Lament for a nation

I’ve loved lists ever since CHUM (1050 on your dial) produced its first top 50 chart in 1957 with All Shook Up by Elvis Presley at number one. Two corporate lists have recently come to hand: the ROB top 1000 and the Fortune Global 500.

Atop the charts in the ROB, measured by profit, is Toronto-Dominion Bank at $5.9 billion. Everybody agrees that TD CEO Ed Clark has done a stellar job. His unusual background includes time as a civil servant followed by a series of roles at Merrill Lynch and Canada Trust where the watchword was FIFO (Fit in or F**k Off). He not only fit in, he became president of the merged entity when TD acquired CT Financial Services.

The unusual method of picking a successor has made him a wealthy man. Clark’s annual compensation has ranged between $9 million and $19 million during the last nine years. He has two pensions, one from TD and another from Canada Trust, for a total of $2.5 million a year. His combined pension, which will kick in when he retires as early as next year at 65, was frozen in 2010 in return for a whack of options worth $4.7 million. I have no problem with any of that. He made a lot of shareholders wealthier than they otherwise would have been.

Where I do have a problem is evident on the Fortune list. By my count, Canada has a piddling eleven companies among the top 500. The Netherlands, which is about half the size of New Brunswick, has more. Even Australia, which compared to Canada is geographically deprived of markets, has only two fewer than Canada.

We are not a nation of strivers. Take auto parts as just one example. Canadian auto parts firms have had a leg up since the 1965 Auto Pact. Duty-free access to the huge American market should have meant the creation of many global giants. Instead there are only two: Magna and Linamar. Both were founded by a young, immigrant tool-and-die maker. In the case of Magna, Austria’s Frank Stronach; at Linamar, Frank Hasenfratz from Hungary.

Most Canadian CEOs would rather sell out than succeed. And so we have seen great Canadian companies disappear in steel (Stelco and Dofasco), beer (Molson and Labatt), mining (Falconbridge and Inco), well, you know the long, sad list.

I can only hope that among the 225,000 immigrants coming to Canada annually there are a few entrepreneurs with vision and vigour. Because we sure don’t seem to produce many business leaders on our own. I keep reading about thought leadership, whatever the heck that is. We need action leadership.

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