The six men on these pages are heirs to corporate assets worth about $600 million. All of them work for the big businesses their fathers built, and all have found their biggest job is trying to measure up to their fathers. Some have made it, some are still trying. It’s a problem — but, still, a pretty nice one
THE IRVING BOYS
AROUND SAINT JOHN they’re still known as Gassy, Greasy and Oily — but only by people who don’t know them very well. Reading from left to right, they’re Jack (he's Gassy), James (Oily) and Arthur (Greasy), the only sons of K. C. Irving, founder and master of a diversified, $400-million, petroleum-based Maritimes empire, and by far the richest and most powerful man in New Brunswick. All three arc now in their late 30s, all work in various divisions of the Irving domain as understudies to their 69year-old father, all three work very, very hard, and none has ever been known to question seriously K.C.'s authority. The business is almost their only form of recreation, and they help manage it with a passionate personal involvement: Art estimates they've met and talked with well over half of Irving's 16,000 employees.
Jim, at 39, is the outdoorsman of the trio. He’s spent 12 years “driving the river" — superintending the company's lumbering operations and shipyards — and still spends as
much time as possible in the woods. He’s a born strawboss. Once, while overseeing a logging operation from a low-flying Beaver aircraft, he noticed one man lounging on the sidelines. Jim leaned out the window and started bellowing at him through his loudhailer to get to work, and didn’t learn until several days later that he’d been shouting orders at a farmer standing on his own land. “When Jim isn't sleeping,’’ says Art, “he’s working. It’s his hobby." Art, 37, runs the Irving oil companies. Although he's regarded as the easy-going brother and has been known to sit at his father’s side in business conferences for hours without saying a word, he’s capable of administering a royal chewing-out to errant employees. Jack, the youngest at 36, runs the Irving steel company and a chain of hardware
stores. For the three richest young men in New Brunswick, they lead surprisingly unpretentious lives; they don't collect art. they drive Fords and Mercurys, their homes are nothing special and their visits to the Irving fishing lodge on the Miramichi River are brief and infrequent.
The question of who’s going to succeed K.C. is avidly discussed in Saint John. At the moment the betting — which is no more authoritative than most gossip — is on Jim. In the meantime, Gassy, Greasy and Oily function as a team who have day-to-day control over the dozens of Irving companies, but who defer automatically to their father on larger policy matters. “The Old Man still directs everything," says one well-informed Saint John businessman. “The business would probably dissipate without him.” And the boys, unsurprisingly, won’t speculate on the next occupant of the throne. “You’ll have to ask my father about that," says Jim. “He's still very actively involved in the business."
f-—..... JOHN BASSETT JR.
THE QUESTION IS, why does a man with John Bassett’s storybook advantages (family fortune, chiselled profile, university gold medal, championship-class tennis game, etc., etc.) compete so much? Answer: if your daddy was Toronto Telegram publisher John F. Bassett, you'd be competitive, too. Every son struggles to excel his father, but for Bassett Jr. the contest is especially acute, for both men are compulsive winners. “A few years ago,” says John Jr., “we even got into a fist fight. We were playing in a tennis tournament, and 1 blew the game. Father stalked off the court and I felt terrible. So I punched him in the nose — he’s six-footfive, and I could hardly reach him. But there was no hangover. We both felt better afterward.”
Sports have assumed a cosmic significance for John Jr. He’s one of the country’s two or three best squash players, he’s been on the Davis Cup tennis team, he played cricket for Canada against India and, until a knee injury sidelined him, was active in football and hockey. He regards such activities as more than recreation. “You’ve got no favor on a tennis court, no preferred position,” he says.
Making it as an athlete, in other words, gave him the confidence to make it as the Boss’s Son. In that capacity, he works as his father’s executive assistant at the Telegram, which owns, in whole or part. Baton Broadcasting, the Toronto Argonauts, Maple Leaf
Gardens, eight weekly newspapers and CFTO-TV in Toronto. At 29, John Jr. moves easily in the interconnected Bassett world of publishing, athletics, television and Tory politics. His wheeling-dealing tendencies showed early; at 21, sent out to the Victoria Times to apprentice as a reporter, he organized several local millionaires into a consortium that tried—and failed by only one vote — to get a hockey franchise for Victoria. He returned to Toronto in 1962, since then has had a lot to do with the upgrading of CFTO’s news image, and with the Telegram's recent transformation into a swinging, sophisticated newspaper. His most visible contribution has been After Four, the Telegram's weekly youth section, — a sort of multimedia cult-vehicle for Toronto's teenyboppers, with Bassett Jr. as its leading personality. After Four has been a triumphantly successful exercise in pi emotional journalism, but Bassett hated being its guru. “It was horrible. I’d go to the golf club with my wife, and the children of older members would be asking for my autograph. I tell you, you get tired of crowning queens at high-school dances.”
And when will he take over from his father? For an answer, John Jr. likes to quote a cartoon he saw once, where the aging tycoon is telling his younger associates, “I know it’s natural for the young bull to take over from the old bull — but not when the old bull still votes 51 percent.”
CHARLES BRONFMAN, president of the House of Seagram Ltd. and one of four heirs to a fortune estimated by Fortune magazine at $460 million, spent at least half his life feeling inferior. He felt it growing up in Wcstmount, while his father Sam was busy building the world’s biggest liquor business. He felt it at Ontario’s ultra-WASPish Trinity College School, where he and his brother Edgar, now 38, were the only Jewish pupils. And he felt it at McGill, where he dropped out after two and a half unspectacular years. It wasn’t until he was 23, when he was put in charge of the newly acquired Thomas Adams Distillers Ltd., that he began to suspect, to his great surprise, that he was extremely competent in his own right. The psychic breakthrough, he says, came in 1955 when he confronted his father with his sales manager's proposal for a newly designed bottle for Adams Private Stock whisky. “Dad was against what he called fancy packaging, but I came to him and said, T want this bottle.’ He looked at me for a long time and then he said, ‘So you want to go into fancy packages.’ I said yes, and stuck to my guns. Within half an hour the whole thing was settled. It was the first time in my life I’d ever persuaded my father of anything. In two years that brand moved from 19,000 to 100,000 cases. In those days, I was frightened of my father. It was my problem, not his, and winning my point with the Adams bottle helped solve it.”
Now, after 10 years as president of the Canadian side of the family empire, Charles at 36 displays an attractive blend of toughness and sensitivity. The holdings he controls include six distilleries, a resort hotel, sugar plantations in Jamaica and major interests in the giant Toronto-Dominion Centre and Vancouver’s $75-million Block 42 development. Edgar is the more aggressive of Mr. Sam's two sons (“He'd argue with Dad where I’d back off,” says Charles), and runs Distillers Corp.-Seagram’s Ltd., the parent company, from New York.
Charles's decision to remain in Montreal was based partly on a distaste for the “dogeat-dog scene in New York,” and partly on a heavy personal commitment to being Canadian. He lives quietly in a Wcstmount apartment with his wife Barbara and fourvear-old son Stephen, spends off-hours going to movies and hockey games, or skating with his family. He tends to underplay the advantages of being one of the richest young men in the country (“Let's say it gives you a measure of security”) and still regards himself as a salaried executive. The noughts-and-crosses coffee table in his office? Charles Bronfman designed it himself, and uses it for conferences. “It reminds people,” he says, “that business is a game.”
IT IS PLAIN that Max Bell's amiable son Chet has spent the past eight years being groomed to assume command of FP Publications, the biggest newspaper chain in the country. But it is less than certain that Chet, who never cut a large swath as a reporter, will be an automatic choice for the chain’s top job. Even Chet, whose most recent newspaper assignment is as an assistant to the general manager and the editor of the Lethbridge Herald, has some doubts about his qualifications. “If the people higher up feel I’m qualified,” he says, “I’ll get the job. Right now. I’d be afraid to take it. I don’t think I'm sufficiently well-grounded in the business yet, even though I’d welcome the chance. Remember, my father doesn't believe in nepotism. A family connection could be the worst thing for the business, if I weren't equipped for the job.”
If Chet doesn't make it — and he says that a boss's son always has two strikes against him — it won’t be for lack of varied newspaper experience. He can remember hawking VJ-Day editions of the Albertan on the streets of Calgary at the age of seven. After a sporadic education (he attended three colleges without getting a BA) he’s been shifted from one newspaper job to another, and tackled some interesting assignments in the process, including the Paris air show and the shooting-suicide in Ottawa of a youth who'd just been released from jail for stealing Chet’s car. The experience has left him with a high regard for his journalistic abilities (“I feel I am competent enough to hold a job on any newspaper in the country”), but with less assurance about his competence to handle the business end of newspapering. Meanwhile, he lives a quiet life in a rented house in Lethbridge with his wife Karen, her teenage sister, their six-year-old daughter Tracy, plays a lot of golf and hopes for the best. “I’m a newspaperman and proud of it,” he says. “But if I don’t measure up, there’s no reason why I should run the papers — even if I am Max’s son.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.