Toronto Surveys History of Business, Past Businessmen

Roundup: Talking About History

History shows that coping with adversity is a key to success.

Airline pioneer Max Ward, Bombardier CEO Laurent Beaudoin, and Four Seasons hotelier Issy Sharp all suffered early setbacks.

"It's really important for students to know how many failures there are on the road to success," says Gerald Schwartz, CEO and founder of merchant bank Onex Corporation, and a Harvard MBA graduate.

For Joseph Martin and his patrons, a sound grasp of lessons derived from history is essential to the aspiring tycoon.

The adjunct professor at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management has raised $3 million to launch the school's first Canadian business history course from a clutch of Canada's most prominent business leaders: Lynton Wilson, former CEO of BCE Inc.; Richard Currie, former turnaround president at Loblaw Co. Ltd.; private investor and former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman; Tony Fell, who built RBC Dominion into an investment banking powerhouse; industrialist, philanthropist and educator Jim Fleck; and John MacArthur, arguably the most successful dean in the history of the Harvard Business School, where business history has been taught since the 1920s.

"It was an extraordinary laying on of hands," says Martin, whose exuberance was only a bit tempered by Fell's exhortation: "I hope you know how important this is to your students' future." The pressure only mounted when the maximum 20 students promptly signed up for the new course, despite competition with more than 70 other second-year elective courses.

Described by his wife as an educator disguised as a businessman most of his career ("I teach because I still like to learn," he says), Martin toiled for 30 years as a management consultant, has spent the past decade in academe, and sits on about half a dozen corporate and non-profit boards. The Saskatchewan native also dabbled in politics, including a stint on Manitoba premier Duff Roblin's staff and the transition team when Joe Clark became prime minister.

Martin's most recent challenge has been to select the most compelling case histories and panel-discussion topics for the course, illuminating the triumphs and setbacks in Canada's business evolution. "Far more has been excluded than included," he concedes. "I've got only 26 hours to teach this."

For Martin, a passionate Canadian nationalist, an obvious starting point is the largely unknown success of the youngest G-7 country in outperforming the United States and most other industrialized nations in the rate of per capita GNP growth in the 20th century.

"So what were the factors," he asks, "and will we be able to sustain that performance in the 21st century?" Martin and his extensive network of business contacts agreed it's imperative to look at the role of government in nurturing or hindering business development.

The implications of free trade negotiations and of foreign anti-trust laws, which forcibly liberated Inco Ltd. and Nortel Networks Corp. from their U.S. parents, show "public policy decisions at Westminster or Washington can prove to be more important than those made in Ottawa or at Queen's Park."

[Editor's Note: The original piece is much, much longer. See the Toronto Star's website for full coverae.]

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