BUSINESS WATCH

A vintage crop of business books

The sleeper of the season shows how the Old Boys network is being displaced by women reaching for influential positions

Peter C. Newman November 11 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

A vintage crop of business books

The sleeper of the season shows how the Old Boys network is being displaced by women reaching for influential positions

Peter C. Newman November 11 1991

A vintage crop of business books

BUSINESS WATCH

The sleeper of the season shows how the Old Boys network is being displaced by women reaching for influential positions

PETER C. NEWMAN

There has been such a deluge of political tracts this autumn that some business books haven’t received the attention they deserve. These are a few examples:

The sleeper of the season is Sherrill MacLaren’s Invisible Power: The Women Who Run Canada, which for the first time documents how the Old Boys network, which has run this country since Noah boarded his ark, is being displaced by creatively energetic women, reaching for some of the nation’s most influential command posts.

Darting across the country and into the epicentre of various establishments, the author personalizes women’s individual and collective routes to power, not as wives or fodder for gossip columns, but as action-oriented entrepreneurs. MacLaren’s book is a well-written guide to how Canadian society works, who matters and why. She catches beautifully the subtle differences between French and English attitudes, between ideological and applied feminism, between the old and the new rich.

The book introduces important new personalities to the Canadian scene, including Vancouver’s Countess Mine Dobrzensky, bom to Ireland’s “royal set,” who, along with her aristocratic husband, Enrico, has become the doyenne of Vancouver’s new Establishment. She not only owns and operates a dozen local office buildings, two ranches and a shopping centre, but also puts in regular shifts at an eastend soup kitchen and is the city’s most successful fund raiser.

Among many others, MacLaren makes some flattering references to Heather Reisman (“a dynamo with one of the widest networks in Canada”), the Toronto management consultant and political activist who may be the ideal leadership candidate to revive the fortunes of Ontario’s Liberal party.

No brief review can do justice to Invisible Power, but as good a summary as any is the comment overheard by Jane Heffelfinger, a successful Victoria publisher, at a corporate

reception in Vancouver. She saw women “whipping business cards out of their décolletages the way their grandmothers withdrew lace hankies,” and overheard one husband say to another: “Have you noticed that the women are all talking business while the men are standing around looking decorative?”

Ann Shortell, who previously wrote about trust companies and Brascan, is one of the best business reporters around, and Money Has No Country will enhance her reputation. Her new book definitively explodes many myths— among them the notion that Canada’s wealthiest families have the country’s best interests at heart and the idea that our private sector will ever invest adequately in research and development.

Using valid and meticulously researched case histories, Shortell demonstrates how badly we have botched our potential in world trade and missed nearly every cue to join the global economy taking shape around us. Her message is that at last Canadians are more aware of how dangerously uncompetitive we have become and now realize that if they don’t quickly alter our collective and individual work ethics, this country will be totally marginalized. As a result, the book provides essential documenta-

tion in the debate about Canada’s economic future—or the lack of one—which will occupy us throughout most of the 1990s.

Shortell ranged the world and penetrated most Canadian boardrooms in her search for answers. Her conclusions are tough but optimistic. While conducting interviews in Europe, she finds herself at the wreckage of the Berlin Wall, buys a few pieces of its remains and notes: “Now I’m trying to knock a few holes in the walls Canadians have built, both to isolate ourselves within Canada and to provide some sort of psychic barrier from the big, bad world.

I see us all as a thin, straggling line of Canadians, stretched across the country, using whatever tools we have to tear down our barriers and build a new Canada together. By force of will, no barrier is too daunting to overcome.”

Similar in intent, but very different in method, is Susan Goldenberg’s Global Pursuit. She interviewed executives at 100 large and small Canadian businesses about their global aspirations and problems. Her book is less imaginative than Shortell’s, but what it lacks in style and intuitive leaps, it makes up for in detail. The specific attempts of each company to globalize are examined right down to what kind of customs forms are required for export sales.

The real trouble, Goldenberg soon discovers, is that we really have too tiny a patent base to be serious world players. Only 0.3 per cent of the world’s innovations are Canadian, compared with Japan’s total of 9.9 per cent; 97 per cent of our technology is imported. She portrays an interesting difference between multinational companies and truly global players: “In the multinational system, foreign subsidiaries operate as autonomous, distinct businesses,” she writes. “By contrast, in global companies strategies are centrally co-ordinated so as to create cohesiveness and cost efficiencies, eliminate duplication, spark more rapid decision-making and build a sense of team effort.”

Goldenberg is at her best describing the savagely competitive international business climate, and makes a good case for Canadian executives to treat their entry into the global marketplace not as an extension of existing business strategies, but as a battle plan.

It’s a war, and we’re losing it.

Very hard to pick up once you’ve put it down is James Fleming’s Circles of Power, a botched attempt to identify and describe Canada’s current power wielders. The volume, which seems to have been based largely on old clippings, adds little new insight and no new knowledge. He’s also frequently wrong. In his list of Vancouver’s business leaders, for example, Fleming ranks stock promoter Murray Pezim ahead of Robert Wyman (chairman of B.C. Hydro) and leaves out the town’s most influential lawyer-power broker, Lyall Knott.

Not a business book but a wonderful tribute to one of our best writers, who died in 1990, Hugh MacLennan’s Best revives some of the author’s most evocative prose. “As an essayist he has been among the world’s best,” notes the anthology’s editor, Douglas Gibson, “writing excellent and much-quoted pieces on everything from hockey to Captain Bligh.” This thoughtfully selected book does him justice.