WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE IN TOYLAND
These and the next 12 pages of Maclean’s are about private wealth— who’s got it, how they spend it, how they pass it from one generation to the next. The quintessential example: John David Eaton, one of the country’s richest and most private men. All his life he’s known
It is perhaps the value of privacy and the capacity to afford it which has become the dividing line between the real and the apparent middle class.
—John Porter, The Vertical Mosaic
IT TOOK 18 MONTHS to get to see John David Eaton — 18 months of strategic lunches at the National Club, of long-distance phone calls to friends-of-friends who might put in a good word, of conversations with evasive secretaries, of meetings with vice-presidents that amounted to bargaining sessions, of drinks in quiet bars with ex-employees who might offer some leads — and by this April I’d developed a sort of obsession about this person, who is one of the country’s two or three richest men and who has granted only one other interview as such in 20 years.
Why was he so secretive? “Because he’s shy,” someone told me, “and because when he was growing up, the Toronto press treated him like the Prince of Wales. He’s hated publicity ever since.” How powerful is he? “Plenty,” said a PR man who knows everybody. “You watch: if Eaton’s hears you’re doing a story, your boss is going to get a phone call and that will be that.”
“Eaton’s runs every newspaper in the country,” added an old reporter. “A few years ago the pipes burst in the Queen Street store, and a photographer at the Telegram got a picture of a fat lady being washed down the escalator. The greatest spot news shot in 10 years, but you can bet they never printed it.”
There were a lot more stories like that, and I dutifully checked them out. Most weren’t remotely true. Nobody phoned my boss, and when I asked the Telegram photographer about the escalator picture, it turned out that what he’d shot was a heavy rainstorm that flooded the sidewalks outside the Queen Street store. The moral, clearly, was that John David Eaton’s lifelong reticence has surrounded his name with an awesome mythology. Somehow, in the minds of a lot of smart people, he’s become the ultimate Establishment figure: a man who sits up there in his corner office on the seventh floor of Eaton’s main Toronto store, pulling little strings that are connected to politicians, publishers and big businessmen across the country. The Left adores the idea of conspiracy, and likes to picture everything from Che’s killing to Vancouver's hockey franchise to the Academy Awards as being settled by a few sinister / continued overleaf
A Jtmre the rich different from you and me? You bet they are. John David Eaton lives in a house full of French Impressionists, flies his own helicopter, employs seven men to run his yacht, and thinks the Depression was fun. Does that sound like you?
LIFE IN TOYLAND
men at the top. And John David Eaton, who is probably worth $400 million and never talks to anybody outside his circle, is regarded as being one of these Secret Few.
So much for mythology, which may or may not have some truth in it. What I do know is that when I finally met John David Eaton, he giggled. Actually, I think he was nervous.
He has a good laugh, quiet and ironic, and a face with a lot of hard edges to it. His smile is genuinely friendly, and he talks with considerable force and charm. By the end of the interview 1 liked him — so much so, in fact, that I wondered if my 18 months of stringpulling had been a waste of time. I suspect that if I'd simply wandered past his secretaries and walked into his office unannounced, my reception would have been perfectly genial.
The office is nothing special — pale-yellow broadloom, a fat mahogany desk, a few pieces of primitive sculpture that look African, but were made in the store’s carpentry shop. One wall is covered with framed snapshots of various boats he’s owned, plus a framed scroll, issued in 1955, certifying that John David Eaton, “having completed 25 years of continuous service with the T. Eaton Company, has been enrolled as a member of the Timothy Eaton VA Century Club.” Against one wall, in a glass case the size of a small doghouse, is a model of Hildur, his ocean-going yacht. You can peek through the model’s windows and see inside the main saloon, which is furnished with tiny chairs and sofas. Below are three guest cabins and quarters for a crew of seven. John David is 58. These days he spends about six weeks per year aboard the real thing, and wishes he could spend more.
Not many ordinary mortals have viewed this scene. But when I told J. D. that getting into
his office was only slightly less difficult than arranging an interview with Ho Chi Minh. he affected to be puzzled. “Did you notice any locks on my office door?” he asked, which was a rhetorical question to indicate that his office not only isn’t locked, but hasn’t got a door. “I certainly don't try to create the impression that I’m surrounded by a bodyguard. I’ve been called a recluse. Well, T probably act a little differently from, say, Jackie Gleason. I don't rush around and make a lot of noise. If Jackie Gleason's the opposite to a recluse, well, I suppose that makes me a recluse.”
He isn't really. John David Eaton is simply a very rich and very shy man who spends most of his time with his family, and with a small group of men he likes and trusts. His friends arc a diverse assortment — they include Vancouver sportsman Clayton Delbridgc, Laurie Davis, the carpenter who carved the office sculpture, Frank Powell, a lawyer in Parry Sound, and John Lawrence, manager of the store in Duncan. British Columbia. He likes cruising in his yacht, flying his helicopter, being with his friends, playing with his five grandchildren, attending to his philanthropies, running the biggest merchandising empire in the British Commonwealth, and deep-sea trolling in the Caribbean, in approximately that order. He docs not like taxes, waffling, civil servants, publicity, politicians or socialism.
Like most powerful men, he scoffed when I suggested that he is a powerful man. “If I’m so powerful,” he asked, “how did Mayor
Dennison turn down our plan for downtown Toronto so easily? Why didn't I railroad it through? Some people like to think there’s a clique of immensely wealthy men who just say. ‘Go,’ and it goes.” At this point he chortled to himself. “What really happens is, they say, ’Go’ — and nothing happens at all.”
Mr. Eaton is seriously understating the matter. He is the sole owner of an enormous business — 54 stores, a string of huge warehouses, 250 catalogue centres, and 55.000 employees. Eaton’s printed 17 million catalogues in nine editions last year, bought 8.164 hammers and sold more than two million dollars’ worth of women’s gloves. Eaton's is the fourth-largest employer in the country, after the federal government and the two railroads. There are hundreds of suppliers, with thousands of employees, heavily dependent on Eaton’s business. There are dozens of daily newspapers that need Eaton’s advertising. And there are town planners in Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal and several smaller centres who are vitally concerned about Eaton's future moves; for the store's downtown property holdings ensure that John David Eaton, whether he likes it or not, has an important say in determining whether the cores of these cities turn out to be crummy or exciting.
In terms of affecting the lives, incomes and environments of Canadian city-dwellers, Eaton’s thus has as much power as most municipal governments. In view of this, it’s astonishing how persistently the family cling to the modest notion that they're only a bunch of humble retailers. “We're not developers,” says John David's son Fred. “We're merchants, and proud of it. If you want to buy a pair of socks, we can do a pretty good job of selling them to you. But when it comes to redevelopment, we'd just as soon leave that to the professionals.”
John David, who regards himself as a custodian of family tradition, feels the same way. When I asked him why Eaton’s doesn't publish a balance sheet, as all public companies are required to do, his reply was rather endearing. “My grandfather started this business, my father took it over, and finally I got it — and it’s still our own affair. So what right has Mitchell Sharp to ask me what I make? Sure, Eaton’s is big. But I'm still in exactly the same position as the little guy who runs a corner grocery.”
A corner grocery store? Yes, he really believes it. And this is what makes Eaton’s and its owner such a fascinating case history, for the company is a microcosm of the country as a whole. Up there on the seventh floor, for the past seven years at least, the men who run Eaton's have been waging a secret battle
between conflicting traditions, between the generations, between the past and future — a battle very like the conflict in April that gave Canada its first contemporary prime minister.
In this battle, which is an evolution in style, not a conflict of personalities, John David represents the past. He is, bluntly, a paternalist, a man who grew up in a time when Eaton’s treated their people better than anyone else did, and expected their loyalty in return. He can remember Christmases when catalogue customers on lonely prairie farms would send cookies and jellies to his grandmother. He can remember the autumn day in 1949 when several thousand people. Eaton war veterans and their families, gathered on the wide sloping lawns of the 670-acre family estate at King, Ontario, for a personal thank-you from their president.
And he can remember the Depression, a time when the company spent millions to shield its
employees from the desperation of unemployment. That was a good time for John David Eaton, and he remembers it with affection. “Nobody thought about money in those days,” he said, “because they never saw any. You could take your girl to a supper dance at the hotel for $10. and that included the bottle and a room for you and your friends to drink it in. I'm glad I grew up then. It was a good time for everybody. People learned what it means to work.”
For John David Eaton, the store's employees really are an extension of his family. For the past 26 years, he’s tried to visit every store in his expanding empire once a year — not so much to talk business as to reinforce the family ties that have been the company's strongest asset for almost a century. When he comes to work in the mornings (he drives down from Dunvegan Road in a Volkswagen or, more recently, a Mustang) he nearly always rides the escalator up seven floors to his office. Despite an arthritic hip that makes walking and standing difficult, he seldom shortens the journey by taking an elevator. He likes to see what's going on. When I asked him if he had many close friends in the company. he laughed: “Thousands. I hope.'’
The corporate style that John David Eaton represents is what made Eaton’s a national institution and one of the world’s great department stores. But by the mid-1950s it was becoming embarrassingly apparent that Eaton's could no longer continue pretending it was a corner grocery. It lagged behind its competition in the postwar race to the suburbs. In a rapidly urbanizing country, it was beginning to suffer from its Stanfield-underwear image. Warehousing and distribution were chaotic, and there was little long-range planning. Buildings tended to sprout new wings and annexes in improbable directions, as though the prospect of expansion had been totally unforeseen. Local managers had wide autonomy in buying and selling, which meant a lot of duplication. Salaries tended to be set on a seniority system, so that an advertising manager in one store might find he was being paid half as much as his counterpart somewhere else. The decision-making process was casual, too; it wasn't until 1961 that Eaton's got around to setting up a formal executive committee. With the 1953 Simpson's alliance with Sears-Roebuck, Eaton's for the first time found itself up against serious national competition. And John David's empire, though it now extended from coast to coast, suffered from serious structural weaknesses.
That was when John David made what was probably the most important decision of his career. Perhaps it wasn't so much a decision as a gradual
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continued from page 15
First came the whiz kids, then a plan, then booming success
evolution. Whatever it was. the result was that Ross Jenkins, a managerial genius and longtime employee, managed to secure a mandate to reorganize the company. As executive vice-president. Jenkins brought in two more whiz kids from the Vancouver store, Dave Kinnear and Tony Peskett, and frantically began dismantling the hierarchies that had accumulated over the years throughout the empire. The process was not unlike the de-Stalinization of Czechoslovakia.
“What they did,” says Ross Johnson. a bright young man who was hired during this period and later moved on to the vice-presidency of General Steel Wares, “was to get themselves a corporate philosophy. They'd never sat down and figured out where they wanted to go.”
Into the suburbs with flair
Where Eaton’s decided to go was to a position of dominance in Canada’s big cities — especially in the suburbs. They closed or sold off about 25 stores in smaller cities. On the theory that it's cheaper to move paper than it is to move goods, they built immense warehouses in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg, to service both downtown and suburban outlets. They also made up for lost time hy jumping into the suburbs with unaccusomed flair. Toronto's Yorkdale Centre development is one of the world's biggest covered shopping malls; and it was Eaton’s that worked with William Zeckendorf to make it one of North America’s greatest merchandising showplaces. Other suburban stores built during this period — Montreal’s Pointe Claire, Brentwood and Park Royal in the Vancouver area. Shoppers’ World and Don Mills in Toronto — also turned out to be almost embarrassingly successful. It may not have been the biggest expansion in Eaton’s history, but it was the first that looked as though it had been orchestrated. The building program cost plenty but there’s no question that it has paid off. “If Eaton’s hadn’t done something back in I960,” says one executive, “we could have been in real trouble today.”
External expansion was accompanied by an internal shakeup. At least 2,000 supervisory and management people had their jobs changed, or their roles redefined and — in hundreds of cases — their salaries altered, not always upward. Dozens of gold - watch men found themselves eased into early retirement.
The company was split into four administrative divisions and the buying and selling functions were separated in each. The store also managed to upgrade its fashion image by a variety of imaginative promotions, and by advertising that is widely regarded as being among the hippest in the industry.
One aspect of the modernization, however, was especially painful. When management decided early in the 1960s to install computers, they abandoned their customary caution, and introduced computerized billing in their Toronto stores without adequate
preparation of their staff or their 750.000 customers. They also chose a system of "descriptive billing.” which meant that customers, instead of receiving a copy of their sales slips with their monthly statements, got only a statement describing their purchases under 600-odd vaguely worded headings. The results were
absolutely ghastly. Since the staff wasn't trained to cope with the new methods, billing fell months behind. And when customers finally did receive their statements, the descriptive billing codes made thousands suspect that they were being billed for merchandise they never bought (foundation garments, for instance, were
listed under "building materials”). Within a matter of months, the company found itself facing a serious PR crisis, plus a deluge of complaints from thousands ol dissatisfied customers. 1 hey had to hire several hundred extra people just to deal with complaints. Before all the problems were settled, the Great Computer Crisis cost Eaton’s at least one million dollars. John David still shudders when he thinks of it. “You should have seen mv desk when that thing got going.” he told
LIFE IN T0YLAND commuai
New buildings: promises, promises...
me. “It looked like the whole roof was going to fall in. Everybody was mad at us, and I don’t blame them. Don’t talk about it.”
Eaton’s has also burned its fingers, with remarkable consistency, in its ventures into downtown redevelopment. In Hamilton, they’ve been criticized for not proceeding with development plans, although John David says they’ve postponed expansions at the request of city council. In Montreal last March, they managed to attract a lot of the blame for the collapse of the Mace Development project, although Eaton’s in this case was only a junior partner, and actually went beyond its contractual obligations in advancing money to the developers when they experienced difficulty raising outside financing.
Vancouver hasn’t been a public relations triumph either. In October 1948, shortly before he bought Vancouver’s Spencer department-store chain, John David flew in aboard the company DC-3 with some grandiose plans. He’d bought the old Hotel Vancouver at the city’s main intersection, and planned to tear it down to build what the Vancouver News-Herald called “a palatial marketing palace.” Construction was to begin within a month. As every Vancouverite knows, the newspaper that reported John David’s architectural vision has been defunct for more than a decade. And the site of the beautiful old hotel he razed is still a parking lot, nearly 20 years later. Eaton’s hopes to start building its new store this year, as part of the $75million Block 42 development it is undertaking in partnership with Cemp Investments and the Toronto-Dominion Bank, but must await the results of a May plebiscite before going ahead. There were plenty of sound reasons for inaction — the acquisition of Spencer’s made a new store unnecessary, they needed more land, local politicians were inconsistent. Nevertheless, it’s going to take a long time to erase the impression, widely held in Vancouver, that Eaton’s was a major contributor to the stagnation of the downtown core of our thirdlargest city, by talking big in 1948 and then doing nothing for 20 years.
But Toronto was the worst embarrassment of all. Eaton’s badly needed to replace its dark, satanic Queen Street store, and in 1965 announced a proposal to transform 23 acres around the Queen Street site into a $300-million complex that would include the new store, office towers (the first one to be 50-stories high), a hotel, a trade centre, a bus terminal and an underground shopping plaza on the scale of Place Ville Marie’s.
John David may have expected to have been hailed as a civic savior; to everyone's astonishment, he turned up at the initial press conference, grinned into the cameras, joshed with reporters and beamed when Mayor Philip Givens called the Eaton plan “the deal of the century.” But the plan’s eventual reception must have been a rude disillusionment. Local antiquarians vilified the plan as a sellout, since it envisioned tearing down Toronto’s grotesque old city hall. Suspicious lo-
cal politicians, led by Givens’ successor, William Dennison, insisted on performance guarantees and on changes in the plan that reduced its profitability. After 20 months of public bickering, Eaton’s stunned the city by withdrawing its offer, thus depriving the city of an estimated $ 14-million annual tax revenue. They’d spent two million dollars in planning, Eaton’s told the city, and they were willing to co-operate in any development scheme the city decided to adopt. But from now on, they made clear, Eaton’s would stick to merchandising and let others take the initiatives in downtown redevelopment. Currently, they’re working on another proposal for the 23-acre site — but this time a developer is handling the project, and Eaton’s role will be as a tenant only.
Despite the de-Stalinization of the 1960s, the family aura still clings. Within the past few months — and this is a scoop, ladies and gentlemen — Eaton’s has quietly phased out the 99-year-old custom of closing the display-window curtains on Sunday. Being Eaton’s, though, they didn’t announce the change. They simply did it on preselected Sundays in Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal, and hoped that no one would complain. No one did.
After 99 years of purity: smoke
The famous Eaton aversion to smoking still survives, however. Although John David and both his sons are.smokers, they still refuse to sell tobacco. (Management recently vetoed the latest proposal to scrap this policy, on the grounds that smoking is dangerous and, besides, the profits would have been pretty marginal.) And, although word is getting around that, after 99 years of purity, executives are now permitted to smoke in their offices if fire regulations permit, very few have exercised the option. When I lit up in one $40,000-a-year executive’s office, he whispered, “Would you mind if I asked you not to do that?”
The company’s senior personnel roster still resembles the guest list at an Irish wedding. John David’s distant cousin, Alan Y. Eaton, is in charge of marketing. His brother, Jack Eaton, runs the Montreal store. His son is a group sales manager in Toronto. J. D.’s brother-in-law, Frank McEachren, runs the PR department. J. D.'s two eldest sons, Fred and John, both of whom are being groomed to take over the company, work in the head office. John (whose brother-in-law also works at Eaton’s) is assistant to G. D. Wotherspoon, who used to be J. D.’s family lawyer. Tom McFetridge, one of four group merchandise managers, has four relatives who have never worked anywhere but Eaton’s; at one stage he had eight relatives on the payroll. The connection is that over a century ago, before Timothy emigrated from the ancestral farm in County Antrim, the McFetridges had a farm next door. Eaton’s Irish mafia, in fact, is still encountered everywhere. Execu-
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LIFE IN TOYLAND continued
For John and Fred: winner take all?
tivc Vice-President Dave Kinnear, a 40-year man with similar Ulster connections, has one brother working in the Vancouver store, another in the Toronto furniture warehouse, and still another who pilots the company jet. “Eaton’s doesn’t believe in nepotism,” one executive assured me.
The old-timers, incredibly, still refer to each other as “Eatonians,” and treasure the gold Rolexes that John David hands out to 25-year employees. The watches have 'A CENTURY CLUB embossed on their faces instead of numbers and. at this writing, there are about 4,000 employees entitled to wear them. "When you work for Eaton’s,” says one 40-year man, “it means something. You feel that you’re part of the family.”
It would be easy to make fun of the gold-watch brigade and their forelock-tugging sentiment. Implausible as it may sound, there are not hundreds, but thousands of old-timers working at Eaton’s who are motivated not so much by ambition as by loyalty and — I am being perfectly serious — by a kind of love.
If you happen to own a department store, the trick is to make this loyalty work for your company, not against it. By the rigorous test of profitability, Eaton’s hasn’t yet succeeded. Although their profits, sales volume and operating costs are official secrets, a canny analysis of DBS figures indicates that the company grosses at least $750 million annually. Bay Street assumes that the firm operates on smaller-than-average profit margins — probably in the neighborhood of three percent or even less — which means annual pre-tax earnings of around $25million — a margin which, in U.S. retailing circles, would be regarded as comically inadequate. This isn’t necessarily an indictment of management; by being free of the pressure to pay dividends, Eaton’s has saved a lot of money by financing expansion out of its own income. Eaton's is still Canada's biggest retailer, but its growth rate does not match that of the industry as a whole. The Simpson’sSimpsons - Sears combination expects to overtake them by the early 1970s.
What it all means is that, despite the recent de-Stalinization, Eaton’s is still very much a family firm. And its corporate strengths and weaknesses are still traceable to the lonely, loyal man who sits in the big corner office on the seventh floor. He is still the man who owns Eaton’s, a fact of almost mystical significance.
When he turns up at the monthly board meetings, his fellow directors stand up in deference to their chairman. When he sits in ihe big green chair at the centre of the long boardroom table, the stern faces of his predecessors — Timothy, Sir John and R. Y. Eaton —gaze down upon him from oil portraits ranged around the paneled walls. When he speaks, a secretary scribbles notes. And when he disagrees with a decision that has been approved by the three-man executive committee and is favored by a majority of the board, he asks that his dissenting vote be recorded.
That doesn't happen very often.
John David seldom disagrees with proposals that have achieved a consensus lower down. And in policy areas involving company traditions or the welfare of his employees, his executives operate gingerly, for his views are well known. Some years ago, when John David was in the habit of approving the agendas of upcoming meetings of the executive committee, the document used to be delivered to his office by a faithful old secretary who would chortle ominously, “Aha! He’s not going to like this one!” A few years ago. when it was proposed after months of research and consultation to redesign the delivery drivers’ uniforms, J. D.’s reaction was terse: “Leave the goddam uniforms alone.” He’d worked on the trucks 40 years ago. you see, and felt he knew the problem at firsthand. (But note this: the drivers eventually got their new uniforms.)
John David has four sons. Thor works for Dominion Securities and George isn’t interested in working for Eaton’s. That leaves the two elder sons, John and Fred, as the heirs apparent.
“Friendly - but kind of deadly”
Although John Craig Eaton has just turned 31 and Fredrik S. Eaton is 30 this month, they’re still referred to around head office as “the boys.” They are rich-man's sons of the most attractive sort — handsome, soft-spoken, unobtrusively well-mannered, utterly assured, and quietly confident of the fact that being born an Eaton is nothing to be ashamed of. They would not be out of place as constitutional monarchs of some clean little country like Denmark or Holland, and if either of them chose to drop out (like their 22-year-old brother George, who’s taken up motor racing, or their uncle Timothy, who’s devoted his life to building model railroads), they could retire tomorrow with five million dollars or so as an initial nestegg, and plenty more if it were needed. Yet both John and Fred, who slept in the same bedroom as boys, who chummed around together at Upper Canada College, whose summer cottages are on adjacent islands in Georgian Bay, who both play Sunday - morning hockey in Maple Leaf Gardens (which they partially own), who share most of the same friends and who arc probably as close as two brothers can be — both of them are locked in a gentlemanly contest for control of a corporate empire that is probably worth $400 million. And. they believe, only one of them can win. "It's a friendly contest," says John, “but it's kind of deadly. You know — winner lakes all. I guess it’s something I've grown up with all my life.”
John is the extrovert. His hockey is industrial-league calibre, he leít Harvard after two years because his interests weren’t academic, he owns a red Ferrari (as well as a Buick station wagon and a Mark X Jag for his beautiful wife Kitty), he lives in a Rosedale mansion with its own coach-house and two servants, he gets sent to the
City of London to meet City bankers, he is less cautious and more quotable.
Fred is the intellectual — he has acquaintances like Gordon Lightfoot, and is the only Eaton in the direct line from Timothy who’s ever got a college degree. He once considered a career in journalism, but a summer at the Toronto Telegram (which he, his three brothers and publisher John Bassett’s three sons own in trust) convinced him he’d better stick to retailing. Of the two, Fred is probably the more conscious of being an Eaton. He went to the University of New Brunswick and says of it, “There are no Eatons down there. People would ask if 1 was related to Cyrus Eaton, and when 1 said no, that was the end of it.” He hangs Op paintings in his office. serves on a committee that is attempting to bail out arts/ canada magazine, and lives quietly with his wife Nicky and two children in Toronto’s Forest Hill district, a block away from his father’s angular Bauhaus mansion on Dunvegan Road.
Both boys have served the apprenticeship that is traditional for Eaton heirs — a scries of increasingly important jobs, none of them lasting much more than a year. Fred has pushed handtrucks in the stockroom, sold men’s shirts and baby’s wear, been an executive trainee in the Victoria store, managed two stores and a warehouse in Toronto, and spent nine happy months based in London, touring the company's European buying offices and meeting suppliers. John made the same European junket —
he calls it “really a sort of Grand Tour" — and, although he's never managed a store, he spent a year as company personnel manager at a time when personnel policy was one of the company's most crucial concerns. Neither feels he's yet been given a job that has allowed their bosses to cleanly compare one son's performance against the other's. “They've both done a lot of jobs, but they still need to be tested.” says one executive.
Choosing his successor is probably the biggest decision John David will be called upon to make in the next few years. He reaches retirement age in 1975 — as do Dave Kinnear and G. D. Wotherspoon —and that is generally conceded to be the year when another generation will take over Eaton's. Each son is willing to work under the other if he misses the top job, and neither has made plans for spending the rest of his life outside the company. “I've never really thought about what else I’d do,” says John. "I was born a merchant.”
The decision won't be John David's alone. There is also a five-member board of trustees that will help make the choice. Its members are Jenkins (now retired), Wotherspoon, another retired executive named Bill Park. Don McGiverin from the Winnipeg store and John David's wife Signy. who will presumably have a lot to say when the choice is made.
It's still possible, however, that both sons could be winners, for John David doesn't rule out the possibility of a partnership. “Some people will
tell you that a partnership never works.” he said, “but Smith Brothers sold a hell of a lot of cough drops.”
John David’s other big decision could be made within a few years, or never: the decision to sell shares to the public. Rumors that this move is imminent seem to crop up on Bay Street every few months or so. Certainly, Eaton's is under increasing pressure. In addition to the 52 percent corporation tax that all big businesses must pay, Eaton’s has to pay gift tax in annual installments to ensure the orderly transfer of the company from one generation to the next. And although the company has managed to borrow more than $200 million on the strength of its good name alone, without disclosing much of its financial operations, the Ontario Securities Commission is understood to be getting impatient with this procedure.
But as Eaton’s is now organized, it's doubtful that he'll make either decision completely on his own. It's still his company on paper, but now he must share effective control with the men lie's hired to run it. And so John David Eaton today spends an increasing share of his time on the things he likes best: philanthropy (he's one of the major benefactors of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children), his house in Antigua, his yacht and — a recent passion — his Hughes twoseater helicopter.
He's always been interested in aviation. During the war he helped found the Wartime Technical and Scientific Development Board, a privately fi-
nanced research group that developed improved radar systems, retractable skis for Spitfires and a variety of other innovations. He took flying lessons as early as 1933, but an old eye injury deterred him from applying for a private pilot’s license. But two years ago he decided to learn to fly a helicopter. He flew to California and bought it and, with a Hughes pilot at the controls, spent 10 winter days in 1966 flying it back to Toronto. After 100 hours of training he got his license last summer — an impressive achievement for a man of his age — and now uses it to hop up to his island in Georgian Bay. or to the family estate in King, Ont.
“The joyful thing about a helicopter,” he said, “is that you don't have to go up very high. You’re like a bird. You can fly in all kinds of weather.”
There's something symbolic about the thought of this remote, withdrawn man, who's always been insulated by his wealth from many of life’s ordinary pursuits, skimming above the earth in his mechanical soap bubble, able to observe what’s going on below him. but separated from his fellows by 500 feet of air. At the end of our interview, he told me how. on a recent flight, he’d noticed some boys playing baseball in a field. He hovered above them and waved. The boys stopped their game and waved back. And then John David Eaton flew onward and the boys resumed their game. "I guess I like helicopters.” he said, “because I like to see what's on the other side of the hill.” ★