Great man with the groceries
Who'd have thought
As THE AUTOCRATIC RULER of one of the world’s biggest food empires, George Cedric Metcalf is rather good at giving millions of stomachs a comfortable, well-fed feeling. At the same time he is disturbingly adept at causing ulcers, butterflies, little knots of resentment and other assorted tremors in the stomachs of his associates, his competitors, his shareholders and certain of the seventy-five thousand people around the world who are technically, if not directly, his employees.
Some of the worst pangs probably occur privately among the executives who protect Metcalf’s interests in such lands as Japan,
Italy and South Africa. These men have learned that the next ring of the telephone may be Metcalf, calling from Toronto to demand an up-to-the-minute report on what’s happening. If such a call rouses anybody out of bed, it’s no accident of time zones. Metcalf’s favorite executive gadget, not counting the phone itself, is a twenty-four-byeighteen-inch map of the world that stands in a frame on a table near his desk. The device has an electric clock inside and an aperture at the top showing the time in Toronto. Other cutouts indicate local times in many places around the globe. At a glance, Metcalf can see which of his men ought to be wide awake and ready for calls.
“The clock helps pull the whole operation together,” he explains.
And that takes some pulling. Metcalf’s operation consists of two thousand supermarkets in Canada, the United States and Britain, and three hundred manufacturing plants around the world. His two most important titles are president and managing director of George Weston Ltd. But even he probably couldn’t recite, without considerable reflection, all the other positions he holds. He is president of Loblaw Groceterias of Canada and chairman of both National Tea of Chicago and Loblaw Inc. of Buffalo, two major U.S. foodstore chains.
In British Columbia, the main Metcalf concern is the Kelly,
Douglas foodstore chain, with six subsidiaries. On the prairies, it's the Winnipeg-based wholesale and retail food group called Westfair.
He’s also boss of Somerville Industries, the London, Ont., packaging firm, Eddy Paper and E. B. Eddy of Ottawa (pulp and paper) and a scattering of brand-name food producers coast to coast — William Neilson Ltd. (Metcalf’s first employer), Weston Bakeries, McCormick’s, Willards, Marven’s, Lane’s Bakeries of Moncton, New Brunswick, and at least two dozen others. Overseas, he has Fine Fare, Britain’s largest food chain (six hundred stores), plus a staggering complex of food-producing companies all over the globe.
“Garfield Weston may own the complex,” says one of Metcalf’s close associates, “but George runs it. He’s a financial genius and Weston seems to have unlimited faith in him.”
More skeptical insiders suggest that hard-driving habits, instant decisions and an almost fanatical penchant for secrecy combine to give Metcalf a reputation for infallibility that he scarcely deserves.
“Metcalf makes all the decisions, abruptly and irrevocably,” one insider says sourly. “He never dawdles. A lot of people who work with him and for him don’t get the credit and can't even get to see him when they need to. He tries to decide and do too much himself, and he’s not always right. And there is nobody around to tell him he’s wrong. What he runs is an organization of scared rabbits.”
a shopping cart could take a man so far?
But if the rabbits are scared, or at least a little uncertain about what their boss will demand next, there are a couple of things they can 'be sure of. One is that no rabbit is likely to get one of those unsettling phone calls around 2 p.m. (Toronto time) on a Sunday; that’s when Metcalf, more often than not, is busy with his Bible class at Grace United Church. The corporate rabbits also know that right or wrong, a Metcalf decision is almost sure to be based on the man’s own experience in the business. For Metcalf is one of those rare executives who really aren't supposed to exist anymore: the selfmade man. In fact, he’s almost the classic example, having started in the Neilson chocolate firm as a twelve-dollar-a-week stockroom boy with no high-school education, working his way up through jobs as foreman, salesman, sales manager and into the presidency.
Metcalf has picked up a good many presidencies, board chairmanships and directorships since then, but somehow he still doesn't look like a world-ranging executive. Now sixty-one, he’s small, dapper, wiry and vital, with a fast, wide smile. His eyes, always alert, are framed by black horn-rimmed glasses. (He uses two pairs, — one for studying people and another for examining fiscal reports and the fine print in corporate agreements.) I interviewed him, on a dull and cold day, but instead of a predictable dark suit, Metcalf was wearing a light blue-grey number, with a white shirt, a light-blue silk tie. If you sat next to him on a plane, you'd probably peg him as a small-town haberdasher with all the nondescript qualities of an early Harry S. Truman.
Indeed, Metcalf is conscious of having some of that grassroots quality. Before our interview he had made the rounds of several Loblaw supermarkets in Toronto, driving his own car. “No chauffeur,” he said proudly. “None of that flashy stuff.”
^or any “flashy stuff,” Metcalf prefers to substitute plain, oldÊ fashioned hard work. Whether he's in Toronto or London (he once toyed with having a direct transAtlantic line), he puts in a grueling day, from 8.30 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week. Except when he’s out of town, he usually takes Saturday dinner (it’s dry—he doesn’t drink or smoke) at the Park Plaza Hotel with members of his family. (He came from a family of ten, nine of whom survive; and he and his wife live in the Forest Hill area of Toronto.) “He has to be careful of his diet,” an associate says, “and the chef at the Park Plaza knows what he can handle.” Sunday is Metcalf’s day off, but he has no close friends and so he follows a predictable routine: church in the morning, the Hustlers Bible class in the afternoon, followed by tea with his mother.
But his involvement in the Bible class is no mere Sunday diversion. Metcalf is as deeply dedicated to his religion as he is to hard work. And the two together, he believes, spell success. “Faith and effort generate dynamic creative powers,” he said in a recent speech. “Recessions come when people lose faith.”
Even a simple business forecast takes on an evangelical tone when Metcalf injects his enthusiasm into it. At Loblaws' 1965 annual meeting, he predicted that the business boom would continue through 1966 because census figures showed forty percent of the population
were under twenty years of age at that
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The simplest question evokes a charming but evasive answer
time. “Here is the most explosive force ever invented,” he declared. "All those war babies coming of age. Nothing can excel the spirit and exuberance of youth!”
Metcalf generates the same forceful enthusiasm, whatever his topic and whoever his audience. Speaking to a group of travel agents, he conjured a vision of a great Canada of the future: "With the realization of cheap atomic power, mountains will be blasted, polar ice caps melted, water highways kept open through the winter and, who knows, we might be growing bananas in Moosonce.”
But where some business leaders might dust off such images and slogans for after-dinner occasions, Metcalf lives them every day, even in the privacy of his office. On the varnished plywood wall behind his desk, a large, white, plastic plaque with bright-red letters a foot high exhorts: “FINISH RIGHT!" Below it, an even larger sign reads: "ATTITUDES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN FACTS!” During our interview, I asked him if he had a formula for success. Metcalf reached for a foolscap-size scratch pail and printed his answer in large block letters: “ACT!”
"One word — three letters,” he said, "but that sums it up. When you’re a salesman like 1 am, you act. You make the calls and you keep making them. A man can never be a salesman with anything less than a maximum effort. The sale begins when the customer says, ‘No.’ ”
It was beginning to sound like an early chapter out of a Dale Carnegie manual — except that Metcalf was able to provide a convincing clincher: “I made calls on Loblaws for two years, trying to sell them chocolate and cocoa before I got my first order. Now I’m president of the company.” But as president of that company and a good many others, Metcalf exhibits one characteristic that many people find less than endearing: this is his wily insistence on secrecy, a policy that causes consternation among his competitors, and disgust and suspicion through the financial community.
Even the simplest, most legitimate request for information can evoke a charming but totally evasive response from Metcalf. At Loblaws’ annual meeting in 1964, a shareholder asked if the company's profit margins and efficiency were up or down. Metcalf, his dapper figure superimposed against blown-up color photographs of sides of beef, turned on his most radiant charm. "This is a very technical question,” he said pleasantly. "It would be most difficult to answer.”
And somehow, that “answer” along with Metcalf’s smile, disarmed the questioner, who let it go at that.
At last year's meeting, a shareholder asked about reports of company diversification into the meat-packing field. "The Good Book.” replied Metcalf, drawing on one of his Bible-class lessons, "holds that we must be meek as a lamb and shrewd as an adder. Although one would like to have one thousand percent disclosure, many times it’s unwise.”
At the end of that meeting, as happens every year, shareholders filed out happily, lugging a customary hoard i f supermarket goodies and door - prize selections from Loblaws’ Lucky Green Stamp catalogue. "If he were running for parliament,” a business reporter wrote, "George Metcalf could count on six hundred sure votes. That’s
the number of handshakes he received and the number of shareholders he charmed.”
Stockbrokers and financial analysts don't succumb quite so easily. One shareholder, R. M. Adams, once told Metcalf. “1 find it very difficult to find a brokerage house which will recommend Loblaw shares, the reason
being they can get no information from you, your secretary-treasurer, or your comptroller.” The Financial Post has accused the Weston-Loblaw complex of hiding itself in a "veil of accounting obscurity,” and one Toronto paper, attempting a story on “Who’s who in the vast Weston empire,” decided: "It’s a billion-dollar puzzle.”
In defense of this secrecy. Metcalf has repeatedly said that disclosure of company plans would “hurt our business” (i.e., provide aid and comfort
GEORGE METCALF continued
He not only divides
the business community, he baffles it
to such competitors as Dominion Stores and Steinbergs) and might, as well, lead to false speculation and hence false stock values. But many financial experts retort that Metcalf is far more evasive than any competition might demand. Some analysts once threatened to boycott WestonLoblaw as recommended investments
unless more information was forthcoming.
One dissenter from that view is Joseph Pope, a Toronto broker. In a newspaper article last fall. Pope w rote: “This [/.e„ the boycott] is cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. For a bargain is a bargain no matter how' much information management does
or does not make available.” Pope contended that Loblaw shares, trading at nine times the amount of the pershare profit of 1965, were “surprisingly cheap” compared to Dominion Stores’ shares, which were trading at twenty times their earnings."
Sometimes a Metcalf ploy leaves the business community not just divided
but downright baffled. Their expectations ran high early last December, when Metcalf arranged a ten-thousand-dollar luncheon at the Royal York Hotel for one of his executives, Norman Stepelton, president of National Tea. A thousand of the country's leading executives and several high-ranking officials of the Ontario government were invited, in the words of the invitation, “to salute Norman Stepelton for his unique record of achievements in the world's biggest industry — FOOD.”
It was a Metcalf script all the way. The luncheon program, adorned with a gold tassel, bore full-color photographs of the United Nations building on the front and back covers. Inside, double-page spreads pictured every U. S. president from Washington to Johnson and every Canadian prime minister from Macdonald to Pearson. Another two pages showed the British House of Commons, Queen Elizabeth II. I.ester Pearson with U Thant and Lester Pearson with President Johnson.
Thumbing through this opulent brochure and aware that Ontario’s Premier John Robarts was to be the main speaker, most luncheon guests expected some big news announcement. But Robarts’ speech contained no surprises. and Stepelton. responding to the main speaker, was equally routine. End of luncheon.
Ten thousand bricks!” exclaimed one food broker later. “Thev could have done as much for Stepelton bysinging For He’s A Jolly Good F el low! As far as I’m concerned, it was an example of Metcalf's erratic behavior.”
But another executive disagreed: “It was an elaborate, carefully conceived public-relations promotion,” he contends. “Parental relations with National Tea had been questioned by shareholders, and Metcalf wanted to set that record straight. It also gave him a promotional opportunity of impressing the industry with the fact that a Canadian company controlled so large a U. S. organization.
GEORGE METCALF continued
“Outside of business, he’s generous”
“And when you match the vast amount of publicity he gained against the doubtful returns on ten thousand dollars’ worth of institutional advertising you begin to appreciate how the man’s mind works.”
“1 know he’s not too well liked in financial circles for his secrecy, but I can tell you that outside of business he’s expansive and generous,” says the Reverend Richard Jones, head of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, which in 1962 gave Metcalf its Human Relations Award. “George Metcalf paints on a broad canvas.” One thing he paints, as even his Bay Street critics have to concede, is a profitable picture for Weston-Loblaw. In April. Metcalf was able to report a net profit of $17,102,943 for George Weston Ltd.’s 1965 operations —a 14.7 percent increase over 1964. Consolidated sales for the group totaled $525,621,000, representing a 5.3 percent increase. At December 31, total assets stood at $259,160,735, for a gain of $15,000,000 during the year.
Metcalf may not always manage to carry the same degree of success over into the Bible class, but he always gives it the same determined enthusiasm. He founded the Hustlers in 1921 — three years after he started as a Neilson stockroom boy—naming it for the
Rochester Hustlers of the International Baseball League. (Metcalf was an enthusiastic baseball player and still proudly exhibits a “catcher’s hand” that includes a blunted index finger, a distorted third finger, and a thumbsocket bearing a permanent lump.) At the outset, the Hustlers were strongly oriented to sports, but, like Metcalf himself, they have since moved far beyond baseball. They have also grown, from the original seven members to two hundred. At today’s Sunday meetings Metcalf still delivers the same sort of rousing speeches — sermons, almost — as the ones he gave there forty years ago. Between Sunday meetings the Hustlers raise money for hundreds of worthy causes. Their biggest annual project is an amateur variety show which this year (its eighteenth) played to six thousand people at seven performances. Over the years the Hustler Show has raised more than seventy-five thousand dollars.
Their most ambitious project so far, however, is a Metcalf inspiration that became the first project approved by the Centennial Commission. This scheme, launched in 1962, calls for the Hustlers to raise one million dollars by 1967, to provide food for hungry people overseas. To amass this
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GEORGE METCALF continued
“The secret of life
is to think big, pray
big, believe big”
amount of money, the Hustlers have been holding theatre nights, selling long-playing albums recorded by their sixteen-man glee club, pushing Christmas cakes (Weston’s) and putting together a Centennial cookbook comprised of their wives’ favorite recipes.
Nobody in the class will say how much they've raised so far, but indi-
cations are that the project is lagging badly. The class president, W. G. (Wib) McLaren, admits, “We'll need a great deal of outside help. If we make one hundred thousand dollars by ourselves we'll be doing very well.” Metcalf keeps telling them, “The secret of life is to think big, believe big, pray big, hope big — and big
results will come.” It certainly sounds reassuring, but McLaren commented recently, “He may think we're greater men than what we are.”
However, as discouragement threatened to shake the Hustlers’ confidence in the power of thinking big, Metcalf was quietly planning and mounting a money-raising scheme to supplement
the cake-selling and recipe-collecting. At this writing, it’s still a typically well-kept Metcalf secret, but no doubt he intends it to shake up the Hustlers the way he once jolted the Loblaw organization by assembling all his store managers at six o’clock one morning and announcing one of the hottest new events in retailing in recent years. That was the morning Lobk.ws got into the Green Stamp business. Not announced it — got into it. By the time the managers heard the news and got back to their stores, all the supplies had been delivered — stamps, books, catalogues, the works.
Metcalf had conceived and stagemanaged the whole production, from clandestine printing of materials to secret deliveries at dawn. He'd caught everybody by surprise — the public, the competition, even his own employees. He had remembered to ACT: Now, he told the rank and file: FINISH RIGHT!
The Hustlers should be getting that kind of message any day now. ★