A life of giving back

Canada has lost not just a giant in the business world but a cultural maven and generous philanthropist with the death of Joe Rotman. I can't think of another corporate leader in Canada today who was so dominant across such a wide range of activities.

His life was a classic case of entrepreneurialism where you see a field that needs expertise and investment, you calculate the risks, then step in. Starting in the unusual world of oil futures, Rotman also became involved in oil and gas exploration, real estate and venture capital. In 1987 he launched Clairvest which in turn backed other peoples' ideas, the riskiest business of all because you're often betting on the jockey, not the horse. In that regard, Rotman was a great judge of character, not just the numbers on some term sheet.

As if that weren't enough to set him apart from his contemporaries, Joe and his wife Sandra collected modern art with a passion and an eye for talent. He also shared his wealth with the community and the nation at a level matched by few others. His lead gift to the business school at the University of Toronto long before such donations became de rigeur has meant that the Rotman School of Management had the heft and the wherewithal to build a faculty that has placed it number one in Canada most years on the prestigious Financial Times rankings. His other philanthropic interests included a broad range of enthusiasms that stretched across the life sciences, brain research, and innovation.

With Joe Rotman, life was never just about him, it was about his family, his community and his country. But his greatest strength had nothing to do with what he did with his life or his money. It was his sunny disposition. I've never known a happier man. I will miss seeing his smile. 

A woman of substance

Jalynn Bennett, a pioneering business executive and one of the warmest people I've ever met socially, has died at 71. Her combination of brilliant insight and self-deprecation was a delight to behold. 

After graduating from Trinity College in 1965 with a degree in economics she was forced to do what many well-educated women did at the time, take a lowly secretarial job. In her case, she worked at Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. (Manulife) where CEO Syd Jackson recognized her prowess. Within twenty years of joining the firm she was a vice-president and among three female executives reporting to Jackson, a high-water mark for women that few firms have matched since. Her recent board roles (CIBC, Rexel Canada Electrical, Teck Resources Ltd.) set a public standard in a country where half the boards have no female directors at all. 

When the men-only lunch clubs, York and Toronto, decided to finally open their membership to women in the early 1990s, Bennett was their first choice. But the change did not come without friction. Speaking against her at the special meeting called at the York Club was her own uncle, Len Lumbers, Chairman of Noranda Manufacturing. The resolution passed, Bennett became a member, and she held no rancour against her relative for his stance. 

I ran into Bennett in 2009 in her beloved Nova Scotia where she summered. We were all on line waiting for the annual Folk Art Festival in Lunenburg to open. She had just read my book on Manulife, and although she was long gone from the place, I was pleased to learn she thought what I'd written was accurate. She immediately homed in on one of my favourite moments in the book, where I took off my shoes and socks and placed my naked feet on the manicured putting-green grass that surrounds the head office on Bloor Street. 

Bennett laughed with enjoyment at my so-called reverential sensation. She always went to the heart of the matter.

Whither the wind

I like John Tory. I voted for John Tory. And I sure am happy to see the backside of Rob Ford. But I wonder: do we know who we're getting as mayor with John Tory? A breath of fresh air or same old same old.

In his first few weeks in office, Tory has sent both signals. He's talked about getting rid of gridlock, working with all members of council, helping the homeless, in fact there's no matter too small for John Tory to tackle. On the big issues, however, I sense backsliding, a direction you don't like to see in someone this early in their elected term.

(I hereby declare a conflict of interest. Maybe ten years ago he and I talked about my helping him as a ghost writer on his memoirs. The idea went nowhere and he still hasn't written them. He would say that he's added several interesting chapters in the intervening time.)

In the seven weeks since John Tory was sworn in, he's already broken two of his major election promises: no hike in TTC fares and keeping property tax increases under the rate of inflation. In both cases, the infraction is minor. Fares are up 10 cents, and the tax hike is only 0.15 per cent above inflation. Still, there's a principle involved, and he at least bent it.

Moreover, Tory's much vaunted support among Liberals at Queen's Park is doing him little good. Provincial funding for Toronto is falling at the same pace as ever. Backstopping low interest rates on a loan hardly qualifies as a big boost.

No one, certainly not a politician, is ever what they seem. The question for the days ahead is this: How far will John Tory stray from the man we thought he was?

Unnatural gas

Everyone has been enjoying the fall in the pump price of gasoline. I saw signs in Hamilton today for 81.9 cents a litre, down 34 percent from $1.24 a year ago for regular. The price of a barrel of oil has fallen even further, from US$110 a year ago to US$50 today, down 55 percent. The full extent of the drop in the world price has not yet reached the consumer but at least it's heading in the right direction.

Natural gas prices have not been behaving in the same friendly manner. My Enbridge bill arrived today with a notice saying there had been a change in price. I fully expected a reduction, given all that I'd been reading, but no, it was yet another increase. I'm now paying 36 percent more per cubic meter than I did last year at this time despite the fact that natural gas inventories are at a 28-month high and wholesale prices are have fallen 36 percent during the last twelve months. 

According to the U.S. Energy Administration Information, American households will see their natural gas bills drop this winter compared to last winter. Not in Canada, at least not in my house. My consumption hasn't markedly changed but my total payments to date are up 24 percent year-over-year.

What the explanation is I do not know except to say that the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) must be a spineless, non-functioning entity. The OEB appears to blindly approve whatever increase the natural gas distribution companies request. Doesn't the OEB do any of its own research about the market? The whole thing is reminiscent of the cozy relationship between lobbyists and Members of Congress where each side is integral to the other when it comes to legislation.

The gas companies claim that they don't make any money on the gas, the profits come only on the $20 monthly customer charge. Don't make any money on the gas? How can that be when they buy low and sell high? 


The problem with Canadian retailing …

... is Canadian retailing, not price disparity with the U.S. Ottawa has ordered a study of price differentials on consumer products between the two countries. I've spent the last 10 days in the U.S. and I can't say I notice much difference on food or pharmacy products, two large categories. To be sure, gasoline in the U.S. is 20 per cent cheaper and the savings are even greater on beer and wine. Twelve bottles of Corona cost $14.99 in the U.S. versus $24.95 at The Beer Store. But higher gas and alcohol prices are caused by government taxes.

Of course, the collapse of the Canadian dollar is playing hob with some prices. For this we can blame Stephen Poloz, who left the Export Development Corporation to become Governor of the Bank of Canada, then promptly drove down the dollar to help Canadian exporters at the expense of Canadian consumers.

For me, price is not the problem. The major difference between the two countries when it comes to retail is service. I was in Staples a few days ago looking for a composition book. The one I wanted was not available in the store but they said they could ship it to me. I ordered three for a total cost of less than $9. They arrived next day via UPS. Who in Canada is going to ship by courier for free, so fast, on such a modest purchase?

Or how about Macy's where there was no apparent discount but the clerk took 15 per cent off my purchase then found a coupon for a further 10 per cent. Got a furniture delivery? There will be the day-before phone reminder, a call 30 minutes in advance of the expected arrival, then a day-after 'How was everything?' follow-up.

I watch prices, of course, but I love service more. I had emailed Clarks consumer service department in Canada a month before Christmas asking where in Toronto I could buy a specific winter boot. I finally got a response today. If I'd been living in the U.S. I can almost imagine the sales rep showing up at my door the day after my query with several choices in my size.