Unions and politics are plaguing the former cat driver who ripped a fortune from BC’s forests. “I consider myself one of the unlucky ones," he says
BEN GINTER CHUCKLED. The chuckle, starting down somewhere near his elastic-sided, black cowboy boots and rising up through one of the world’s more fantastic bellies, is part bitterness, part irony, part resentment, part amusement. It is the chuckle — more a snort, really — of a man who has laminated Japanese butterflies in the ceiling of his $300,000 house and the soft skin of unborn calves on his bar in his paneled den, and push-button drinking bowls for his Arabian horses, and three of his own planes; a man who is a small legend in his own time and who knows that he is a full-bellied irritation to some people in high places.
Ben, you see, has become a $30-million embarrassment to the government of British Columbia and most everything that it stands for. Ben Ginter is — or at least was — the very symbol of what Premier W. A. C. Bennett’s proclaimed “Dynamic Society” purports to be. There he is, an unlettered former cat driver from Swan River, Manitoba, who has made it big in the Paul Bunyan tradition of British Columbia. He is a man personally responsible for ripping into and taming the wilds of BC, building the highways and bridges and airstrips and pulp mills that opened up the interior. A man who has taken on the power barons of eastern Canada, who bulldozes through red tape and overwhelms better-educated men with his “common sense,” who fights unions and offers proof that hard work and idealism can still win a Horatio Alger fortune in these cynical days when the most the ambitious youngster can hope for is an executive-training course with IBM. A man, in other words, who is more than somewhat similar to the unsophisticated hardware merchant and self-made millionaire who is BC's premier.
The trouble is, Ben Ginter is a nettle, a noisy reminder — a pea under the mattress — to the very government that helped provide him with his $30 million and his stable of Arabians and his indoor pool. As the 16-yearold Social Credit government begins showing signs of senility and shakiness, crude, unlettered Ben Ginter has been making national headlines. The thing is, they’ve been headlines capable of upsetting William Andrew Cecil
Bennett, a man not commonly upset by any headline as long as the story spells his names right. And they’ve been headlines of considerable shock and surprise to a good many other people as well. To people outside British Columbia who had always been led to believe in the westernmost province as the natural habitat of the rough, tough, roll-up-your-sleeves-andmake-a-buck millionaire, it was surprising and maybe a little bit shocking to see Ben Ginter bellowing in print that the government owed him umpteen dollars and wouldn’t pay up, and the unions were driving him up the wall, and this is one hell of a place for any honest man to try making a buck, and all like that. And for people closer to the scene, it was a shock — a real shock — to find Ginter smiting an old ally, Phil Gaglardi, hip and thigh. It didn’t seem all that long ago when, according to common gossip, you couldn’t get anything done in northern BC without consulting one of the Holy Trinity: Ginter, Gaglardi and God.
Now Ben Ginter just snorts that resonant snort of his. “Gaglardi is a jackass.”
The Reverend Philip Gaglardi, once the Fastest Lip in the West, the highways minister with the hot-gospeling style and the pocketful of speeding tickets, these days is a crushed man, stripped of his 520-mph executive jet and his personal fiefdom, BC’s highways, by Premier Bennett. He was jettisoned because he had become a burden to Social Credit and it was clear that his former links — real or imagined — with Ben Ginter were part of the indictment.
Even before Gaglardi was tossed overboard in the spring, it was apparent that Bennett wanted to break up the north’s Holy Trinity.
“I never told nobody this before but I don’t give a damn,” says Ben. “You seen how they protected Gaglardi when lie got in trouble. Bennett told him not to give me nothing — to shut me out. Gaglardi told me himself.”
Ben is bitter. He’s being frozen out by the government, he feels, and so he’s getting out of the paving business and the bridge business. He’ll get by on federal-government contracts and pulp mills and sundry other millions. He’s being frozen out of the beer business, he feels,
so he’s reversing his success route: heading back eastward to set up breweries in Alberta and Manitoba and even dreaded Upper Canada if he can swing it. And so Ben Ginter sits up in Prince George, amidst the forests in his $300,000 garish house like a mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, divesting himself of the parts of his 14-company empire that touch on Bennett and Social Credit and venting his bitterness.
Prince George is a formidable outpost. Some 350 miles north of Vancouver, it is one of the few good swashbuckling towns left in Canada. It is going to be the new Edmonton of the north country and it knows it. There are now probably 35,000 people, golf courses and discothèques, but it’s still a town where the pubs open at 9 a.m. to accommodate the fuzzytongue set out waiting on the sidewalk. The good burghers from Toronto may think people from Vancouver are unpolished westerners but in Prince George it is assumed that anyone from such a settled place as Vancouver lies around on velveteen couches, sipping Pimms No. 5 and reading decadent novels by Gore Vidal.
As you drive in from the airstrip (built by Ginter Construction) and wind down past the dirty-brown coil of the Fraser River, a sign announces: White Spruce Capital Of The World. The acrid smell tells you more plainly than the plumes of steam rising from the mills that this is a pulp-and-paper town.
Prince George stands amidst great flowing fields of trees, as far as the eye can see, as unending and as boring as the wheat fields outside Moose Jaw. The trees, in fact, are a crop — green gold. It doesn’t have to be mined, tilled or manufactured and it renews itself. It’s what BC grows rich on. And Ben Ginter — by slashing roads through to the green gold — has grown richer than most.
The province contains nearly 70 percent of Canada’s reserve supply of timber. Only one third of the annual growth is even cut. The rest lies there waiting for more Ben Ginters. (When British press lord Cecil King, not a man to be awed, came to Prince George to open a pulp mill in which his chain had an interest,
WHERE CAN BEN GINTER MAKE HIS NEXT $30 MILLION?
he noted with some awe that the pulp ■ ^d harvesting rights to support the mill crxered an area one quarter the size of Engian... There are three such mills in Prince George.)
The room on the eighth floor of the Inn Of The North looks over the town and the jangling phone delivers the voice of Ben Ginter himself. He has a deep-dish John Wayne voice. He will pick me up in five minutes. “And 1 just might have a cold beer in the car for you.”
The dirty, brindle-colored Thunderbird pulls up in the street in front of the hotel and stops, causing a truck behind to jerk to a halt. Most everything in Prince George stops for Ginter. The beer, as promised, is waiting — in an old cardboard box on the back seat, covered by an old brown raincoat. It is ice-cold, canned. The name is Simon Fraser, one of the brands turned out by Ginter’s Tartan Brewery, which has set off another war with the BC Liquor Control Board and, indirectly, Bennett.
We head for the Prince George Fall Fair where Ben, major domo of a minor town, is showing his purebred Herefords and his Arabians and is billed as “financial adviser.” The “Official” sticker on the windshield whisks us through gates. Wheeling the Thunderbird right through the sawdust turmoil of the grounds. Ginter pulls to a stop beside a barn and eases out.
He looks exactly what you would expect of a cat driver who became a tycoon — or a tycoon who was a cat driver. The closeness of his crewcut is exceeded only by those of southern football coaches who come to western Canada.
There may once have been a neck there, but no longer. He looks, from the back, as if the coat hanger has been left in his suit. (“I didn’t get these shoulders from suckin’ lemons,” he says.) From head-on, it is impossible to see his belt, covered by that magnificent belly, performing somewhat the same function as an uplift bra. Beneath that shiny blue suit are those square-toed black boots. He looks, when he grins, like a large George Gobel. When he doesn’t grin, he looks like Hal Banks. When he walks, his arms slant out from his body, as if in semaphore / continued on page 50
continued from pape 43
A down payment on a $12,000 tractor—and Ginter was away
drill. He weighs 245. He lumbers toward Charlie, his ranch-hand: “Where's the whip?”
Ginter, it turns out, has decided to show Arran Aba, his six-year-old Arabian stallion, in the Parade of Champions competition, and he would like to make sure a persuader is handy. Aides scurry about while Ben has a
serious talk with Arran Aba, Charlie pins number 161 on his back and it’s off to the show ring. As they go by, Ben is waving the whip ever so gently in front of Arran Aba’s nose and muttering in a hoarse whisper, “Don’t you forget, mister. Don’t you forget.” It is a most improbable scene in the ring. Leading their horses are young
girls in red jeans and straw hats, one in what looks suspiciously like a seethrough blouse, a man with a perfect Buffalo Bill goatee and hairdo, and Ben Ginter, his white number flapping against his blue suit, looking for all the world like a cabinet minister who has lost his way en route to the reviewing stand. There are 19 horses
and ponies in all. The ranch-hands lean on the corral fence, the neighing of fidgety horses rings out, the Ferris wheel turns against the big blue sky over the White Spruce Capital Of The World and Ben Ginter, nervous, sweat running down his crewcut, stands twitching that little whip before the nose of the Arabian stallion with the three white stockings and the red bridle.
“It’s nice of Mr. Ginter to show his own horse." The speaker is a greyhaired woman in jeans outside the ring.
“About time,” offers the ranchhand with her.
"Well.” drawls another companion, "the horse is beautiful . . .”
The judge eventually announces: “161.” But Ben doesn’t know his horse’s number, they have to beckon to him and he and Arran Aba trot out bearing a huge purple ribbon approximately the size of Ringo Starr’s tic. There is an air of resentment from his red-jeaned competitors. Charlie is there to take the horse off his hands, local sycophants cluster around to offer congratulations and — chugging its way to the surface — comes that chuckle. “Well. I guess it was worth coming down here.” Another Ginter project is complete.
“All you need is common sense”
That piece of business disposed of. we’re in the car and headed back to Ben’s offices. “I can use one of those beers myself." he says, explaining that it's been two years since he’s shown the horse. He's clearly excited.
"It's all in the way you handle him. you know. Í just gave him a few love taps on the nose out there. He understood. it’s the same as with kids. I don’t bark at my kids. They get the message.”
The gatekeepers wave us through.
“. . . mind you, I gave him a good cut back at the barn. Just to let him know who was boss.”
We tool through traffic, beer cans held below window level.
“It’s just common sense — that’s all you need. That’s why I like Arabians. They’re intelligent. I can pick animals.”
Benjamin George Ginter is great on the virtues of common sense. It’s a required commodity, naturally, in a Swan River farm boy, with a brother and six sisters, who left school in the eighth grade after his father died. He certainly didn’t get those shoulders suckin’ lemons. He worked in the sugar-beet fields, as a laborer, as a factory worker. He hauled eight-foot pulp logs in the Ontario bush, making nine dollars a day w'hcn the average among haulers was $2.50. He boasts he made more on poker at night than he did in the daytime.
In 1948 in Lethbridge, Ginter borrowed $1.500 to put a down payment on a $12.000 tractor and scraper and he was away. A year later he arrived in Prince George and was well prepared to benefit when Social Credit came to power in 1952 and began to open up the interior of the province where the party’s faithful voters lived. The public accounts show that between 1954 and 1958 Ginter received
continued on pape 52
“Why pick on a lion when you can pick on a mouse?”
more than $8,500,000 in highway contracts. Is he really worth $30 million now? Ben snorts that Ginter snort. “All I know is that I wouldn’t sell for $30 million.”
The knot of his tie yanked down a foot below that nonexistent neck, a can of beer in his fist, he gazes up at the pictures on the wall that show
Ginter in the company of the great. How do you become rich? “Most anyone can do it — I keep telling people — if they’ll give up their cocktail habits and apply themselves.” It is late Saturday afternoon and Ginter’s secretary, his accountants and engineers arc still applying themselves.
Still, it obviously takes a bit more
than staying away from cocktail parties. You have to be, for example, resourceful. Six years ago Ginter went to an auction and bid $60,000 for a bankrupt brewery. He has since built it into such a prosperous operation that he exports to Alaska and the Prairies and has forced the national breweries to bring out canned beer in
British Columbia to meet his competition.
You have to, for another thing, think big. Ginter once showed up at a government sale where pulpwood rights were to be sold to an independent logging operator for the appraised value of $340,051. Ginter stunned the gathering by offering $12 million. The government, when it recovered from shock, gave the original bidder an extra month to match Ginter's bid. The poor chap eventually did arrange the financing but has yet to be able to build the pulp mill the government wanted. Asked why he had gone after the little independent rather than a nearby site that involved an E. P. Taylor subsidiary, Ginter replied, “Why pick on a lion when you can pick on a mouse?” Swan River common sense.
Stymied by the government that time. Ginter merely turned around and put together money from New York and pulp interests from Finland and became president of a $ 100-million pulp mill now under construction at Kitimat. Ginter Construction was the low bidder on preparing the site.
He has mining ventures and a weekly paper in Prince George and 600 acres of land for a subdivision and a few other odds and ends.
Is it worth it?
But you wonder sometimes whether it is worth it all. It is, for instance, now early evening in Ginter’s office and he has not had a bite to eat all day, save for a 7 a.m. cup of coffee (“I don't believe in eating breakfast until I’ve earned it”). Why doesn’t he eat lunch? “When would I find time for it? You’ve been with me all day — you’ve seen I haven’t got the time.”
He is 50 pounds overweight. “My doctors tell me I won’t live very long if I don’t lose some weight.” He is only 45. He does not drink much of his canned beer. But the weight comes, he says, because when he does get home at 9 or 10 at night “I am so hungry I can’t seem to get enough. I eat and eat. I eat whatever is left from the family’s supper. Then I go to bed. I don’t work it off. That accounts for this.” He looks down at that massive stomach.
“Do you know the holidays I had last year? Nine days. We were in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, I got a phone call every three or four frigging hours. I finally had to come back to work.”
Ginter is up from behind his desk now, gesticulating. “I bet I don’t spend as much money as you do.” Oh, come on now, Ben. “No, I mean on myself. I’ll bet you.” It’s entirely possible and you wonder — this is the life of a millionaire?
Yes, but would you trade positions with someone who made, say $15,000 or $20,000? Ginter looks pensive. “Sometimes. I consider myself one of the unlucky ones, you know.”
Then it hits me. Ginter is a work addict — just as hooked as the dope addict, the booze addict, perhaps just as unhappy and guilty about it. He honestly believes that he can’t find 30 minutes to grab a bite of lunch in little-bitty Prince George. He sincerely feels that disaster will overtake his
world if he takes more than nine days holidays a year. Ben Ginter, up here in the White Spruce Capital Of The World, amid the earthmovers and the bulldozers, is just as much a captive of the rat race as the boys on Ad. Avenue with their dapper sideburns and Nehru pendants.
Someone who shares that affliction is Phil Gaglardi. He was also an early dropout, a roughneck cat driver, contemptuous of niggling details. It's fair to assume that these qualities brought them into contact at a time when BC needed rambunctious characters to rip holes in mountains.
Ginter. Gaglardi and God? Ginter just snorts. “I’ve still got the third one. The second one I can do without.”
Gaglardi has been tumbled from his perch after a legislative row over land dealings by his sons and Ginter has no sympathy. “Gaglardi was naïve,” he says. “He’s cost me plenty”
According to Ginter's figuring, the BC government owes him something like two million dollars from past highway contracts. ‘‘We’d run into different conditions on some jobs — tough conditions that would cost us money. But because it was Ginter, the Highways Department would be afraid to pay us our additional costs. They didn’t want to run the risk of having questions asked in the legislature.”
There’s no doubt that the Ginter legend hurt Bennett’s government. There was the belief, especially in the Vancouver press and opposition parties. that Ginter, this mysterious figure piling up a fortune, symbolized the “blacktop government” philosophy of Social Credit.
Now, as a result, he feels he’s getting the squeeze. So disillusioned is Ginter with Social Credit that he even opens up on that most sacred of topics between business and government: slush funds. He says he's turned down a recent request for a $4,000 donation to Social Credit.
But previously? “Sure I help them out around Prince George. They don’t have any money — especially if the candidate is a farmer or something I support them locally. That’s all.”
Ginter says he was also asked for $6,000 a year for party funds. He was told to whom he should make payments and that things would be “easier for him” if he contributed.
Ben Ginter, it can be seen, talks rather freely and that is not something Bennett — or any party leader dependent on campaign funds — values.
There was. according to Ginter, the case of the largest contract ever awarded in Canada: the dam (now the W. A. C. Bennett Dam) on the Peace River. Ginter Construction planned to enter a bid in a consortium with Perini Pacific Ltd., a giant American construction firm. Lou Perini, who owned the Milwaukee Braves, is a friend of Bennett.
“Perini told me that he was informed they had no chance of getting the Peace contract if I was in
with them.” says Ginter.
(Perini remembers it differently. “No, siree," he says. “There was never any discussion of anything the government might have said to me. Long before anything happened we did discuss the possibility that the Peace might one day be dammed, but we didn't discuss entering a consortium. Not that 1 wouldn't have.”)
In any case. Ginter entered a bid as part of a consortium involving Toronto contractors. Perini had other
partners. Neither group won the $73million contract.
Ginter says that once when he was asked for a donation to the party, it was pointed out that things had turned out pretty good for me in BC.''
Things indeed look good on Sunday morning as Ginter, clad only in his shorts, stands in front of his house and takes a shot at a silver fox. He misses (“I was shivering," he explains) and the fox squirts off
continued on page 56
Success and pride —but those inner devils keep pushing
down the gentle mountain slope.
Ginter's home is one of the wonders of the north country, if not of House and Garden. Common sense was the key — “I used what I call eyeball lines,” says Ben, who was both architect and builder on the project— but in interior decoration the thing seems to have gotten away from him.
There are those butterflies mounted between laminated fibreglass in the ceiling. There is the Japanese - silk wallpaper in the bedroom, the royalpurple velvet headboard, the sunken bath, the stuffed woodpeckers and squirrels over the fireplace and the clock in the simulated-leather cowboy boot. There is the 20-by-40-foot in-
door pool, backed by an artificial waterfall that, at the touch of a button sends water cascading over the plaster elves and their fishing poles. There is the sauna bath and the peacock tail and the patio, covered in all-weather carpet, that seats 200. In the den, beneath the velvet painting of the fighting stallions, is the bar, cov-
ered in the skins of calves whose mothers have not survived the slaughterhouse. Down the slope is the $75,000 stable, with a bar and dance floor on its second floor.
It’s a long way from Swan River and Ginter, naturally, is proud of it all. But those inner devils are pushing. He’s a man who has to keep achieving and he feels frustrated and hamstrung. Like all self-made men. he cannot understand how the unions can demand the same pay for all regardless of their ability. He now must pay the man who holds the flag on road repair work $4.65 an hour, and he just shakes his head.
He’s frustrated because the government forced him to increase the price of his canned beer and then blocked his ingenious efforts — cheered by all BC — to enclose a refund in every six-pack.
He’s naturally sad that he and his wife Grace haven’t been able to raise a big family of their own. They have two adopted sons, five and 13, but the older boy must attend private school in Vancouver because the pressure and the prejudices on a Ginter are too great in local schools.
He’s involved in his usual quota of law suits — one against a union that allegedly cost him a two-million-dollar contract, one launched by Carlings for alleged infringement of copyright, one with a U. S. brewery. Ben Ginter fights everything, from a speeding ticket (he lost) to a suit against the U. S. government (he won).
He has resigned as president of the Eurocan Pulp Mill (no time), is getting rid of his show horses and cattle (no profit), and is even talking of turning his home into a country club and moving permanently to Vancouver. He’s rented an apartment there, but in typical Ginter fashion, can’t even remember the address.
He mutters about how nice it would be to induce a certain respected Social Credit cabinet minister over to the Liberal side. And he promises to go on embarrassing Bennett.
So Ben Ginter, prize exhibit of how a hard-working, God-fearing boy can better himself in the Dynamic Society, remains outside the fold. ★