CANADA

A new debt doctor tests his remedies

Mary Janigan November 19 1984
CANADA

A new debt doctor tests his remedies

Mary Janigan November 19 1984

A new debt doctor tests his remedies

Mary Janigan

The investment dealer and his prospective client sat 50 storeys above the squalor of Hong Kong when the dealer made his pitch. Bring your money to Canada, argued Michael Wilson, then executive vice-president at Toronto’s prestigious Dominion Securities Ltd. The investor was unconvinced. Admittedly, he told Wilson, Hong Kong was driven to prosper by its wits and hard work while Canada has resources, food and high educational standards. Then the Hong Kong financier added: “So I ask myself, ‘How can you be messing it up as badly as you are?’ ” Wilson later recalled: “That stopped me cold. And afterward I said to myself, maybe now is as good a time as any to get into politics.”

Two years after that 1977 visit to the Far East, Wilson launched his political career as the fledgling MP for the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre and as minister of state for international trade in Joe Clark’s Conservative government. Seven years later he is Canada’s minister of finance—a methodical low-key craftsman who plods while other colleagues sparkle under the Commons lights. On the surface Wilson’s progression from Toronto’s Upper Canada College through the world of business to the powerful portfolio he now holds is almost as predictable as his credentials. But the man is intriguing because he has managed to grow beyond the limits of his upbringing and his business-oriented vision. As he wrestles today with the twin demons of high deficits and high unemployment, he is not likely to inspire —but he may surprise Canadians.

“Before, back in the mid-1970s, it was strictly business and golf,” commented Sam Hughes, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce who was once a partner of Wilson’s at Dominion Securities. “But if you want to paint him with a Bay Street stripe now, you would be mistaken. He still plays golf, he still remembers where he came from—but he is also aware of the needs of all his constituents now and he has acquired a sense of political practicality.”

Wilson’s family background made him a natural candidate for the world of commerce and finance. His father, Harry Holcombe Wilson, was the president of Toronto-based National Trust Co. Born on Nov.4,1937, in Toronto, Wilson proceeded from Upper Canada College to a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Toronto and then, in 1961, to the investment firm of Harris and

Partners Ltd. In 1964 he opted for a twoyear contract with the debt management branch of the federal finance department and passed up a chance to attend Harvard Business School. By 1966 he was back in Toronto at Harris and became a vice-president in 1972. When the firm merged with Dominion Securities—now Dominion Securities

Ames Ltd.—he became the executive vice-president principally involved in corporate finance. Hughes remembers that Wilson supervised all of the firm’s purchases and sales of securities—a multimillion-dollar chore.

But Wilson yearned for even larger challenges. As a junior minister in the ill-fated Clark government, he was respected, right wing and achingly bland. It took four years in opposition—as energy critic when the Liberal government launched the controversial National Energy Program and as finance critic when

the recession hit—to temper his politics and polish his profile. Then, last year, Wilson sought the Tory party leadership, placed a distant fourth and threw his support behind Brian Mulroney. Prime Minister Mulroney returned the favor by giving Wilson the finance portfolio.

The new minister is no star. And while he is intelligent, he is not an intellectual like former finance minister Marc Lalonde. Colleagues praise Wilson’s “soundness” and his methodical and pragmatic approach to problems. He marshalls his facts and figures and then in sentences of breathtaking complexity he argues his case. He is still to the right of most of his colleagues and privately would like to end such universal social payments as family allowances.

But he has a surprising streak of social conscience. During last year’s Conservative leadership race, for example, he said that unemployment insurance payments should continue indefinitely in areas where unemployment was above 10 per cent. And he is passionately committed to the idea of “good government.” Said a former associate: “The recession changed him more than anyone, because suddenly he had to deal with unemployed constituents and that went beyond a strictly business outlook. He had to look for answers—and he grew to the challenge.”

In private Wilson is unpretentious, generous and family-oriented. He and his wife, Margaret, have three te’enaged children, and the family has spent its vacations on Prince Edward Island beaches, at Western riding ranches or on the 100-acre Wilson farm north of Toronto. As a hobby he tinkers with his old house in Ottawa’s posh Rockcliffe Park Village. He skis, plays a competent game of squash and jogs. He reads nonfiction like Terry Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence and devours economics journals. Two nights before his birthday, two weeks ago, Wilson skipped a Friday night Tory caucus dinner party in Ottawa and worked all night on his economic statement. For his birthday his staff presented him with 20 lb. of his favourite black jujubes—along with a supply of dental floss, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Insists Donald Blenkarn, the Tory MP for Mississauga South: “He is outspoken, opinionated, a very good businessman who tries to put everyone at ease. I don’t picture Mike fighting on the beaches. He is no Churchill. But he is a hell of a good manager—and I suspect that is what the country wants