Iain Baxter’s 32nd-floor executive office has just the right panoramic view of the downtown Toronto skyline. The Labatt Brewing Co. creative consultant wears a suit and tie, and his hairstyle displays the required touches of grey. But all is not what it seems. In the corner a light bulb grows out of a plant pot, and on Baxter’s lapel a small teddy bear winks its red eyes. The incongruities are appropriate. Baxter, a 46-year-old conceptual artist who has been in the Labatt executive offices since last November, holds a position that is unique in the Canadian business community. He is a corporate iconoclast.
During a 40-hour work week, Baxter’s only job is to act as a sounding board to provide nontraditional opinions of corporate ideas. To do so he sits in on Labatt’s board meetings and has access to all corporate records. He offers his services to everyone from Labatt President Sidney Oland to workers on the assembly line. Said Baxter: “I was brought in to be a catalyst. I am here to deal in paradoxes and analogues. My role is to let people pick my brain and to generate ideas.”
Baxter arrived at Labatt after a convoluted and unorthodox artistic career in the 1960s and 1970s. Using the name the N.E. Thing Co., Baxter created works that ranged from a display in which the contents of a five-room apartment were sealed in plastic to a daylong art gallery exhibition of his two children. He was also a university professor and practitioner of Zen. Said Oland: “It was because of his range of
experience that I decided to hire him.” Baxter half-jokingly had offered his services to Oland at a dinner in Toronto in 1981. He was surprised when Oland accepted. Explained Oland: “Every
company needs a constant stream of new ideas if it is going to remain viable.” Oland notes that Baxter’s arrival has already produced results. Baxter introduced the concept for a Labatt retirement counselling service that is in the process of being implemented, as well as the look of the company’s bold billboard campaign designed to discourage drinking and driving. Said Dennis Manning, manager of public policy: “Iain’s great advantage is that he has not come up through the corporate structure which can pattern a person’s thinking.”
As yet, no other Canadian companies are duplicating Labatt’s venture. However, the in-house artist concept is arousing interest within the business community. Said Victor Murray, a professor in the faculty of administrative studies at Toronto’s York University: “Although the idea of a consultant is not new in business, the incorporation of a resident iconoclast, responsible only for creative thinking, is very novel. It is a fascinating idea.” Alfred Jaeger, a professor of organizational behavior at McGill University’s faculty of management, agrees, but points out that Labatt’s resident-thinker concept would not succeed at every company. “It works at Labatt because their top management is open and flexible,” he says. Baxter’s unique role is to keep it that way.
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