BUSINESS WATCH

A baron who was larger than life

E. P. Taylor stood out in the struggle between the haves and the havenots as the epitome of riches gained and power wielded

Peter C. Newman May 29 1989
BUSINESS WATCH

A baron who was larger than life

E. P. Taylor stood out in the struggle between the haves and the havenots as the epitome of riches gained and power wielded

Peter C. Newman May 29 1989

A baron who was larger than life

E. P. Taylor stood out in the struggle between the haves and the havenots as the epitome of riches gained and power wielded

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

When news of Edward Plunket Taylor’s death in Nassau, at 88, flashed around the world last week, financial writers, columnists and TV news assignment editors hurriedly searched for an appropriate capsule summary of the man who in his time symbolized Canadian Big Business on the hoof. They didn’t come up with much new material because Taylor, who left these shores two decades ago for the Caribbean, had all but vanished from this or any other country’s consciousness.

But in mid-century Canada he stood out in the struggle between the haves and the havenots as the epitome of riches gained and power wielded. Canadians felt, with good reason, that no matter how they spent their paycheques, they would inevitably enrich his grey-top-hatted eminence, portrayed so often in the sports pages, binoculars perched on portly stomach, blandly accepting the latest racing trophy. He was condemned by socialists as “the crushing Croesus of Big Business,” by communists as “E(xcess) P(rofits) Taylor—the mad miser of millions” and by Prohibitionists as the Beer Baron personally responsible for the fate of every Canadian alcoholic.

The instrument of Taylor’s financial manoeuvrings was the Toronto-based Argus Corp., named not without purpose, after the son of Phrixus, the daring adventurer in Greek mythology who built the ship that discovered the Golden Fleece. Modelled after New York City financier Floyd Odium’s Atlas Corp., it was this country’s first closed-end investment fund, acquiring control of a widely diversified battalion of corporations through minority holdings. The conglomerate’s influence grew exponentially through the 1950s and 1960s, so that a random sampling of trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange on, say, June 5, 1964, showed fully 10 per cent of that day’s transactions had been in Argus-controlled companies.

Prevailing myths to the contrary, Taylor was neither the richest Canadian of his day (that honor was shared by Sam Bronfman and

John David Eaton) nor did he inherit his wealth. His father, who had served as a sharpshooter in the Riel Rebellion of 1885, was financially comfortable but, at his death in 1944, left his son exactly $12,225. Young Eddie attended Ottawa’s Ashbury College, graduated as a mechanical engineer from McGill in Montreal, then moved back to the capital, where his first ventures were Red Line Taxi and the Yellow Bus Co. He did some of the driving himself.

He eventually acquired from his grandfather Brading a tiny local brewery. Over the next decade, speeding across the countryside in his black Packard sedan, which he had outfitted as an office, he acquired 30 breweries in nearly every province and seven American states and turned them into Canadian Breweries Ltd., then the world’s largest, selling suds worth $1 million per day.

Taylor spent the war years in unpaid government service, mostly as head of the Washington-based War Supplies Ltd., which co-ordinated U.S. and Canadian arms purchases. He was later appointed by Winston Churchill to run the British Supply Council, which managed all of the United Kingdom’s American war requirements. He resigned from the Second World

War in 1944, declaring, “By then, I knew which side would win.”

Argus quickly captured control of Dominion Stores, the St. Lawrence Corp., Dominion Tar & Chemical, Victory Mills Ltd., B.C. Forest Products, the then-powerful Massey-Harris and, briefly, Peruvian International Airways. Massey’s international operations were the empire’s centrepiece, but in 1957, Taylor abruptly fired James Duncan, the tractor company’s chairman with 46 years’ seniority. Accused of being ruthless, Taylor replied in feigned indignation: “Me, ruthless? Certainly not. But when I’m right and management’s wrong, of course I get rid of management.”

Despite his despotic corporate behavior, there was a charming side to Taylor, his cherry-cheerful face grooved by laughter lines as he began each phone conversation with a chuckled “This is Eddie .... ” His mind worked like a telephone exchange, enabling him to switch from one set of numbers to another without missing a beat. “Eddie can read a balance sheet like a poem and tell you where it doesn’t scan,” went the Bay Street buzz. His main relaxation was horse breeding and racing, his mounts winning the Queen’s Plate 10 times and the Kentucky Derby once with Northern Dancer.

Taylor spent most of his life in the corporate lane. “The worst days are Saturdays and Sundays,” he told me on his 74th birthday, “because I’m the only one who wants to work.” He flew restlessly between board meetings in his Hawker Siddeley jet, painted turquoise and gold—his racing colors. After resigning the Argus presidency in 1969, he sold Canadian Breweries (for a $117.7-million profit) and moved to Lyford Cay on New Providence Island in the Bahamas. There he built a private club where millionaires could sun themselves in an atmosphere made surprisingly tranquil by the realization that local authorities remained blissfully unaware of such dubious refinements of civilization as personal income tax and death duties on real estate. He became a Bahamian citizen in 1977 after selling his Argus stock to Paul Desmarais and gradually phased himself out of any Canadian involvement. The last time I saw him, Taylor had just signed a deal with Daniel Ludwig, then the world’s richest man, to build assembly-line housing for the Third World and was actively negotiating with the Shah of Iran and the president of Indonesia for his first contracts.

Taylor is an important figure in Canadian business history because he was the last and most successful of his breed: a genuine robber baron who bested nearly all his competitors and lived to enjoy the spoils. If there was one prize that eluded Eddie, it was his almost childish longing for a British title. He was made a Companion of St. Michael and St. George, but the cherished knighthood never came—even though he had bought the appropriate manor house (Birch Hall, in Windlesham, Surrey) to enjoy it.

After I had written a long and fairly critical chapter on E. P. Taylor in one of my books, a mutual acquaintance asked him what he thought of it. “Well,” Eddie replied, “Newman is a damn communist. . . but I think I’ll keep him on my Christmas card list.” And he did.