Business

The shopkeepers’ shopkeeper

Peter Brimelow July 11 1977
Business

The shopkeepers’ shopkeeper

Peter Brimelow July 11 1977

The shopkeepers’ shopkeeper

Business

Peter Brimelow

John Bulloch sweeps his visitor through the Don Mills, Ontario, headquarters of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business with the force of a tornado, so that passing staff members at whom he hurls exuberant greetings are left answering the empty, swirling air. Even safe inside his office, he counterpoints his rhetoric with quick dancing steps, occasionally throwing himself onto a couch, kicking off his spotless white shoes and putting his feet on the table revealing a small hole in one sock. Bulloch has a quick, hacking laugh, and as it cranks up he tilts his head back, eyes closing, like a dog baying at the moon. His walls are covered with photographs of him baying, in his capacity as president of the federation, with politicians of all hues, shapes and sizes. In one. Len Marchand, the diminutive Minister of State (Small Business), stands grinning on a chair, flanked by Bulloch and an uncomfortable Finance Minister Donald Macdonald, both well over six feet. Bulloch’s personality is the cutting edge, just as his organizational skill is the muscle, of his 43,000member organization. The combination is sufficiently powerful to cause many to wonder about his ultimate ambitions.

Bulloch’s story is well known. He is the son of an Ulster-born Toronto tailor whose famous Globe and Mai! advertisements proclaiming such unpopular positions as the justice of Rhodesia’s cause and the divinity of Christ were recently suppressed by unprecedented rate increases, at the behest, his son alleges, of the U.S. state department. Bulloch’s own image is more moderate. He graduated in engineering from the University of Toronto and was a salesman for Imperial Oil Limited and Cities Services Company and an independent fuel oil dealer before taking an MBA and teaching finance at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. He erupted onto the public scene as leader of a bitter insurrection of small businessmen against Edgar Benson’s 1969 proposed tax reforms, from which the federation ultimately evolved. (A third nonprofit organization, the Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies, has been abandoned: “No cash flow.” says Builoch bluntly, adding that the same flaw has ruined the Committee for an Independent Canada.)

September will see the publication of what promises to be the definitive academic study of Canadian small business, subsidized by the CFIB (Rein Peterson, Small Business: Building A Balanced Economy, Porcepic, $ 10.95). There could be no better example of a successful small business

than the CFIB itself. It has more than 60 field representatives, paid $7,500 to $30.000 depending on their ability to recruit members and persuade them to vote in the monthly postal referendums Bulloch uses to determine policy (“the moment you have meetings you’re not democratic”). Bulloch says unhesitatingly that total revenue will be more than $2.5 million this year, and he himself will receive nearly $60.000. It’s a bargain. The CFIB’S impact has been enormous. It is widely listened to in Ottawa on questions of taxation. credit and competition policy. Len Marchand’s newly created post is generally interpreted as a concession to CFIB pressure, and while no one seems clear what exactly Marchand has done, besides a rather paradoxical trip to the USSR, Bulloch is confident the new department can be captured for his members. In the recent Commons debate on small businesses, eight of the 12 speakers dwelt on the CFIB’S feats, one of which is to keep MPS informed of their local entrepreneurs’ opinions, although admittedly Arnold Peters (NDP-TÍmiskaming) was laboring under the inexplicable delusion that Bulloch believes in “big conglomerates.”

In fact, Bulloch’s opposition to large corporations, particularly when foreignowned. is ferocious. Its implications would probably shock most of his members. He

appears to subscribe to the socialist analysis of the North American economy popularized by Galbraith, whereby prices and investment decisions are determined by the power of large corporations rather than by market forces. Because British Columbia’s forest lands have been leased to the big companies, he argues, logs good enough for lumber are being pulped for newsprint “and turned into smog.” (Experts deny this.) Socialists generally advocate government intervention to redress this imbalance. Bulloch obviously anticipates it—he expects wage and price controls to return after the next election, and his proposed small business act will direct that a proportion of federal purchasing be from small firms. However, small entrepreneurs rather than bureaucrats are to be his enforcers. At least these are the only ones he mentions, and he tries to avoid the subject: on the continual attempts of his retailing members to get governments to restrict evening and weekend competition from supermarkets, he remarks evasively that heat and light costs will probably halt evening shopping anyway.

Hostility to large corporations is only part of what Bulloch calls, in his best business school jargon, a “new socioeconomic model.” Third World raw material cartels such as OPEC, he says, will force lower growth, possibly stagnation, on the West. Big organizations will become unstable because they need growth to sustain their internal dynamic; but smaller entities.

possibly operating in areas that don’t figure in current Gross National Product measurements (e.g. housework), will have the flexibility to survive. “We’ll be a regional. rural, agrarian society,’’ he exults, pointing to examples of solar homes where the householder uses the sun’s energy for everything including growing his own food—fish in plastic bags. Doesn’t this amount to a total reversal of economic history, unwinding urbanization and specialization in favor of a sophisticated subsistence farming? Bulloch nods. It’s already happening in Atlantic Canada, he claims, where barter is bypassing cash relationships. His interviewer, mindful that this technological peasanthood involves gutting fish, becomes depressed.

But Bulloch is not depressed. He believes that this future entails a revival of the role of the family. He talks warmly of the work of the Vanier Institute of the Family, whose president recently blamed our “money-grabbing, selfish and materialistic society” for family problems in Canada. Although he does not volunteer the

information, and denies being born again. Bulloch is a religious man, a member of the fundamentalist Peoples Church in Toronto. and a disbeliever in evolution. “1 accept it in faith,” he says with sudden humility of the Biblical account of the Creation, adding that he sees no evidence the human mind can solve, or even comprehend, the problems of life.

Bulloch is far too clever to state these conclusions crudely, and much of his time is taken defending his members’ specific interests. He has to deal mainly with civil servants, he notes wryly, whereas his U.S. counterparts lobby legislators: “We’re more relevant than the opposition, and 1 don’t like it.” Entrepreneurial activity is largely a matter of culture and emulation, and Bulloch’s federation is unquestionably valuable. Bulloch is aware of allegations of a personality cult, and stresses his attempts to build the organization. Some critics of his corporation-bashing—which includes allegations that the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association is collapsing—maintain that he has been known to

admit in private that it’s a populist ploy.

Politics, says Bulloch, has no attraction for him, although he’s had offers from all three parties. His nonpartisanship is partly practical—he laughingly recalls one CFIB representative who saw a $200 donation cheque torn up before his eyes after a wrong word about the ndp—and partly the eclectic enthusiasm of the evangelist. But his own attitudes are genuinely diverse. For example, he can utter the classic conservative sentiment that “man is inherently wicked,” but his view of the Ulster conflict (an upper-class ploy to divide the proletariat) is virtually Marxist. Political observers, dazzled by his technical brilliance, may have difficulty assessing someone who preaches entrepreneurship, yet left it himself for academe—and never attained his PhD union card because his studies interfered too much with his relationship with his two children. Men with Bulloch's bent for comprehensive philosophizing are so unusual that it is impossible to say what might motivate them to further explosive activity.