American billionaire Shahid (Shad) Khan, 66, was born in Pakistan, came to the United States to study engineering at the age of 16, and made his fortune building up his Chicago-based Flex-N-Gate auto-parts empire from scratch.
He also owns 11 car-parts plants in Canada. But in the last few years, he’s been on a shopping spree for more exotic assets, buying the National Football League’s struggling Jacksonville Jaguars and the English soccer team Fulham FC. In September, he added Toronto’s flagship Four Seasons Hotel to his collection. A Muslim and a registered Republican, he tells The Globe and Mail’s Jeff Gray that everyone should stop worrying about Donald Trump.
Well, I have a lot of affection for Toronto. I think it is one of the great cities of the world. And I kind of discovered it, I was here in the eighties, with relatives, and I drove my parents through Ontario and around, visiting relatives. But then in the nineties, I bought auto plants for us to expand in Ontario. We’ve got 11 manufacturing facilities in Ontario. I discovered the Four Seasons brand many years ago. There is a certain magic. And this is the home base [of the international hotel chain], the DNA. So if I would have had interest in one hotel, Four Seasons Toronto, that’s it.
Four Seasons will still run the hotel. Do you come in and make changes?
Yeah, but I think you get a lot of input. I didn’t know the economics or the operations of the hotel before this thing was for sale and then I looked and benchmarked. They are in a league of their own. But like anything else, there are areas they could improve on. You have to keep investing and improving when people don’t think you need it. So you do it because it’s the right thing.
A lot of people in Canada and the United States are feeling concerned about president-elect Trump. They might be surprised to hear you say that under President Trump, things will be okay.
You’re not concerned about the calls to ban Muslim immigration, all this sort of stuff?
I think that was a lot of pre-election talk. To start off with, it’s against the law, any kind of racial or ethnic discrimination, against American law. And when it’s all said and done, it is a country of laws. But I have frankly looked at it as no different than somebody saying, I am going to repeal the laws of gravity, okay? So it’s a lot of pre-election hype.
Isn’t it disturbing, the type of rhetoric, the stuff that has been stirred up? We’ve got people doing Nazi salutes in the Reagan Building. Doesn’t that concern you, particularly, as you are of the Muslim faith, and an immigrant who came to the United States?
You know, I think it’s a free country. And people have a right to express that. Obviously, you know, I wouldn’t agree with that or I would never do it, but that’s part of democracy. That’s the messy part of democracy. And as long as it’s non-violent, God bless ’em. So I think eventually, just like water finds the level, you know, people realize, hey, that was kind of crazy.
Was there another Republican in the primaries that you preferred to Mr. Trump?
I think that most of the mainstream Republicans would have supported someone else. But once he’s the nominee, you suck it up. And I think more importantly, whether you like it or not, I mean, you want the best thing for the country. And I think he’s doing it in a lot of ways, where you know, you govern, certainly in the United States, America is governed from the middle. And I think President Obama, he could have even been more effective if he had just moved a little to the middle. Frankly, he didn’t move a lot from where he was. He did a lot of the things that he did through executive action and not through bipartisan legislation.
I don’t know that Donald Trump shows those characteristics. He has appointed Steve Bannon [of the far-right website Breitbart News] to a senior position in the White House. You think he can govern from the centre?
I think he will. I think if he is going to be effective, that’s what he will have to do. One good thing about being in business is you learn to compromise. And so you learn to strike a deal that maybe isn’t what you were looking for but is better than what you’ve got.
You’re not concerned that he has threatened to rip up the North American free-trade agreement?
I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think there might be some tweaks to it. And why would you want to do a deal that hurts you? Certainly, the American consumer has benefited from NAFTA.
Do you know Donald Trump? Have you ever met him?
I have met him socially. I think in person he’s really more thoughtful, more reflective and a pretty good listener, you know? Now, he has a viewpoint. Most of the conversations I had were about football, so you know, this player or that player, or you’ve got to do this. Which is fun. But I think, as a person, he’s different and I don’t know how much of this was staged, or what have you. But I think the United States is going to do great.
Your Toronto investment comes as the city is booming. There are more high-rise buildings under construction here than almost any other city in North America.
Toronto is a world-class city. You don’t have a debate here about immigration because you need it to just maintain your pensions, that’s dependent on people coming in to fund that. And again I don’t want to be controversial, but I think the average education level in Canada is probably higher than in the United States. You would know. In just my interaction, I go to factories and I talk to our employees. And in Canada they have had a least a year or two more education. It’s like almost I never run into anybody who hasn’t finished high school. And in the United States, you have a lot who dropped out of 11th grade or whatever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.