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Interactions with potential investors tend to follow a similar pattern when you are Lionel Conacher and you live in the Google era and are a partner in a new venture-capital firm. Whomever the meeting is scheduled with will typically shake hands and offer a warm hello, but before getting down to business they will ask him not about Lionel Conacher, financier, but about his grandfather, also named Lionel, famed sportsman. “I can’t go to a meeting with somebody new where they haven’t Googled me, and if you Google me, you will get 12 pages on my grandfather,” Conacher says from his California home.
It is little wonder why: Lionel (Big Train) Conacher was arguably the greatest Canadian athlete ever. He won a Stanley Cup, a Grey Cup, dazzled in rugby — and baseball and lacrosse — wrestled professionally, became a politician and died on Parliament Hill in 1954 at age 53, after stretching a single into a triple during a softball game and suffering a massive heart attack.
The Conacher story is woven into this country’s sporting fabric. Being asked about it makes the present-day Lionel proud, but it also makes him laugh, at least on the inside, since his business partners have had to sit through multiple meetings listening to stories about his famous grandfather without, oddly, being asked to tell stories about themselves, which isn’t an every day occurrence for his current partner, Lance Armstrong.
That would be The Lance Armstrong, cycling’s notorious liar/bully/jerk who, almost six years after admitting to Oprah Winfrey in an exclusive television interview that, “yes,” he did take Erythropoietin (EPO) and other assorted banned substances in each of his seven consecutive Tour de France wins, is reinventing himself as a venture capitalist in partnership with a direct descendant of the presumably EPO-free Canadian sports hero.
“You can’t fool Lionel Conacher on a spreadsheet,” Armstrong says via email, an endorsement of Conacher’s financial chops that doesn’t address a more fundamental question: how did this partnership come to be? Conacher, like 28 million others worldwide, watched Armstrong’s 2013 Oprah confession. He was embarrassed by it. He had been an Armstrong defender to the bitter end, and an acquaintance of the cyclist since 1999.
In those days, Conacher was working at a brokerage firm in Toronto when a close friend, John Koshan, was diagnosed with cancer. Conacher knew someone who knew Armstrong, then just starting his miraculous, bounced-back-from-cancer-to-win-the-Tour-de-France-myth-making rise. He had him ask the cyclist if he could send something. Armstrong delivered. “He sent this massive poster of himself in the Tour de France time trial, and on it he had written in huge letters, “John. Stay strong. Fight like hell. Your friend, Lance,” Conacher recalls. “John had that poster, literally, on his deathbed — until the day he died — and I still have that poster.”
Conacher went on to raise quite a bit of money for cancer research and was introduced to Armstrong by comedian Robin Williams (but that’s another story). They remained acquaintances thereafter, crossing paths, here and there, until Oprah happened. Instead of fleeing for the hills, as most in Armstrong’s extended orbit did, Conacher “leaned in,” partly because of the poster Armstrong had sent to Koshan years before, partly because Armstrong had made similar gestures in the ensuing years without ever expecting anything in return, and partly because the Armstrong Conacher knew didn’t match the guy being vilified.
“I just decided that, if it were me, and my world came down, I’d want the people who were my real friends to show up,” says Conacher, who in 2002 co-founded Westwind Partners Inc., a former Toronto investment bank purchased by San Francisco private-equity giant Thomas Weisel Partners Inc. in 2008 for about $145 million.
"I just decided that, if it were me, and my world came down, I’d want the people who were my real friends to show up." - Lionel Conacher
Conacher was working for Altamont Capital Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., when Armstrong called him about a year ago seeking advice. He did not disappear post-Oprah, but had begun a process of reinvention, launching a hugely popular cycling-focused podcast, The Move, in 2017, and following it up with The Forward, a podcast featuring chats with other sports and celebrity notables, including former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, skier Bode Miller and rocker Sammy Hagar.
Millions have downloaded the podcasts and, as Armstrong would explain to Conacher, people were constantly soliciting his input on sports products: what worked, what didn’t, which were best? Armstrong knew gear — and marketing. He is still the guy who won sports’ toughest endurance race seven times by beating a field now widely acknowledged to have been just as dirty as he was. What he wanted to know, Conacher says, was whether his “time out” was over, and whether there might be a way for him to launch a fund in the wellness space?
Conacher didn’t have an immediate answer, but promised Armstrong he would kick some tires among the Silicon Valley venture-capital crowd to determine if the “pendulum” on him had swung to potentially viable sports-tech investor from sports villain. Runners, cyclists and weekend warrior gearheads of all sorts buy into a global wellness industry valued at several trillion dollars. The verdict around Silicon Valley was Armstrong’s past wasn’t an issue. More important for Conacher was the word of his wife, Joan Dea, a former chief strategist at Bank of Montreal. She currently sits on the board at Charles Schwab Corp. and is an angel investor in female-led startups. Dea spent hours with Armstrong before giving her husband the thumbs-up to give him advice as well as to go into business. “I said to Lance, ‘If you want a partner, I’ll do it with you,’” Conacher says. “And he said, “Really?” And I said, yep.”
Their firm, Next Ventures, is “designed to maximize growth opportunities in the exploding sports, fitness, nutrition and wellness markets,” according to its website. Part of the appeal is the alchemy between its two general partners. Much like Armstrong, the 56-year-old Conacher is ultra-competitive. He was a top college decathlete at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and is now a five-mornings-a-week California surfer with good genes and size — he is almost two metres tall — a combination that produces some friendly athletic tests with Armstrong.
"I said to Lance, ‘If you want a partner, I’ll do it with you.’ And he said, 'Really?' And I said, yep." - Lionel Conacher
Conacher admits the former cyclist “crushes” him in running and swimming, and is about 20% faster on a bike. Both men are terrible at golf. Where Conacher holds a decisive edge is as a skier, surfer and possessor of knowledge around the intricacies of corporate governance, deal structuring and company valuations.
Armstrong brings his own strengths, including a global network of contacts, a global audience in the digital space and the core belief as an investor — and this is a guy who got in early on Uber Technologies Inc. and Docusign Inc. — that a company’s most valuable commodity is its people. “I invest in talent and hard work,” Armstrong says.
In that regard, Armstrong and Conacher are invested in one another, crisscrossing North America to raise capital, and positioning their firm as a second- or third-round investor in wellness gadgets, including PowerDot, a portable electro-muscle stimulator controlled by a smartphone app, and Oura Ring, which measures heart rate, body temperature and movement while you sleep.
On the side, Conacher is working on a documentary about his grandfather with his son, the actor Lionel Charles Conacher, better known as Chas. It is the story of a Canadian sports hero. Lance Armstrong knows it well.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019