TORONTO - Former cabinet minister Frank Klees believes he's the only one of the four contenders for the leadership of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives with the right mix of business, political and life experience to lead the party to victory in the 2011 provincial election.

His wide-ranging business life started with Canada Life Assurance before he set up his own financial services company, which also acted as an agent for professional athletes. Klees founded the Municipal Gas Corp. in 1990 with two partners before selling his interest in the company later that decade.

"It's important that the premier of this province have a sense of what's really going on in this economy and the world of business," Klees said in an interview.

"I believe that is an important element of my qualifications that the other three candidates simply don't have."

Leadership rivals Christine Elliott and Randy Hillier were first elected to the legislature in 2006 and 2007 respectively and have no government experience, Klees noted, while establishment candidate Tim Hudak, who is supported by former leader Mike Harris, had little business experience before he entered politics at age 27.

Klees said he brings something else to the table that his rivals can't: 35 years of experience as an activist within the PC Party of Ontario, during which he helped develop a system to let party members have real input in shaping party policies.

"When we develop policy consistent with that grassroots process, we win elections," Klees said. "When we don't we lose elections, and I want to re-energize that grassroots process."

Former leader John Tory's promise to fund faith-based schools, a policy that came from him and not the party rank-and-file, was widely seen as the key reason the Conservatives lost the 2007 Ontario election campaign.

"I really believe that when we develop policies based on input from the grassroots, we avoid bringing policies into an election campaign that haven't had the stamp of approval from the party membership, let alone the general electorate," Klees said.

He took shots at Hudak and Hillier for promising to overhaul or scrap Ontario's Human Rights Commission, and said the "ballot question" for every Progressive Conservative should be not just who can best lead the party, but who can best lead the province.

"I don't believe that our party will opt for a leader who is willing to divide the province with policies that may be attractive to some members of our party, such as abolishing the human rights commission," he said.

"I believe that our party will want someone who is focused on common ground, on the important issues for Ontarians today, starting with the economy and jobs."

After failed bids to become a member of provincial parliament in 1975 and '77, Klees ran successfully in 1995 when Harris led the Progressive Conservatives to a majority victory over Bob Rae's New Democrats. Klees was re-elected in 1999 and was promoted to chief government whip before being named tourism minister in 2002 and transportation minister in 2003.

Klees placed third in the 2004 PC leadership race won by Tory and backed out of the race for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2000 after problems with one of his financial supporters.

Klees, who was five years old when his family moved to Ontario from Germany in 1956, said he has spent years building relationships with the many groups of new Canadians in his Newmarket-Aurora riding, which he boasts is the most ethnically diverse in the country.

"We will not win an election in this province if we don't empower and ensure that we welcome new Canadians into our party," he said.

"I'm reminding them about the dynamism within these communities, about their electoral strength and power."

Klees and his wife Jaine have a son, Robert, and Kleese has a daughter, Alissa, from his first marriage.