remained active in until his death.
Bronfman joined the family business — which was named for a distillery bought by his father and an uncle in the Roaring 20s — after graduating from McGill University in 1951. “The next year, he found a production flaw that affected 25,000 cases of VO whiskey; he closed the plant for days to track down the source of a taste that wasn't quite right,” Steve Chawkins reports in the Los Angeles Times.
He took over the Seagram’s operations in the U.S. in 1953 and became Seagram's president in 1957, when he was 28, having convinced his father that he should operate in New York City, Jonathan Kandell reports in the New York Times, because an overwhelming share of the company’s business was south of the border.
“Soon he was working at the Seagram building, a landmark skyscraper his family built on New York's Park Avenue,” writes Chawkins. He also “surrounded himself with fine art and for years led a life chronicled in gossip columns.”
But he always kept an eye on the bottom line.
“At its zenith, in 1956, Seagram products accounted for one of every three distilled-alcohol drinks in the United States. Then its market share began to slide,” Kandell writes. “To compensate for the losses, Mr. Bronfman squeezed more profits from less production, using modern cost-cutting methods and focusing on more expensive brands of whiskey.”
Bronfman also had a taste for strong advertising.
“In the early 1960s Edgar worked closely with Mr. Sam [as his father was known] to refine the branding and marketing of Seagram’s flagship premium aged and blended whisky, Chivas Regal, making it the premier whisky in its class,” according to his official obit. “The campaign, conceived and spearheaded by Edgar, was celebrated for its innovative use of advertising created by Madison Avenue legend Bill Bernbach, whom Edgar had recruited to the Chivas account.”
And he had a wandering eye.
“But as liquor profits began to falter, he broadened the company by acquiring Tropicana, taking Seagram into the oil business and eventually making it the largest minority shareholder in DuPont, the chemical giant,” Kandell writes. “Later, he allowed his son Edgar Jr., who had succeeded him as head of the company, to risk billions of dollars to transform Seagram once again, this time into a major player in Hollywood.”
He retired as chairman and CEO of the Seagram Company in 1994.
“Seagram’s storied liquor business was sold in 2001, in a joint acquisition by Diageo and Pernod Ricard,” reports Shaken News Daily. “Diageo gained key spirits brands including Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, Seagram’s 7 Crown and Bulleit, while Pernod Ricard won Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet, Martell Cognac and Seagram’s Gin, among others. Absolut’s U.S. marketing rights moved to a joint venture between Beam Inc. and Absolut’s then-owner, Swedish spirits monopoly V&S Vin & Sprit. (Absolut was acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2009.)”
Bronfman became a U.S. citizen in 1959 and in 1989 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
“In his active and full life, Edgar never tired of learning, exploring and doing, Samuel Bronfman Foundation executive director Dana Raucher said in a statement. “He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people. Edgar showed how vision and long-term thinking can impact the entire landscape of Jewish life.”
His pet project, according to his official obituary, is Bronfman Youth Fellowships, a network of more than 1,000 young Jews from Israel and North America founded in 1987 that “engages future leaders at a formative point in their lives — after their junior year in high school.”
“In a 1986 Associated Press profile, he said his position and money helped him have access to world leaders,” an obit in the Washington Postreports. Said Bronfman: “It’s a combination of the two. In the end, it doesn’t really matter why that access is available, as long as it is there.”
“Many Jews around the world are better off today because of Edgar’s determined, unrelenting fight for justice on their behalf,” said current World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder.
Bronfman’s third wife, Jan Aronson; his brother, Charles; his sister, Phyllis Lambert, and seven children from two previous marriages that ended in divorce survive him. In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family asks that donations be made in Bronfman’s memory to any of four charities with which he was involved.