Obituaries

Peter Munk, 90, builder of world’s biggest gold mining company

Barrick Gold Chairman Peter Munk speaks to shareholders at the company's annual general meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 22, 2004. Munk has died at 90. MUST CREDIT: Norm Betts/Bloomberg News
Norm Betts/Bloomberg News
Peter Munk speaks to shareholders at the company's annual general meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 22, 2004.

NEW YORK — Peter Munk, the Canadian who built the world’s largest gold-mining company, years after suffering one of his country’s most notable business failures, died March 28 in Toronto. He was 90.

Barrick Gold, the company he founded, announced the death but did not give a cause. Mr. Munk had dealt with heart problems for several years.

An outsider in Canada — his preference for fedoras alone set him apart — and a former escapee from Nazi-occupied Hungary, Mr. Munk initially tried out several lines of business, including stereo equipment and resorts in Fiji. Not all were successful, but he never appeared deterred by his failures.

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Barrick itself started out as an oil company that endured three years of losses. Then Mr. Munk began acquiring gold mines in Canada and the United States. Most were small ventures. But in 1986 he bought Goldstrike, a mine in Nevada that was estimated to hold 600,000 ounces of gold. As it turned out, it held more than 21 million ounces, making it the richest deposit outside of South Africa at the time.

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Barrick grew through expansion, and with the acquisition in 2006 of Placer Dome, a British Columbia-based mining company, it became the world’s largest gold miner.

And it made Mr. Munk immensely wealthy, though there are few good estimates of his fortune.

Mr. Munk led the life of an international billionaire. He had three homes in Ontario and houses in Paris and Switzerland, where he remained a keen skier late in life, and took to the sea in a 140-foot-long yacht, the Golden Eagle.

As Barrick expanded globally, Mr. Munk often dealt with governments with widely condemned human-rights records. He devoted part of Barrick’s annual meeting in 1996 to praising the economic program of General Augusto Pinochet, the former military dictator in Chile, although Mr. Munk subsequently condemned Pinochet’s human rights abuses in a letter to the newspaper The Globe and Mail.

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An electrical engineer by training, Mr. Munk often attributed his success at Barrick to his lack of a mining background. That meant, he said, that he made decisions about his company almost entirely from a financial perspective, introducing measures that offset the inevitable financial risks of mining.

“For 100 years it was assumed that a successful mining company had to be run by miners,” he told The Economist in 2014. “What I did know was how to run a business. The investor doesn’t give a damn about what you know about mining. They want results.”

For all of Barrick’s later success, it was his stereo equipment company, Clairtone — Mr. Munk’s first big venture and his greatest humiliation — that most shaped his approach to business.

“Clairtone was the single-most formative experience in my life, because it was so traumatic,” he told The New York Times in 1993.

He set off to manufacture stereo equipment in 1959 with David Gilmour, a friend, and the help of $2,800 Canadian from the father of Mr. Munk’s first wife, the former Linda Gutterson. The audio gear became popular internationally as much for its futuristic design as for its sound. Clairtone stereos appeared in films starring Frank Sinatra and Sean Connery.

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The company’s success led to a move from Toronto to a large manufacturing plant in Nova Scotia, drawn in part by the province’s offer of financial assistance. Overwhelmed by a variety of problems, however, including an unsuccessful move into television and poor management of the company’s growth, the founders were ousted in 1968. Clairtone collapsed six years later.

As a philanthropist, Mr. Munk donated about $232 million in US money today to a variety of medical and academic centers. He also devoted much of his time to turning a former naval base in Montenegro into a superyacht marina.