Friday, January 29, 2021

Who is Rod Baker?

Up until getting caught this week flying into a tiny Indigenous community in the Yukon to fake his way into an early COVID-19 vaccine, Rod Baker was a very, very wealthy Vancouver man presiding over a casino empire. 

What was going through his head when he chartered a plane into a hamlet of fewer than 100 people and made up a pack of lies so that he and his wife Ekaterina could jump the queue for their vaccinations? We may never know. Baker appears to have kept a low profile before the Beaver Creek scandal, and is certainly keeping one now. 

But poking around in the information that is available on Baker is intriguing, if only to gain a little more understanding of the kind of guy who launches quite an elaborate plot to get himself into a vaccine lineup intended for vulnerable Indigenous elders. 

Baker was president and CEO of the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation up until his abrupt resignation this week after the Beaver Creek story hit the headlines. He has been in that position since 2010, although the "CEO" part of the title wasn't added until 2011. 

Before that, he was the long-time president of the mysterious Ridgeline Corporation, a financial investment and private merchant banking firm that was headquartered in Toronto but whose office is now listed as "permanently closed." No website or corporate information turned up in my searches. Baker led Ridgeline from 1995-2018. 

Not only was Baker the CEO of Great Canadian, he sat on its board. His father Neil Baker was on the board for several years as well, appointed in 2011 and on the Corporate Compliance and Security Committee before leaving the board in 2018.

Rod Baker isn't mentioned in the 2020 financial documents on Great Canadian's website, but he figures prominently in a 2018 "Letter to Shareholders."  The letter notes that Baker owned/controlled 86 per cent of Great Canadian's common shares at that time. His father owned 12 per cent of common shares back when he was appointed to the board in 2011. 

Together, then, father and son owned or controlled 98 per cent of the company's shares - a signal that Great Canadian wasn't a publicly held company in any real sense of the term, but more like a family dynasty. 

That is an important detail to remember when reading that letter to shareholders, in which the company proudly notes its philosophy of "aligning the interests of the executive with the interests of shareholders" as a reason for Baker's multi-million-dollar compensation package. Rod Baker was top executive, member of the board and owner/controller of the majority of shares, rendering him pretty much the living embodiment of aligned interests. 

Notable about the decade of Baker's reign at Great Canadian is the company's prominence in allegations of money laundering. An Oct. 28, 2020 story in the Globe and Mail has this to say about Baker's lack of interest in looking too closely at the source of the mountains of cash that gamblers were bringing into Great Canadian - revenues that were directly tied to how much richer he would get. 

Stone Lee, a long-time investigator with British Columbia Lottery Corp., testified that in 2012 his boss Terry Towns, vice-president of corporate security and compliance at the time, told him and two other money-laundering specialists that they were to stop banning suspicious gamblers spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at River Rock. 

"I recall [Mr. Towns] said, ‘You guys are not police officers. Cut it out. You should not approach patrons, that's not your job. Your job is to observe and report.

Mr. Stone said the order from his boss was a result of Rod Baker, chief executive officer of Great Canadian Gaming Corp., which owns River Rock, complaining to the provincial gambling agency.

Once upon a time, Great Canadian was a small BC company launched to capitalize on the provincial government's growing interest in legalizing gambling. I remember those early casinos, which tended to be sad and scruffy places serving soggy eggroll bites to a handful of desperate-looking people. 

These days, Great Canadian owns gaming operations in four provinces and sold for $3.3 billion four months ago to Apollo Global Management, a "global alternative investment manager firm" out of New York City. Ah, how the times have changed. 

Rod Baker reportedly resigned from Great Canadian after the embarrassing Beaver Creek incident. It's probably safe to consider that a resign-or-we'll-fire-you move, but the wording also might signal that Baker's transgression didn't trigger the "just cause" clause in his contract. 

What does a top dog like Baker get when leaving a company that was essentially all his? That 2018  letter to shareholders estimated the cost of terminating Baker without just cause at $79 million (most of that from stock options).

So maybe this week's shaming stings a little. But it looks like the rent will still be covered.