The market for business books may have reached its peak in the roaring economy of the 1980s. There was, after all, plenty to write about. Spectacular fortunes were made as stock prices roared to record highs on world markets. Colorful and notorious characters emerged,
including New York City developer Donald Trump and Wall Street swindler Ivan Boesky. Corporate takeover artists flourished, while corruption on Wall Street reached almost incalculable levels. This fall’s line of business books reflects the fact that the economy is in the doldrums, producing few new, worthy characters or events. As a result, a number of authors are exploring a business subject that never seems out of date: the corporate tycoon who, against all odds, has built a towering empire.
In fact, four of the leading fall business books are about headstrong corporate barons and their lifelong struggles against greedy relatives, aggressive rivals and envious politicians. In Steinberg: The Breakup of a Family Empire (Macmillan, $29.95), Montreal authors Ann Gibbon and Peter Hadekel skilfully describe how Samuel Steinberg built a multibillion-dol-
lar food-retailing conglomerate which was then shattered after his death by his bickering daughters and Quebec politicians. And Toronto-based shoe-manufacturing legend Thomas J. Bata, in his autobiography, Bata-. Shoemaker to the World (Stoddart, $29.95), recounts his rescue of his father’s vast holdings from Nazis,
Communists and, in the end, his uncle Jan. In his third book, The Roman Empire (Key Porter, $28.95), Toronto writer Paul McKay is unrelenting in his criticism of deceased uranium-mining czar Stephen Roman, who he says used mountains of taxpayers’ money to create Toronto-based Roman Corp. Finally, veteran Toronto business writer Peter Foster, in his ambitious Family Spirits, The Bacardi Saga-. Rum, Riches and Revolution (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, $29.95), traces the rise of the Bacardi Rum empire against a backdrop of family greed and the machete-style justice of Cuban politics.
While many business books falter because they simply rehash the public record, Gibbon and Hadekel offer compelling new insights into the epic—and, in the end, tragic—battle for Montreal-based Steinberg Inc. The firm was
created by Hungarian-born Montrealer Samuel Steinberg, who started out working full time in his mother’s tiny Montreal grocery store in 1920. He soon expanded that operation and, by 1952, Steinberg launched a plan to open a new store every 60 days.
Oddly, while employing a host of relatives, Steinberg failed initially to bring his four daughters directly into the business. Instead, he showered them with wealth and let outsiders and other family members—including his nephew Arnold—manage the company. It was not until 1973 that Steinberg made his then42-year-old daughter, Mitzi Dobrin, general manager of a major Steinberg Inc. division.
Following her father’s death in 1978, Dobrin battled to take control of the entire Steinberg Inc. operation. When she failed, she tried to sell it, but her outraged sisters, who shared control of Steinberg Inc. through a complicated family
trust arrangement, refused to go along. Gibbon and Hadekel take the reader behind the closed doors, making the sisters’ epic struggle for their father’s empire come vividly to life.
As Dobrin persisted in her attempts to sell the firm to potential buyers, the Quebec government, which wanted to keep control of Steinberg in Quebec, stepped in. And in 1989, when the sisters did finally agree to sell, the province’s giant pension fund, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, financed most of Quebec businessman Michel Gaucher’s $ 1.3billion bid for the company. In the end, the Steinberg children walked away with millions, and the Quebec government was able to boast that Steinberg Inc. was still controlled in the province.
Unlike the Steinbergs, Thomas Bata struggled to keep his family business intact. His
account, ghostwritten by Czechoslovakianborn Toronto writer Sonja Sinclair, chronicles how Bata rescued his father’s business from the upheavals caused by fascism and communism. Thomas Bata was born on Sept. 17, 1914, in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. His father, Tomás, was a visionary capitalist who had made a fortune by automating the shoe-manufacturing business. The senior Bata also created one of the first multinational firms by expanding his operations around the world.
Bata now employs 70,000 people in dozens of countries.
An only child, Thomas Bata was groomed from birth to take over the family business. He travelled widely and attended Europe’s best schools. Then, in 1939, when Hitler’s armies invaded Czechoslovakia, he fled to Canada. At the end of the Second World War, Bata returned to Zlin, but where German Nazis had once stood guard, there were now Communists, who nationalized the Bata operation there.
Bata vowed to take back his factories in Zlin, but he had a family battle to wage first. His relations with his father’s brother, Jan, remained amicable following his father’s death in 1932. But eventually, Bata writes, he came into conflict with his uncle, who claimed that Tomás had sold him shares in Bata’s holding company. After years of court battles, the younger Bata finally won in October, 1953. And with the collapse of Czechoslovakian communism, Bata triumphantly returned to his home town a year ago. Recalled Bata: “There were flags everywhere, along with pictures of
my father. ‘Long live Bata,’ they chanted.”
Bata’s autobiography depicts his life as a series of adventures. He hikes over mountains to escape Nazis, confronts dictators and rescues family and fortune from the Communists. But, while his story is at times enthralling, the book fails to shed much light on Bata the corporate executive.
Like the Steinberg and Bata empires, Roman Corp. was built largely by one man’s brute determination. Stephen Roman, who died in 1988, immigrated to Oshawa, Ont., from Czechoslovakia in 1937, and in the late 1940s he moved to Toronto, where he hustled penny stocks. In 1954, he struck it rich when he bought into the uranium claims at Elliot Lake, Ont., where he built the world’s largest single uranium mine. He used the revenues to create Roman Corp., which at the time of his death was a $2-billion resource empire. It is now run by his 43-year-old daughter, Helen Roman-Barber.
According to McKay’s leftleaning account, Roman’s accomplishments are badly tainted by his personal beliefs and business tactics. He alleges that Roman was an avowed anti-Semite and helped bring convicted Nazi war criminals into Canada. McKay also writes that, as a stock promoter, Roman bilked investors out of thousands of dollars and later helped rig the international price of uranium. But while McKay’s work is well researched, it sometimes seems that The Roman Empire is merely a platform for his own political beliefs.
Foster’s Family Spirits explores many of
the same themes as the other books, but the exotic setting and eccentric characters in Foster’s study make it the most entertaining of the four. As outlined by Foster, Facundo Bacardi y Maso, founder of the Bacardi dynasty, moved from Spain to Santiago, Cuba, in the early 1800s and established a rum-distilling business. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Pepin Bosch, who was married to Bacardi’s granddaughter Enriqueta Schueg, took over and built the modem Bacardi company—but not before he vanquished several competing family members. In the end, Foster says, money silenced the Bacardi antagonists.
To make them wealthy, Bosch had to survive Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s revolution. When Castro took power in 1959, many Cubans and Americans believed that he would bring democracy to the island nation. But Bosch was not among the believers—and his concerns proved to be justified. Shortly after seizing power, Castro ordered Bosch to join him on a junket to the United States. But during their flight, Castro quickly exposed his rigid Marxist views. “When [Bosch] used the word ‘liberty,’ Castro got up and stalked off,” Foster writes. Bosch survived his confrontation with Castro by using plants outside of Cuba and, in 1976, retired to Lyford Cay in the Bahamas, where Foster found him, at age 90, still dreaming of ousting Castro and returning to his beloved Cuba. Like Samuel Steinberg, Thomas Bata and Stephen Roman, Pepin Bosch thrived on conflict—and the desire to leave a vast corporate testament of his time on earth.
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