BUSINESS WATCH

Rating the season’s business books

Peter C. Newman December 11 1989
BUSINESS WATCH

Rating the season’s business books

Peter C. Newman December 11 1989

Rating the season’s business books

BUSINESS WATCH

Entrepreneurs ‘will resort to any action, sometimes illegal, sometimes immoral, always distasteful, ’ to prevent failure

PETER C. NEWMAN

While this hasn’t been a vintage year for business books, half a dozen volumes claim serious attention. Here is the pick of the crop: Leopard in the Afternoon by Christopher Ondaatje—Canada’s most stylish dropout, this former terror of Bay Street turned over his investment portfolio (built up from a borrowed $3,000 two decades ago to a current worth of more than $100 million) to the Bronfmans and went off to seek leopards in Tanzania. His diary of that journey—both physical and metaphysical—reveals as much about Ondaatje as about the growing number of Canadian moneymen discovering there might be more to life than convertible preferreds.

The acquisitive itch can never be so satisfied that, instead of liberating those infected by it, the acquisitors find themselves chained by its imperatives: their self worth becomes their fiscal worth, and life turns into a perpetual sequence of quarterly balance sheets. Partly because he could afford it and since he has always been an outsider, Ondaatje recognized a higher reality. “For the greater part of my life I had been preoccupied with achieving financial success,” he writes. “It had been interesting and often exciting and gratifying, but the world of complex corporate financing runs on power and profit motivation and has a limited view of what the real world is all about.”

Hong Kong Money by John DeMont and Thomas Fennell—A handy guide to how Chinese families and fortunes are influencing Canadian business, this slim volume defines the flashy lifestyles and flashier investment philosophies of Hong Kong’s four richest citizens: Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee, Cheng Yu-tung and Stanley Ho. That illustrious quartet and some of the bit players described by the authors dominate modern Hong Kong, “the boiler room of capitalism—a plastic society, powered by the incalculable forces of greed and the subtle panic that comes from being hemmed in by a billion people living on the razor’s edge of extreme poverty.”

Hong Kong Money provides a Technicolor snapshot of an economic phenomenon quietly changing the face of Canadian cities and threatening to displace the Americans as our favored absentee landlords. Apart from the influx of investment funds, the statistics of the British Crown colony’s impact on Canadian society are startling. One example cited by Fennell and DeMont: 18,000 Hong Kong students are currently studying in Canada; another 50,000-60,000 graduates of Canadian universities are living in the colony. The University of Toronto’s Hong Kong alumni association claims a larger membership than its Toronto chapter.

Freewheeling by Ian Brown—In this wonderful romp through the feuds and foibles of the Billes family, who founded and still control Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., Brown skilfully exploits the absurdities of a family at war with itself. That retelling occasionally reads like fiction, as each Billes meticulously crafts a course of action directly opposed to his or her own self-interest.

A fascinating sidelight is the first published chronicle of the rise and fall of Dean Muncaster, the marketing genius who ran the Canadian Tire chain from 1966 to 1985, then tripped

up by expanding too quickly into the United States. There is also a chilling description of how the Billeses tried to spin off the company to their dealers, ignoring the rights of other shareholders, only to be stopped by the Ontario Securities Commission.

Campeau-, The Building of an Empire by Michael Badad and Catherine Mulroney—The authors never did manage to interview their subject, but there is enough here to explain why Robert Campeau was bound to fail in his most recent empire-building attempt—and why he will no doubt try again. As one of his former executives points out: “After Federated, it’s going to be something else. He’ll get restless. Why did Napoleon conquer one country after another? The way Bob sees himself, there is nothing that he couldn’t do, he couldn’t conquer.”

Campeau emerges as a hot-tempered, Gallic Duddy Kravitz, determined to gain legitimacy at any cost. The authors describe a bizarre scene, early in 1963, when Campeau invites his senior executives to a private dinner where he informs them that he is living with two families (his wife, Clauda, and his mistress, Use)—and that he will fire any executive who attempts to emulate his double lifestyle. The book’s most amusing section is the photographs, depicting Campeau’s progressively more bushy (and more obvious) toupees.

Real Interest Rates and Investment and Borrowing Strategy by Peter S. Spiro—A Toronto economist with a graduate degree from the University of Chicago tackles the generally accepted notion that ballooning government budgetary deficits automatically produce high interest rates. This volume will be a useful tool for corporate chief financial officers trying to estimate future movements of interest-rate trends.

The Entrepreneurial Edge by Donald Rumble—In his report on 100 interviews with Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs, Rumble attempts to formulate guidelines for success based on their achievements. He fails because every entrepreneur must discover his or her own path to glory. But some useful generalizations do emerge. Few of the best entrepreneurs go into business primarily to make money—the basic human need to succeed and the enjoyment of what he or she is doing are far more significant motivating influences. When cornered by a competitor or disintegrating business conditions, dedicated entrepreneurs will stop at nothing to save their dream: “They will resort to any action—sometimes illegal, sometimes immoral, always distasteful—that offers even the slightest hope of warding off failure.”

Although it is not a business book, no summary of the 1989 publishing season can ignore Robert Mason Lee’s first book, One Hundred Monkeys, the freshest and tartest new voice in Canadian political journalism. Ostensibly about how popular consent was manipulated during the 1988 election, Lee takes no prisoners. His much underrated book sparkles with large and small insights that reveal how each of the political players out-fumbled his opponents. It’s the best read of the season.