And the beat goes on

Earle McLaughlin kept an abacus on his side table set to multi-million dollar record earnings for his bank. He was a native-born son and heir to Canada’s twentieth century post-war boom. His cousin Sam was president of General Motors in Canada and manufactured Buick models under the family name until World War II. McLaughlin Buick is still a brand of repute among auto buffs.

Early in his career, Earle worked at 360 rue St. Jacques (then known as St. James St. at the tail end of anglo dominance in the city). This was then the very heart of the financial capital of Canada. 360 St. James, at 21 storeys, was the tallest skyscraper in the British Empire when it opened in 1928. It cost $6.5-million to build. Of course head office operations are long gone from this site. They were moved uptown in the early 1960s to Place Ville Marie, the cruciform by master architect I.M.Pei built on Earle’s watch. RBC’s head office is still nominally at PVM. The chairman of the Royal as I write and the current chief executive, as well as his forerunner, are all Montrealers. But they don’t live in Montreal any more. The bank is run from Toronto.

Earle didn’t start his career in the lofts of the skyscraper. He’d get there soon enough, as well as to the board tables of Canada’s biggest public companies and honorifics such as Chancellor of Concordia U. But in the 1950s he was managing the main branch of the Royal Bank of Canada on the ground floor at 360, with square picture windows overseeing the street (the branch is due to close in 2012). One of his clients was the owner and publisher of Financial Times of Canada, a troubled man named Ted Ertl.

Ted Ertl’s troubles were about fifty thousand dollars worth, an amount he owed RBC and couldn’t pay. He’d resort to great lengths and various dodges through the narrow streets and cobbled alleys of Montreal’s centuries-old financial district to avoid McLaughlin’s arm-twisting. Slip sliding through slush on St. James, ducking around corners, hugging the granite and the shadows, he’d manage to skirt the windows and the stern managerial gaze. Ted was an honourable man. He wanted to clear the debt. But the paper wasn’t doing well. Then he died.

Financial Times wasn’t always a loser. It did very well for its founding editor and owner, Robert Emmett Cox, after startup in 1912. The day of Emmett Cox was a day of robber baron industrialists and financial market manipulators, largely assisted and often enabled by a financial press controlled and operated by cronies. Monopoly wasn’t a board game yet. A monopoly was a licence to print money. While major monopolies were built around utilities and other essential services, there were a host of other opportunities waiting for anyone with the eye to see them and the daring to move. Emmett Cox moved in the same circles, for instance, as John Sparrow, an inveterate host and “life of the gathering” at open houses for journalists and entertainers at his home in the north of the city (Sault-au-Récollet) and his country estate in Sainte-Agathe. His was a local application of the baronial technique. Sparrow had built a monopoly of the important theatres and music halls in Montreal. By 1904 he controlled the Theatre Royal, Academy of Music, Théâtre Français and His Majesty’s. Control and restraint of competition kept admission charges higher than they might otherwise be. It was a modest form of the primitive, unchecked capitalism that held sway through the roaring twenties, until the stock market crash of 1929, which brought some regulation and, in the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission, run at first by one of the boldest barons ever, Joe Kennedy. (Ever struggling to catch up with its big neighbour, Canada has yet to establish a national securities regulator.)

Cox retired after the crash, which he came through with assets intact. His successors didn’t enjoy the same good fortune. Boom times for business tycoons enjoying media support were over. Ted Ertl held the publication together for years but he hadn’t done well at all. The bank said it was poor management. But the bank always says it’s poor management. Perhaps Ted wasn’t as sophisticated as other publishers. Perhaps it was ethics. Perhaps it was just that the centre of financial gravity was shifting. Whatever it was, he owed the Royal Bank about fifty large ones when he died.

Earle at the peak of his game

Earle McLaughlin didn’t need to concern himself with Ted Ertl’s posthumous debt. Earle was long past managing a branch by then. He had made general manager of the bank at forty-five, the youngest ever, and soon after that he was president, then chairman. A fifty thousand dollar problem was beneath notice. But he had approved the loan for Ted way back and felt responsible. So he called St. Clair Balfour, the patriarch then in charge of the family’s publishing empire, Southam Press (now Postmedia).

Balfour got the drift and was agreeable. It was chicken feed in the overall scheme of things. A favour for the biggest of the Big Five banks might be returned with interest some day, some way. It could prove a bargain. As for the Financial Times, Southam might even make a go of it. Financial Times had survived for fifty years by then. If this wasn’t a record for independent Canadian publishing, it was damn close. Balfour cut a cheque and Earle handed over FT.

Balfour hired Michael Barkway as editor and publisher. Garth Hopkins was managing editor, a cowboy from Alberta who had wrangled a communications job with the World Bank, where Barkway found him.

Michael Barkway wasn’t planning to shepherd some second tier business tabloid. He had come of age before the war and as a BBC correspondent had interviewed the likes of Eisenhower, Churchill and Montgomery. He knew Fleet Street, Muggeridge and Orwell. He was big time talent for a colony and if Canada wasn’t a colony any longer when he got here, we weren’t all that far removed. We were certainly a generation or two behind when it came to journalism. We had the steadfast Globe, here from the start and often enough playing an influential part at the country’s beginning. We had the CBC, bless the pioneers who created it and, even better, secured it tightly within the national infrastructure so that it might never be shook loose. Apart from that there wasn’t much to distinguish Canadian journalism, nothing to touch the Wall Street Journal, The Times, Washington Post or The Economist.

FT was consigned in Montreal to a nineteenth century industrial building on St. Alexandre Street in the shadow of St. Patrick’s Basilica, hundreds of miles away from and a world of mindset apart from Southam’s head office in Toronto. This was territory far beyond and beneath where Balfour or anyone close to him ever ventured. Here Barkway had no superior, no peer, no problems. He got what he wanted and he wanted the best. Of course it would be costly.

For a few years, at least, FT was among the livelier and more literate publications in Canada, an adumbration of the National Post formula a generation later. But it was fighting a losing battle. When the paper was founded and through its heyday, Montreal was still the financial capital. By the time I was hired by Hopkins in the early 1960s the centre of gravity was perceptibly shifting. Financial Times still had purpose. There was much that remained. As late as 1982 half of the twenty largest companies in Canada had their head offices in Montreal. But Toronto would be the financial capital for the future.

Senator Fraser

Barkway’s FT was a hothouse of talent, most of it young, some of it lovely, all of it springing successfully from the FT trampoline. Ken Strachan and Jake Doherty became publishers of Southam dailies. Neither rose to the height of Joan Fraser, who got the Montreal Gazette. Jake got to run both the Spectator in Hamilton and the Whig Standard in Kingston before being severanced in the Conrad Black takeover of 1982. Joan was booted from the Gazette by Black as well. Perhaps because Jean Chrétien hated Conrad so fervently that he’d do anything to one-up his lordship, she was named a Senator. Judy Maxwell ran the Economic Council of Canada until she ran afoul of Brian Mulroney by speaking some truth about Quebec.

Judy Maxwell

To rid himself of Judy, Mulroney killed the ECC, which for three decades had been the strongest independent voice on Canadian economic policy. She landed on her feet with the Order of Canada, on the board of Canada’s largest communications company and on the dais for at least eight honourary degrees.

Jock Osler

Jock Osler became Joe Clark’s communications director during Joe’s brief spell as prime minister. Bobby Stewart wrote the book on Sam Steele and for years produced the highly literate, intelligent series of essays that the Royal Bank gave as monthly letters to its clients. Mike Cassidy became leader of the New Democratic Party in Ontario, provincial opposition leader, then a member of parliament.

Mike Cassidy still stumping ’06

Don McGillivray succeeded Charles Lynch as Southam’s top Ottawa columnist. But his legend looms largest among the many young scribblers he taught at Carleton and Concordia and led in the attempt, never entirely successful for lack of support from accountant-cuffed media, to create a culture of investigative journalism in Canada.

Linden MacIntyre

Lindsay Crysler segued to a career as a journalism professor and head of the faculty at Concordia, after a spell as executive editor at The Gazette. Linden MacIntyre is a much published author of fiction and non-fiction and for more than two decades has been front and centre on the CBC’s flagship public affairs show, the 5th estate. Bogdan Kipling still plies our trade as a member, a dean surely by now, of the Washington press corps.

Tim Pritchard went to the Globe and was editor of the Report On Business for a long time, where he was succeeded by Peter Cook, who also cut his teeth at Barkway’s FT. ROB had arrived in 1965 to grab a chunk of Canada’s relatively limited attention or need for business journalism. It was a daily. It was fresh. It was from Toronto. It appeared just as Barkway was trying to revive Financial Times, tired and weekly, from Montreal. It was unexpected but it’s never only one misfortune or unpredictable reverse, it’s a flood of them that afflict the newborn enterprise or, like FT, the just reviving. As setbacks go, though, ROB was pretty major. In the end it gobbled FT.

It took double digit millions in losses and three decades to reach bottom of the sinkhole that McLaughlin had passed to Balfour. Then Southam offloaded it to the Globe for the cost of the subscriber list, which had some value for ROB.

Soon after I started at Financial Times under Barkway I began to learn of his illustrious forerunners, such as B. K. Sandwell, a colleague of Stephen Leacock, who later edited Saturday Night. And of course Emmett Cox, the paper’s founder. Cox prospered along with others like his friend John Sparrow in the money maelstrom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sparrow’s theatre empire eventually extended to Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, and New York. His connections with the New York Syndicate were instrumental in making Montreal a showcase for pre-Broadway tryouts. Most American stars of the day walked his boards. In Toronto Sparrow would give a hand up to one of his managers, Ambrose Small, who would become an even more famous theatrical magnate than his mentor.

Small’s fame grew to international tabloid proportions following his disappearance one December night in 1919, the day after he had sold his holdings for $1.7 million. Described by one writer as “the jackal of Toronto’s business world . . . he was bare-knuckle capitalism,” Small’s fortune was largely made on what was the era’s equivalent of strip and porno shows, risqué plays about the imagined sexuality of single working girls. These played to puritan Toronto’s prurient preoccupation with country girls coming to work in the booming city, where the jobs were.

Tess Kormann Small

Small’s wife, Theresa (Tess), who inherited his fortune, was publicly suspected of murder and disposing of the remains. But no body was ever found and nobody was ever charged. Tess was ostensibly the total opposite of her husband. She was well educated, spoke several languages and was a devout Roman Catholic who raised large sums for charities. Born into the wealthy Kormann brewing family, she was a formidable businesswoman and a leading socialite. Her funeral in 1935 was attended by MPs, MPPs, high church officials and other dignitaries, as well as hundreds of the curious.

Years before this all-too-real melodrama, Tess Kormann’s older sister Emma wed Emmett Cox in 1903. (He would live until 1973, a hale nonagenarian.) Their daughter Ethel married  Pammy’s great-grandson, twelfth of Kate’s thirteen children, who carved his name on several national law firms, served as bâtonnier of the Montreal bar and who still, decades after his sudden death on Christmas Day 1980, remains a recognized giant of his profession. He and Ethel produced as the family expected. Two girls. Four boys. One of these, David, in the fullness of time, would succeed to more than one of Earle McLaughlin’s chairs.

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3 thoughts on “And the beat goes on

  1. The third, unfortunately, is long gone. There were thirteen siblings in that generation and all are deceased. One shared your surname, sir. Her name was Hannah and she married a Foster. The bâtonnier was her baby brother. And yes, his sons (her nephews), know where this stuff is at. How did you find it, btw?

  2. A great story. Unfortuantely, the author can’t count. The bank did not earn a billion dollars until the early 1990s, meaning that Earle’s abacus was never set to multi-billion dollar profits. as he retired in 1980.

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