General Articles


To save Canada dollars, Businessman Howe has to say "No!” to business to the tune of $200 millions a year

BLAIR FRASER February 1 1948
General Articles


To save Canada dollars, Businessman Howe has to say "No!” to business to the tune of $200 millions a year

BLAIR FRASER February 1 1948


To save Canada dollars, Businessman Howe has to say "No!” to business to the tune of $200 millions a year


Maclean’s Ottawa Editor

STARTING the first of this month, Rt. Hon. Clarence Decatur Howe will have more power over the Canadian economy than has ever been exercised in peacetime by any one man. Even in wartime it has not been exceeded.

As Minister of Reconstruction and Supply, Mr. Howe is in charge of licensing the import of capital goods—things like machinery and structural steel, vital to the expansion of any industry. On an average, every dollar’s worth of these goods bought, in Canada contains 34 cents’ worth of American parts. Last year we spent about 445 million American dollars on them. Mr. Howe’s job is to trim that outlay by an amount which has never been officially estimated, but which the Government hopes will run to about $200 millions—in other words, he intends to cut capital imports from the U. S. in half.

He will do it by deciding, either personally or through his deputies, which industries may import and which may not. There will be no appeal. If he thinks a particular project is worthy, it will get the American steel and machinery it needs. If not, it will get none.

From the day the import restriction program was announced in mid-November until the Minister went to Nassau for a fortnight’s vacation at Christmas time, Canadian businessmen descended on him in swarms. They wanted to find out where they stood—whether they could go ahead with planned investments in 1948—and they wanted to find out from Mr. Howe himself.

In the early weeks, Mr. Howe interviewed about 15 businessmen in each working day—in addition to the usual round of meetings with his own officials and with other Government departments. The demand for his time exceeded the supply. One associate guessed that in the second half of November, on any week-day, 100 to 150 businessmen were registered at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, waiting for an interview.

Howe’s anteroom was full from morning to night. Mornings, the corridors of No. 1 Temporary Building would fill up with skilled lapel-grabbers, poised to waylay him on arrival. Tony Pelletier, the reception clerk in the Minister’s office, has been offered up to $50 to slip somebody in without an appointment.

He Has the Answers

THOSE WHO were finally ushered to the minister’s office stepped into a large bright room with a large untidy desk in the middle of it. Behind the desk, slouching comfortably in a big swivel chair, sat a broad-shouldered man in a rumpled suit, smoking a pipe or a cigarette, or maybe a cigar.

Howe was 62 on January 15, but he doesn’t look it. He still has an athlete’s build; even in midwinter his face retains some of the tan it acquired on the golf course in summer and fall. He’s above middle height, about five feet ten, but so wide of shoulder and deep of chest that he gives the impression of being shorter. You’re surprised to learn that he weighs over 200, for he looks lean and fit.

He treats callers with courtesy but with dispatch. Howe has a good memory for personal details and a real interest in people, so he may begin an interview with some remarkably specific enquiries about the caller’s family, his health or his business. But these pleasantries are brief. Visitors are expected to state their case, get their answer and go.

In most cases they do get an answer, then and there. Howe is famous, or notorious, for quick decisions. He will hear a man out, ask a couple of shrewd questions, then say, “All right, I guess we can fix you up.” Or, “Sorry, but we can’t afford to let you have steel for that kind of project.”

If a snap answer should turn out to be wrong, he won’t hesitate to reverse it. Sometimes a man will go direct to Howe after having been turned down by department officials. Howe, not knowing the whole story, might say

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sweav ¿ay.” If Howe then learns that he ‘"mould have said no, the triumphant invkpplicant is likely to find an airmailed ffor efusal waiting for him when he gets I fininome.

to Mr. Howe is regarded as the repre‘Yssentativeof big business in the Cabinet, dirand in a way he is. He’s a big businessman himself—had nearly 30 years’ haexperience as a civil engineer and bobuilding contractor * when he entered I politics in 1935, and has handled major janpuilding jobs in all parts of Canada. IV If you asked him, Howe would tell r you he is a devout believer in free enterprise. Last September he created a minor political scandal by chiding the British Government for trying to establish Socialism instead of concentrating on production.

But to Mr. Howe, no abstract principle is as important as Getting Things Done. An example is the current argument within the Cabinet over the cost of living, and whether to try to check it.

Finance Minister Abbott is also a free enterprise man, and therefore against controls on principle. Howe brushes his arguments aside. The cost of living is too Ifigh; something has to be done for the consumer. Constitution shaky? Rubbish, let’s stand on it anyway and see if it falls. Machinery lacking? We can build it up again if we want to. And so on.

One man called him, only half facetiously, “the greatest Socialist in Canada.” The truth is that Howe is instinctively and passionately loyal to anything he has made his own. If publicly owned Trans-Canada Air Janes, which Howe created, is attacked by the privately owned CPR, Howe lights back like an apostle of public ownership. If the Aluminum Company is attacked by the CCF over a contract which Mr. Howe approved, then Howe is a militant defender of private enterprise.

“C. D. has no objection to public ownership,” another man said, “provided it’s run by someone he regards as competent. I don’t think he’d trust any of his colleagues to run it, though. So far as other ministers’ departments are concerned, he’s strictly a private enterprise man.”

No Dawdling Allowed

Certainly no Socialist could be any tougher in dealing with business than C. D. Howe—indeed, a Socialist minister might not know how to be half as tough. Howe talks to executives as one of themselves. He knows the top men of Canadian industry intimately, and meets them with a genial bluntness that makes his subordinates’ eyes pop.

The captains of industry answer him in the same vein, but it’s usually Howe who gets his way. As a rule he gets it without hard feelings—“I never knew a man who could say ‘No’ to so many people and make them like it,” said one of his aides. When other methods fail, though, Howe will use the big stick without a moment’s hesitation—and wartime powers gave him lots of big sticks to use. Now, in import licensing, he has a bigger stick than ever.

But although Howe can be brusque and harsh on occasion, he is not pettish. Men who work with him find him astonishingly even-tempered. He is not overpatient at any time, nor does lie suffer fools gladly, but he shows no ups and downs of disposition under pressure of worry or fatigue. He’s the same at midnight, after a hard day in the House, as he was at 9 a.m.

He doesn’t like people who waste his time, or their own.

“In my old department,” said one of his recruits, “you could get away with a lot of dawdling by pleading indecision. They’d ask what you were doing yesterday, and you’d say you were studying this aspect and that aspect. You can’t work that stuff with Howe. He wants to know exactly what you did, and where is it?”

Howe works a hard, highly concentrated day. He gets to the office about nine and usually begins with a brief conference with his deputy minister, William Scully, or some other senior official. All his conferences are brief, when he has them under his own control. He can switch his attention very fast from one subject to another, giving each the benefit of his intense concentration and an amazing memory for facts and figures.

Those quick decisions for which he is famed are not reached by cointossing. When they relate to his own field, they are judgments based on intimate knowledge.

He’s an Optimist

“I would class Howe among the top half dozen economists in Canada,” said a Government economist, “though he’d be insulted if you told him so. He thinks economists are half-baked theorists, and he’s a hard-headed man with no time for theories. But whether he knows it or not, he has theories about the Canadian economy, and his quick decisions are based on them. That’s why so many of his snap judgments are right.”

Right or wrong, they make Howe a good boss. When a man goes to him with a problem Howe can take it in quickly, recall its background and give a decision. Even when the answer is wrong, his men like it that way.

“I’ve known ministers who make maybe three decisions a week,” said a civil servant who knows many departments. “They mull over each one, and even at that they’re wrong at least part of the time. Howe might make 100 decisions in one busy day. Maybe 30 will be wrong, but the other 70 will be right, so we’re still a long way ahead.”

Howe carries the responsibility lightly—he seems immune from worry. During the war, when other ministers were spending seven nights a week and all day Sunday in their offices, Howe would go home at six or seven o’clock and play bridge all evening.

“You can only do so much,” he would say. “We’ll have another crisis tomorrow, but that’s enough for today.”

A close associate who worked with him for years said, “I only saw him worried once. That was when his eldest boy, Bill, was missing for five days after his ship was sunk in the Indian Ocean. Nothing else ever seemed to touch him.”

Howe’s optimism is a great strength, but it’s also his great weakness. His certainty that everything will come out all right makes him erratic in prediction and prone to overstatement.

He’s careless about facts anyway, when they aren’t pertinent to an immediate decision. Sometimes in Parliament, a member will ask him a question to which his officials have an answer all ready. Before they can fish it out of the file for him, Howe will be on his feet with an answer—quick, plausible, and entirely wrong.

There is the same contrast in his ability, or willingness, to absorb information. If the matter lies within his own field, and if it is concisely presented, Mr. Howe gives it high-powered and effective attention. But problems are not always concisely presented. At meetings outside his own department, especially at Cabinet meetings, he has

lo listen to long-winded discussions that would never l>e tolerated at No. 1 Temporary Building.

“Howe just stops paying attention,” said a man who lias sat w'ith him in the council chamber for years. “Often he goes to sleep, or he may go outside for a smoke. if he can’t do either, he fidgets.” Nothing bores him so profoundly as lengthy talk about something which, in Howe’s view, shouldn’t luive come to Cabinet at all—something that should have been decided by the minister concerned.

Expert on Elevators

C. D. Howe was born in Waltham, Mass., in 1886 and graduated as a civil engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he came to Canada in 1908 to he a professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax. He liked Canada; as soon as he’d completed his five years of residence he became a naturalized citizen.

Howe left Dalhousie the same year. A former colleague had become chairman of the Board of Grain Commissioners, whose first task was to build Government grain elevators. At 27, Howe was hired for $5,000 a year to be chief engineer.

He built, grain elevators at Fort William, Vancouver, Calgary, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon. Later, when he set up his own business, he built elevators for the Alberta and Saskatchewan Wheat Pools, and for numerous private companies. People who know the business say that he became the most eminent design engineer in this field anywhere in the world. He was internationally known—Argentina hired him for a year and a half to build elevators there.

Howe operated as a contractor as well as an engineer—a fact of key importance to his career. A contractor has to improvise. If the nails don’t arrive, or the lumber is cut the wrong shape, the contractor makes do anyway—he has to finish the job before freeze-up or go broke. That kind ol experience developed in Howe the skill and resourcefulness that built the Department of Munitions and Supply and

organized Canadian war production.

It also gave this New Englander a knowledge of Canada that few native Canadians can match. C. D. Howe has lived and worked, often for years at a time, in all the major regions of Canada. Today he can give you, from memory, an accurate summary of the labor, plant and general production situation anywhere in the country. During the war the hundreds of projects under his control were not mere red and blue pins on a map to him; they were places he had seen and could remember. He can form a fair idea of the feasibility of any project if he knows where it’s located and who’s running it.

“Who’s running it” is an important point. Howe has been a fellow-townsman and golf course companion of business leaders in most Canadian cities. Then, during the war, he had hundreds of executives working for him, directly or indirectly, in Munitions and Supply. No one, in or out of public life, has more personal acquaintance in the upper ranks of Canadian industry than C. D. Howe.

He Trusts His Men

Once he decides a man can be trusted Howe is inclined to give him unreserved support—“take his advice almost unread,” as one civil servant put it. Another told an anecdote that showed this remark to be literally true:

Howe was scheduled to make a statement to Parliament about one of the many projects for which he’s responsible. The head of the division wrote an hour-long speech for him and sent it up a week ahead. Days went by; no message of approval or disapproval came from the minister. Finally the official called up: “When can I get that speech back to have it mimeographed and translated?”

“Haven’t had time to read it yet,” said the minister. “Come and see me Monday.”

Monday was the day the speech was to be delivered. The House met at three, and Howe was to go on at once. About half-past two the worried bureaucrat came into the minister’s

office to find him stretched on the s^r reading the speech.

“This sounds pretty good,” he SÍ. after a few minutes. “Is the rest of as good as the first half?”

Before his horrified adviser had time to answer, a bell began to ring—the House was in session. Mr. Howe, quite unruffled, picked up the halfread manuscript and set off to make his speech to the assembled Commons.

That technique works fine with firstclass men, and Howe picks as high a percentage of first-class men as it’s reasonable to expect. But he does pick some lemons, and he isn’t always quick to get rid of them. He has fewer men to pick from, too, than he had during the war—but the power of the men he does pick will be even more untrammelled.

Some observers are afraid of the way Howe’s deputies may wield his extraordinary authority. There’s a constant temptation to ape his triggerquickness and his tough talk. But to get away with it, you have to have Howe’s judgment and his geniality.

It’s not only the Opposition, therefore, who are disturbed about the concentration of such power in the hands of one man and his subordinates. A senior Government official said, “I’m afraid I agree with a good deal that the Opposition says about the arbitrariness of our restriction program. It’s not healthy.”

However reluctantly, though, the Government elected to use this method of dealing with the dollar crisis. But if the job is to be done, no one in any party has suggested any other man than C. D. Howe to do it.

Defending himself in Parliament against the “dictator” charge, Howe said: “During the past eight years I’ve had unusual powers for making decisions that affected business and industry ... I had no desire to spend a further period carrying out a program of that kind. But I felt that if business had to deal with the Government, to obtain decisions that could be considered arbitrary, business would rather deal with the devil they know than the devil they don’t know.”

He was probably right. ★