“Who’s R. Howard Webster?” asked the staff when an obscure Montrealer paid more than ten millions for the paper. Here’s the background story of the publicity-shy bachelor who manages a massive family fortune and has a finger in a whole row of juicy pies from Chicoutimi to San DiegoALAN PHILLIPS April 30 1955
“Who’s R. Howard Webster?” asked the staff when an obscure Montrealer paid more than ten millions for the paper. Here’s the background story of the publicity-shy bachelor who manages a massive family fortune and has a finger in a whole row of juicy pies from Chicoutimi to San DiegoALAN PHILLIPS April 30 1955
WHEN the Toronto Globe and Mail was put up for sale to the highest bidder last January 3 a ripple of excitement spread through the stratosphere in which the barons of high finance plot, dicker and battle. The Globe, biggest morning newspaper in Canada, is a rare prize. For a hundred and eleven years its voice has been heard, though not always heeded, in the settlement of national issues. On occasion it has helped to make and unmake governments. The man who bought the Globe this year would be acquiring one of Canada’s oldest institutions and one of its most solid business properties.
For six weeks, mysterious delegations poked through the steel-trimmed concrete Globe building, sizing up the plant and its human assets. “The most courteous citizens on downtown streets these days,” wrote Toronto Telegram columnist Stan Helleur, “are Globe and Mail employees. They never know when they might be passing their new boss.” After one inspection tour by prospective buyers, Globe columnist Bruce West remarked —and only half jokingly—“I thought they were going to look at my teeth.”
Beneath the jokes and the betting on the outcome there was tension in the newsroom of the ..as the paper’s four trustees met on Feb. 12 the envelopes containing the bids. For .. of one of Canada’s best-informed newspapers who can often guess the prime minister move, it was peculiarly frustrating not to have the slightest hint who their new boss would be.
At 7.30 that evening the phone on the news » rang. It was editor-in-chief Oakley Dalgleish told acting news editor Fred Egan that H. Langford, manager of the Chartered Trust Company and a Globe trustee, had just called the name of the paper’s new owner. Egan hurried across the newsroom to tell veteran reporter MacTaggart.
Taggart looked up blankly. “R. Howard jr?” he repeated. “Who is R. Howard jr?”
..'s question was repeated, with embellishments, great many city newsrooms during the next . By getting the assets of the Globe for—at guess—$10,300,000, Webster had pulled off of the biggest newspaper deals in history. He outbid such contenders as E. P. Taylor, whose hobby is collecting large corporations; British pub Lord Rothermere; multimillionaire U. S. publisher William Loeb; multimillionaire Canadian publisher Roy Thomson; Max Bell, Calgary newspaper owner and oilman; and Jack Kent Cooke, magazine publisher and owner of the Toronto Maple Leaf Baseball Club. Yet Webster was not in Who’s Who, Canadian or American. There were no Canadian newspaper stories about him. Stockbrokers and financial editors in his home town of Montreal knew little more than his name.
The reason he wasn’t better known was soon .. reporters and photographers who called .. that night. They were turned away either pictures or interviews. When his editor, Oakley Dalgleish, asked Webster for a photograph, he said he’d never had a studio, taken.
Dalgleish suggested that Globe news editor Eddie ..., who happened to be in Montreal at the time to drop out to see him.
There’s nothing to say,” Webster parried. “I’ve bought a paper, that’s all.” Reporters could find little to say about Webster that he was a forty-five-year-old bachelor lived in a thirty-five-room mansion in Mont? fashionable suburb of Westmount. From Directory of Directors they obtained the information that he sat on the boards of ten companies. He had four brothers and one sister —and there wasn’t very much more.
“Mr. Webster’s personal history and even his school years,” the Toronto Daily Star observed, “are clouded in what would seem to be the same self-imposed obscurity that marks his later life.” The newspapermen then turned their attention to Webster’s father, for the statement from the Globe trustees had begun promisingly: “The executors are pleased that the successful bidder is a member of such a well-known Canadian family.”
In a very short time legmen made the discovery that if Webster’s father, the late Senator Lorne C. Webster, was well known, it must have been in a very limited circle. The Star, which covered the story most diligently, noted that Lorne Webster gave great sums to church and charity “without fanfare or publicity.” At forty he “quietly” turned Conservative when the Liberals plumped for a mutual lowering of tariffs with the U. S. Sir Robert Borden rewarded him in 1920 by making him his second-last appointee to the Senate.
In one of his more talkative parliamentary sessions Senator Webster interjected five words into a debate—to correct a sum a speaker had misquoted. He made his money, the Star continued, “so quietly that old friends were startled to learn of the extent of his wealth.” The Senator, remarked the Star, “had a passion for doing things quietly.”
One deal of the Senator’s, nevertheless, blew up a hullabaloo that is remembered. In 1926 he bought the Montreal Water and Power Company, which supplied Montreal’s water, for nine million dollars and two years later resold it to the city for nearly fifteen millions.
Lorne Webster, who started as a clerk in his Scottish father’s small Quebec City coalyard, is reputed to have had an income of more than a million dollars a year in the late 1920s. His interests included coal, steel, sugar, furs, insurance, railways and steamships. He had a virtual monopoly on the sale of British coal in Canada so much so that in 1933 his coal companies were fined thirty thousand dollars by the Combines Investigation Commission for “lessening competition unduly.” This judgment was a bitter blow to the Senator, who prided himself on his integrity.
Some of his deals had been made in partnership with Sir Herbert Holt, another closemouthed giant of Canadian finance. In 1941 they died and were buried within a few hours of each other, leaving the business elite of St. James Street with a momentous problem: which financier s funeral should they be seen at?
What few realized then, but what is obvious now, is that Webster brought up his children and drafted his will to assure that he would achieve a sort of immortality. His influence is still very much alive.
Consequently any story of Howard Webster and the money he manipulates must view him against his family background.
Senator Webster’s six children were reared with rigorous morality, and did not smoke or drink until they were twenty-one. Sunday school and church were compulsory. They had to account for every penny of spending money, and in their later teens the boys toiled on the coal-handling wharfs in summer. “If I worked overtime,” Howard Webster recalls, “I could make about twenty dollars a week.”
The Senator had been kindly but firm. When his fourth son, Richard, wanted to be a doctor, the Senator threatened to cut off his inheritance. Richard, who also wanted to get married, fulfilled this latter ambition more speedily by following Colin, Stuart, and Howard into the family businesses.
The key to the Senator’s character is contained in his will, a remarkable document. He left his fortune to be divided equally among his six children (except for an extra $200,000 to Colin, the eldest). They didn’t come into their full estate until they were forty, by which time the Senator evidently assumed that youth’s flightier fancies would have faded. No husband or wife of any heir could share the fortune, and any Webster who brought disgrace on the name or disputed the will could be cut off without a nickel.
Twenty percent of each share was to be pooled in a family trust fund. The Senator urged his sons to enter the family businesses and “continue same," never let their shares go out of the family, and hold regular family councils of war. Point by point, his will laid down the future pattern of their lives. Article II contains its essence:
I commend my soul to Almighty God and urge all my children to be active followers of Jesus Christ. It is also my earnest desire and request that my children shall continue actively interested in church, religious and charitable works and that they make generous contributions to such works and suggest even ten percent of their incomes; I further request them to remain united in their transactions and live in harmony together.”
In true Scottish fashion, the Senator was founding a dynasty. The “children,” then in their late twenties and thirties, followed his instructions to the letter. They remained united in their transactions, charitable and financial, keeping the fortune intact, making it one of the largest, most potent accumulations of wealth in Canada.
Colin, the eldest, is a tall thin man who married the daughter of Charles E. Frosst, Montreal’s late pharmaceutical magnate. Kindly and scrupulous, Colin will uncomplainingly hand over fifty thousand dollars to charity and change a quarter to tip a hat-check girl. He sits in his father’s seat at the Canadian Import Company, the centre of the Webster fuel empire. A tangled skein of subsidiaries sells coal and oil as far west as Vancouver.
Stuart, the second brother, heads St. Lawrence Stevedoring, their profitable coal-handling company. Richard, the fourth brother, an aggressive businessman, runs the Quebec City branch of Canadian Import and keeps an eye on St. Lawrence Tankers, owned in partnership with Imperial Oil. Eric, the youngest, a redhead, helps direct (but doesn’t boss) J. S. Mitchell and Company in Sherbrooke, Que., which sells hardware, wholesale and retail, and coal and mining and mill supplies. Both Stuart and Eric are said to be as interested in their Eastern Townships farms as in business. John H. Taylor, who married Marian Webster, heads the F. P. Weaver Coal Company, with headquarters in Toronto.
The profits from all these companies and from investments flow into the coffers of Imperial Trust, their private holding company. Imperial is guided by R. (for Reginald) Howard Webster, new owner of the Globe, third son, and like his father, a master craftsman of commerce.
Once a year the Websters meet to discuss the ramifications of an empire in coal, oil, furs, lumber and consumer goods that touches every province and state on both sides of the border. To the world, the Websters present a united and somewhat self-conscious façade, but behind closed doors in their annual meeting they drop their inhibitions and fight out their differences. They look to Colin as head of the family, but in finance they usually give the last word to Howard, whose daring skill has parlayed the family fortune into the big time.
As managing director of Imperial Trust, Howard manages the money. He plans the financing of new Webster enterprises and advises on new Webster holdings. These are reckoned to total more than $100 millions, perhaps as much as $200 millions. As one Montreal trust-company executive remarks, “Imperial does more business just for the Webster family than our company does for the public.”
Like all the Websters, who shudder at the thought of their name in print, Howard has a talent for anonymity. In the Globe and Mail deal—he purchased the newspaper for himself and not as the representative of his family even his executive secretary, Raymond S. Denton, didn’t know in advance of Webster’s plans.
As an added precaution, and because his decision to buy was a fast one, he put in his offer just forty-five minutes before the bidding closed, and next day, Friday, arrived back in the family home, in which he is the only Webster left, in time to catch a long-distance call from Toronto. Globe trustee Henry Langford was calling to tell him he now owned the paper.
“I think we might keep the news quiet till Monday,” Langford said.
“If you want the Globe to get it first you’d better not,” Webster told him. A few minutes later the phone began to ring. The unsuccessful bidders had been notified and the news was getting around. Webster called the Globe’s editor-in-chief, Oakley Dalgleish, told him he planned no staff changes, took the phone off the hook, went up to his bedroom, and as usual began to leaf through several weeks’ accumulation of magazines, financial papers and company reports.
An hour later reporters and photographers began to crowd into his spacious front hall, lined like the rest of the house with the Senator’s collection of Dutch and English masters in massive gold frames.
Since he hadn’t given an interview to his own paper Webster had no intention of giving other papers anything. “I’m not coming down,” he told his Finnish houseman, who, with his wife, takes care of the three-story red-brick house. Among the people turned away was John McConnell, publisher of the Montreal Star, who had called to welcome Webster into the fourth estate. Webster apologized to McConnell next morning.
Advice in the mailbag
Webster, in truth, had been too busy to realize fully what buying the Globe would do to his cherished privacy. In the previous few weeks he had been in Miami for a directors’ meeting of U. S. Radiator, which operates a chain of nine factories. He had visited Los Angeles and San Diego to look over two of his real-estate holdings. He had stopped off in Louisiana and Texas to see his partners in Southwest Lumber. He’d hurried on to Kansas City for a meeting of Central Coal and Coke.
As a guest of Gene Tunney, former heavyweight champion and a business crony' of his, he’d taken time out to attend a dinner of the Alfalfa Club in Washington, at which President Eisenhower was also a guest. Then he wound up conferences in Detroit (furs, real estate and chemicals) in time to spend a day in Toronto asking questions about the Globe.
The sudden glare of publicity when he bought the paper caught him off guard. He was slightly overwhelmed by the flood of mail: people seeking jobs, handouts, backing for inventions. But he was impressed by the number of sound suggestions for improving the Globe’s readability, and he was moved by the number of people who simply wished him luck, from Charlie Peters, vice-president of the Montreal Gazette, who wired: “Glad to see you’ve bought second-best paper in Canada,” to the man who sent two bottles of headache tablets with the comment, “I don’t know who you are, but if you’ve got a sense of humor, you’ll be all right.”
To dispel any impression that he was “a man of mystery,” as the frustrated newspapers had labeled him, Webster granted a belated interview to Montreal newsmen in the offices of Imperial Trust, his St. James Street headquarters.
Reporters waited in his grey-carpeted office, comfortable but unostentatious, until Webster broke from a meeting to greet them. They saw an amiable hefty six-footer, an athlete gone a little to seed, with strong, fresh-colored, heavily handsome features below a thinning thatch of grey hair. He displayed his sense of humor by laughing heartily at a reporter’s suggestion that he was “a mysterious figure.” But, in spite of his obvious wish to be thought co-operative, he gave no new information as to why he had bought the Globe and no new clues as to the kind of publisher he would be.
Indeed, he didn’t quite know. Besides, he is personally modest and professionally reticent. He manages to keep his name out of Montreal’s social columns. He avoids parties. He’s a little shy with women and uneasy in a crowded drawing room. He takes an occasional social drink, but only because he found that he couldn’t go to a party in his honor in the U. S. and nurse a glass of water all evening.
“He’s happy to drop out to the house for dinner,” says his friend and legal adviser, T. P. Howard. “We sit around and chew the fat, then he barges off home in time to get up early for work. But if I tell him I’m having a cocktail party, he’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll get there if I can, but I know he won’t show up, unless he thinks it’s important to me.”
He is much more at home in a conference room, which he usually dominates. He outlines his position concisely, without notes, listens poker-faced to other viewpoints and then states his opinion forcefully. “People listen to him,” says a fellow director. “He knows his companies from the shipping room up.”
The scope of his operations covers most of the U. S. and would drive most executives to nervous prostration. “I’ve seen him chair three meetings at once,” says Howard, “and never once lose his train of thought. He gets one meeting rolling, gives it something to chew over, then he ducks into another one. He’s like one of those champion chess players who take on a bunch of opponents at once.”
His business associates say his capacity for work is astounding, but Webster himself says, “I don’t work as hard as some people I know.” This disparity of views is probably explained by the fact that business, his only love, has few rivals for his attentions.
He seldom uses the tennis court in his back yard or the billiard room in the basement, and he cocks an eye only occasionally at television. He no longer has time to join his boyhood chums in badminton or squash, which used to be a regular part of his routine. The people he sees most often today are business friends with whom he can kick around a deal at the same time he’s soaking up sun on a southern beach between board meetings.
Showpiece trinkets like yachts, private planes and chauffeur-driven Cadillacs leave him unmoved. He drives a medium-priced car, dresses in plain blues or browns, and doesn’t know what it’s like to look enviously at a shop window.
He has little interest in music, books or any of the arts except the theatre, which is far from being a passion with him. His favorite dramatist is the late George Bernard Shaw, whom he probably admires for the quality of his logic.
Business is his work, his recreation (“I like to travel”) and his hobby (“You meet all kinds of people in business. I like to sit down and talk to them”). He can talk engrossingly on such topics as lumber, oil, furs, real estate, chemicals, electronics, pens and boilers, and he will no doubt soon be adding newspapers to his repertoire.
He talks in a slow pleasant baritone, his big frame relaxed. He doesn’t brag and he seldom loses his temper. But he relishes the intricacies and excitements of his calling. For while Colin, orthodox and cautious, safeguards the Webster holdings in familiar Canadian board rooms, Howard roves the wilder reaches of U. S. business, stalking “special situations,” capturing corporations, carrying the frontiers of empire far afield.
The physical preparation he had for this sort of rough-and-tumble was first-string hockey and football at Montreal’s Lower Canada College, second-string at McGill University, competitive tennis and badminton, and the university’s 1930 intercollegiate championship golf team. Though he also dabbled with indoor shooting and squash, he managed to turn in better-than-average papers for his BA. After a year at Babson Business College in Massachusetts, and a round-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain with his family, he settled down late in 1933 in the proving ground of Imperial Trust.
Acting on the sink-or-swim principle, Senator Webster tossed Howard immediately into deep financial water. “You must have learned something in school,” the Senator said, “see if you can find out what’s wrong with Holt Renfrew.”
“Mink Eat Too Much”
Webster, himself, didn’t come up with a cure for Holt Renfrew, a fur company the Senator helped found, headed, and of which Webster is still a director. But in studying the fur business, he came across Annis Furs, a smooth-running Detroit company with excellent earnings but too little capital. He persuaded his father to buy it.
When young Webster moved in as managing director, commuting between Detroit and Montreal, a tremor of perturbation ran through the six-story Annis building. The hierarchy were not unnaturally anxious about their jobs.
Webster sensed the unrest and called in the sales manager, the late C. R. J. Sullivan. “What’s the matter?” he asked Sullivan, who had been with Annis for years, “Don’t you like it here?”
“Of course,” said Sullivan, taken aback, “but I—I was worried—”
“That’s just fine,” said Webster, “because I like you all here.”
That was their total conversation. Annis, founded in 1876, is now one of the two or three biggest fur companies in the United States. Its wholesale buyers cover the country. It owns and leases fur departments in U. S. department stores and operates several department stores of its own. The Websters own it outright.
In the Thirties, acting for his father who was getting a little weary of traveling around, Webster bought into Sudbury Diamond Drilling when that company first drilled the fabulous Steep Rock iron mines, then sold out at a profit. He took over a big mink farm in Chicoutimi, which he still owns, though this venture didn’t prove especially profitable (“They eat too much and don’t grow big enough”).
He acquired a reputation as a man who would “look at anything.” When mouton (sheared lamb) came out in the Thirties he was one of a group that tried to corner the market. They bought up all the Uruguayan sheep they could get their hands on. Unfortunately, they paid three dollars for skins worth a dollar. Then it turned out that Latin America had more sheep than they had counted. As a final touch, they realized they had bought the wrong kind of mouton. Webster wasn’t around for this crowning disillusionment. Scenting danger, he had unloaded just before the market flopped.
He showed an early talent for spotting a “situation”—a company that can be bought cheap, built up with money and skill, then sold high. This takes some hard clear thinking on how a company’s assets relate to its earning power and what Webster calls the “growth factor,” which is simply a question of selling more and more of the company’s product, but which in practice may depend on such hard-to-guess factors as whether tension will increase in Formosa. “You study the books,” says Webster. “You listen to a lot of people. Then you have to have lots of luck. You can weigh a hundred things and you can be right on ninety-eight. If the other two are wrong, you can be caught out on a limb.”
Webster’s feeling for the tricky growth factor was evident in 1936, when he bought into the U. S. company, Claude Neon Lights. He won control in a management fight, then cleaned up when the neon-sign boom developed into the even bigger fluorescent-lighting boom. He sold out in 1941 in the nick of time, before wartime blackouts sent the stock plummeting down. He nimbly re-invested in Walker & Company, an outdoor advertising firm that did so well during the wartime power shortage that when Webster sold out at the war’s end the firm had enough back orders to keep it busy for three years.
By the time the Senator died in 1941 son Howard was ready to branch out, eager to prove what he could do entirely on his own. “He didn’t make many bloopers, but the ones he made were dillies,” says a business friend of that period. One of his dillies was to back a musical comedy. With Mary Martin playing the lead, he hoped to take Broadway by storm.
It was quite a blow to find that Mary Martin wasn’t in it. In spite of gags by S. J. Perelman and lyrics by Ogden Nash, the show folded in Philadelphia, where they fired the leading man. “We thought he had a cold, but he just couldn’t sing,” says Webster. Webster didn’t lose his shirt, but it cost him a fancy button. He has since shied away from propositions he can’t analyze.
One thing led to another. He invested in an oil-drilling company (since sold) in Dallas, Tex. Then he found that his customers weren’t paying their drilling bills until their wells came in, if they ever did. Since drilling costs could run as high as a quarter-million dollars, Webster decided he might as well be gambling himself. He took his fees in a part interest in the wells, and soon was (and still is) deep in the oil business.
After the war he bought a big chunk of Central Coal & Coke, which owns twenty-three oil wells in Louisiana and Texas and has coal reserves in the central states of two hundred and ten million tons. About the same time he picked up Southwest Lumber in Arizona, an amalgam of logging camps, three lumber mills, and seventy-two miles of wholly owned railroad. Webster pumped in new capital and jumped production from sixty-seven million board feet in 1945 to a hundred and twenty million last year. He recently sold control to a Texas firm, Edens-Birch Lumber. He thinks Edens-Birch is smart enough to look after his interests, giving him more time to concentrate on two vast new lumber projects in the taller timbers of Oregon and Washington.
On all his timberlands, reforesting is under way. Conservation is close to his heart. In what the Wildlife Management Institute calls “the R. Howard Webster program,” six students are studying wild fowl and marsh grasses in Alberta and Manitoba. Their studies may take years but as Denton, his executive secretary, says: “He’s willing to give things time.”
He is not so patient when things are going wrong. For example, he ousted the top-ranking officers of the Michigan Chemical Company and the Northeastern Fire Insurance Company of Hartford. “He doesn’t look for a fight,” says Howard, his lawyer, “but when he thinks that somebody’s doing the company no good, he can be tough.”
Webster made it fairly clear that he could be tough when he wrested control of Eversharp Incorporated from its founder, Martin Straus II. The pen company’s sales had been riding high ($46 millions) in 1946 when Straus bought control of the plants that made the Schick Injector razor. Unluckily for Straus, along with the razor, he also acquired Webster, Schick’s largest shareholder.
Webster wasn’t happy about Eversharp, which he suspected wasn’t in very sound shape. But before he got around to selling shares, they began to drop rapidly on the stock market and Webster found he couldn’t get out without losing close to a million dollars.
What happened was that Straus had bet Eversharp’s bank roll on a ball-point pen just as the ball-point boom was slackening. Webster was not favorably impressed. He set out to take over the management.
Studying the company, Webster decided that what Eversharp needed was to get the emphasis back on Schick and their standard pens and pencils. He convinced the other directors he was right. They stripped president Straus of control of everything but the company’s advertising.
Straus then held up Eversharp’s annual meeting as long as he could while he tried to muster support among the shareholders. But when the showdown finally came in July 1949, he had only 200,000 votes to Webster’s 715,379. Straus was out of a job at Eversharp.
Webster is still the biggest shareholder in Eversharp, which has factories in Chicago, Clinton, Iowa, Los Angeles, Bridgeport, Conn , Niagara Falls and Toronto, and sells the Schick razor through thirty thousand outlets. As chairman of the executive committee, Webster now controls the company.
In all his deals he looks well ahead. Three years ago he bought the million dollar Discanso Gardens, near one of Los Angeles’ satellite towns, called, appropriately, La Canada. The Gardens’ show place, a breathtaking expanse of camellias and other exotic blooms, has just been sold to the County of Los Angeles. This provides a steady market for the Gardens’ nursery, which Webster has kept to carry the costs until the big city grows out to meet him. Then he’ll own some high-priced real estate.
“You Make People Happy”
Near Detroit he owns three thousand acres that he thinks will someday have a lot of houses on them, and last year he bought a ranch twenty-five miles north of San Diego, in fast-growing southern California. He is planting alfalfa and alligator pears to pay for his holdings until San Diego moves next door to the ranch. He doesn’t think it will take more than twenty-five years.
Everything that Webster is or wants to be he expresses or looks for in business. Business is a way of life, a reason for existence. He has wealth enough to do anything or buy anything he wants, and mindful of this, a friend from college days once asked him, “Why, Howard? Why go on getting deeper into business?”
Webster looked faintly surprised. “Well, what else would you do?” he asked.
He isn’t an introspective man. When he probes his own motives he frowns over the unaccustomed exertion. “It’s not the money itself,” he says slowly, “you’re trying to build something. You’re figuring how to grow more trees and how to use the waste and that takes you into chemicals. You try to make the company run better and that makes the people you work with happy and helps a lot of other people too. I’d say it’s the accomplishment.”
The pattern of his deals seems to bear him out. It is true he is active in Eversharp but he ruefully lists pen companies among “things not to get into —things that depend on razzle-dazzle advertising, where you have to steal the market from someone else.” Apart from these “special situations,” the companies he personally guides are in lumber, oil, furs and real estate, all natural resources, all “growth situations,” things he expects to live with a long time.
In 1952 Webster, acting for the Webster family, bought the Penobscot Building, Detroit’s tallest skyscraper, for $17,500,000. One day later he turned down an offer that would have netted him a million dollars. If he sold the forty-seven-story skyscraper today, Detroit businessmen think he would clear five millions. They think he’s hanging on with an eye to the St. Lawrence Seaway, which could make Detroit one of the world’s great ports. “Webster presents a challenge to us,” a leading Detroit stockbroker says, “both to match his own vision and that of other Canadians who appear to be beating us to the punch, at least where the seaway is concerned.”
In Canada the No. 1 question is: what was Webster’s vision in buying the Globe and Mail? His bid on the paper, like his bid on the Penobscot, seemed to have been made on the spur of the moment.
“That’s only because he acts so fast,” says Denton, his executive secretary. “Those of us who know him realized he wanted to own a good office building for years. Well, he’s always wanted to own a good newspaper. Knowing him as I do, I know he won’t just let it sit there.”
There’s more than speculation in the view that Weester may he considering shifting the heart of his operations from Montreal to Toronto. He may even become a resident of Toronto. Since he bought the Globe friends have heard him say that Ontario is the province of the future and Toronto the city of the future.
The Globe is a personal purchase, the family isn’t in it, and significantly, Webster seems to be clearing his decks for action. Before he bought the Globe he was approached by a Montreal firm, which planned to build a brand-new city of thirty thousand people on Nun’s Island, only a mile from downtown Montreal. The island, now owned and farmed by a Roman Catholic monastery, could make its promoters millions of dollars. Webster was one of the few men big enough to shove such a deal through. He took an option, then let it go just ten days after he bought the Globe.
“It might be compromising if the St. Lawrence Seaway comes up,” he explains. “They might be looking for a place to put a power station. I wouldn’t want to put the paper in a position where it couldn’t take a stand.”
Unlike the former owner, the late George McCullagh, Webster has no ink in his veins and doesn’t profess to have. But he admits that a paper as powerful as the Globe has a certain magnetism. “You could maybe make it more national,” he muses, “maybe more international—we’re pretty close to the States. It might help in getting some thoughts across about lower tariffs.”
He is well aware that the Globe’s past proprietors were influential politically. “Politics depends on people, you’ve got to get the right people,” he reflects, still thinking out loud. “The Liberals have done a wonderful job. But I’m more of a Conservative.”
The parallel between the Penobscot Building and the Globe casts additional light on his future as a publisher. Checking the Penobscot’s books, he saw it was only ninety-two percent rented. He reckoned he could push that up to ninety-nine percent, and he has. “I figure Detroit’s going to grow,” he says, “and the Penobscot is Detroit’s finest building.”
Webster also thinks that Canada will grow and that the Globe is Canada’s finest paper. But not so fine that he can’t boost its circulation. “The afternoon papers have called me a man of mystery,” he said at a Globe party in his honor, “I hope there will be no mystery about our goals.”