THE ESTABLISHMENT MAN: A PORTRAIT OF POWER
Peter C. Newman.
Volume 11 Number 3.
With this portrait of financier Conrad Black, Peter Newman continues his examination of powerful men formerly treated in such books as Renegade in Power (on John Diefenbaker), Bronfman Dynasty,* and the two volumes of The Canadian Establishment.** At thirty-eight, Black is "Canada's quintessential Establishment Man," "the most controversial and most fascinating member of Canada's ruling economic elite," and a symbol of "Canadian capitalism on the hoof," whatever that means.
Black was born into wealth; his father, George Montagu Black (who had an enormous influence on his son), was at one time president of Canadian Breweries and an associate of E.P. Taylor. Young Conrad formed a resolution at age seven to one day become chairman of Argus Corporation; a year later, he could be found washing dollar bills and hanging them on the line to dry. Later, he was expelled from Upper Canada College for stealing and then selling examination papers; later still, he moved to Quebec where, in association with partners David Radler and Peter White, he began to buy newspaper! in that province and others. He also found time to raise funds for Cardinal Leger and acquire a master's degree in history. (His thesis was on notorious Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis).
In 1974, he returned to Toronto where, four lears later, he launched his successful takeover bid of Argus Corporation, undoubtedly the pinnacle of his meteoric career to date. Less successful were subsequent encounters with Massey-Ferguson (he ditched the financially troubled multinational after two years as chairman and dominant stockholder, ostensibly so that shareholders would be better able to secure government assistance) and the U.S.-based Hanna Mining Company (he was held to 20 per cent ownership for eight years when he had hoped to take over the concern). He is presently (December, 1982) being investigated by the Toronto police in connection with several of his business affairs.
Newman has put together the stuff of a wonderful three-decker novel full of character and incident. The reader is introduced to men like the enigmatic John Prusac, a Yugoslav-born real estate magnate whose caped figure lurked in the shadows as Black's rival for control of Argus, to the unfolding drama of how high-placed executives like Albert Thorn-brough brought Massey-Ferguson, a Canadian industrial giant, to its knees through ill-considered expansion and an overweening desire for personal aggrandizement.
Black himself is portrayed in very sympathetic, at times hyperbolic, terms. He is described as being profoundly influenced by the example of Napoleon (business transactions are frequently referred to in military terms) and as a man of wide-ranging talents, possessed of a prodigious memory and a facile wit.
Other facets of his character are less admirable: as examples, his extreme sensitivity to criticism (witness his thundering newspaper attacks on Professor Ramsay Cook who had delivered a scathing review of his Duplessis in the Globe and Mail) and his cultivation of older people to facilitate business and social ends. (His approaches to Bud McDougald's widow, a lady not well versed in business affairs, as part of his move on Argus is just one example).
Newman is to be commended for giving the general reader a fascinating and generally well-written look into the social milieu of one of Canada's wealthiest people and his circle and, for those who can follow it, some notion of how that fortune was acquired. Economics students in the senior high school grades may be able to make some use of this book (for example, the mechanics of the Argus takeover, background to the mess at Massey-Ferguson). Despite the occasional overblown description (for example, Black as "a Roman candle among the wet firecrackers littering Canada's business landscape) and the lapses into pure trivia (such as the names of Black's cats), this book can be heartily recommended.
*Reviewed vol. VII/1 Winter 1979 p.7.
Paul E. Blower, Sault Ste. Marie P. L., Sault Ste. Marie, ON.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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