Review by Brian Lee Crowley
Gordon Pitts’ book has the vices of its virtues. Its virtues are two. It details a little-known (outside Atlantic Canada) regional business élite which has earned great success, often in the face of some daunting odds. And it tells the story of that élite with some wonderful pen portraits conveying both the idiosyncratic charm and the swashbuckling personalities of this close-knit and unusual world.
Its corresponding vice is that it takes a few good yarns about some seminal figures in the region’s recent business history and fashions from them a Theory. This Theory, worthy of the most fervid conspiracist, holds these people constitute a “Maritime Mafia” who are not merely the toast of Canadian business and the gold standard of Canadian management. Through their political face, former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, they are also increasingly close to the seats of power in Ottawa and Washington.
Pitts is not satisfied with being able to retail the stories of remarkable business successes across or finding their origins in Atlantic Canada, the Irvings, the Sobeys, the Rowes, the Risleys and others. Each of these stories is a testament to the ability of intelligence and sheer cussedness to prevail in a region hostile to and bitterly envious of success.
Starting with the usual blarney about Atlantic Canada exercising a quasi-mystical hold over its offspring, who exult in sailing and golfing in the bracing salt air, Pitts throws into his Theory of God, the Maritimes and Everything tidbits like the X Ring (worn by grads of St. Francis Xavier University) and a “viable [Newfoundland] music industry built on a population of 513,000 people.” He is unfazed by the fact you couldn’t pay many expats enough money to make them return for any reason, for 7 months of the year sailing and golfing are out of the question, many of the people he profiles couldn’t wait to get out of university and found little they valued there (except maybe their spouses and their networks) and couldn’t tell the difference between Great Big Sea and Barenaked Ladies or Shania Twain.
Intelligent and driven people are to be found everywhere. And when you grow up in a small place, you get to know most everyone. When lack of opportunity spreads your classmates to the winds, you end up with a great national and international network. So when you need capital, who do you call? The person you knew growing up who now has control of the Bank of Nova Scotia, like Cedric Ritchie or Peter Godsoe. Need an entrée in Alberta? Call your old Dalhousie law school chum and now Calgary power-lawyer Jim Palmer. The UK? Margaret Thatcher’s favourite businessman, Dal law alumnus Sir Graham Day.
But what is unique about this? The same could be said about folks from Saskatchewan, who run much of the oil patch and Ottawa or the Hongkong immigrants in Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto. And there are small town and rural business empires everywhere. The behaviour of people and institutions such as universities and families described in the book is universal, not particular.
This is not to downplay the tremendous contributions of many of the individuals featured in the book, including my favourite, Purdy Crawford, who has been one of Canada’s most influential businessmen not just because of his success at Imasco, or his influence on business law, but because of his impressive mind and his moral stature as the conscience of the corporate world.
Stripped of its self-aggrandizing rhetoric, this is really a book about family business – hardly surprising for an author who has spent a lot of time studying…family business and its peculiar challenges. Now that’s something Atlantic Canada has a lot of. What draws attention is the size of the successes, such as the Irvings, the McCains and the Sobeys, but their size is exaggerated by the miniature scale of the background against which they operate.
While the dynastic challenges of great business families are all very interesting, however, the great questions Maritimers and Newfoundlanders have to wrestle with are why their business successes are so heavily concentrated in natural resources, manufacturing and retail, why so many waves of industrial revolution pass us by, why, for a place with allegedly such a great quality of life our population is in decline, and why two thirds of the paltry number of immigrants who arrive leave again within three years.
The answer is partly contained in the silences of Pitt’s book. This is still a place where who you are matters more than what you can do. Many of the people he talks about in the Atlantic diaspora left because they knew the region was not a meritocracy but an old boys’ network. Given the obsession with family control that pervades the book, is it any wonder people with ambition but the wrong family names often find it easier to take their brains and Maritime values down the road?
Review by: Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@aims.ca.