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Bud McDougald, the death of an establishment man

Since our inaugural Top 1000 issue in 1984, Report on Business magazine has been reporting on the highs and lows in business, from around the world. Some of the juiciest stories, however, were the ones we never reported. Read all 12 articles here.

In retrospect, it's understandable that the financial reporters who covered the death of John Angus (Bud) McDougald in March of 1978 described the attendees at his rain-drenched, limo-lined Catholic funeral at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral the way policemen record the wiseguys who show up at Mafia sendoffs.

McDougald, after all, was the deeply private chairman of the equally demure but immensely powerful Argus Corp., the holding company he ran with E.P. Taylor and a handful of Establishment pals. For 30 booming years after the war, their tiny oligarchy controlled huge swaths of Canadian business (by 1964, 10 per cent of the shares traded on the TSE in a single day were Argus-controlled), banking vast fortunes in the process.

Then McDougald died, after catching pneumonia on the plane from Toronto to his pile in Palm Beach. He was still warm in the ground when Conrad Black snatched the company from under the nose of McDougald's widow, her sister, and their slow-witted advisers. And Bud had been so fond of Conrad, treated him like the son he never had! That was the shock of it. In the space of two weeks, a stake was driven through the heart of comfy Canadian Establishment capitalism. The barbarians were everywhere.

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And once the veil had been snatched off Canadian business life, there was no putting it back. New journalists such as Alexander Ross, Philip Mathias and Peter Newman (the best of them all) were suddenly writing about business not as a series of earnings reports, but as dramas crammed with cranks and characters. To do this, you had to use unnamed sources: Power at the corporate director level was so concentrated and intertwined in the mid-1970s that burning a source risked cutting off your access to literally dozens of companies. But the Establishment men–women were almost non-existent–loved talking behind each other's backs.

It was like discovering an ancient but previously unknown tribe. McDougald was genetically well-dressed and conservative, but had the profound eccentricities of a man who thinks he's invisible. He ate lunch almost every day at the snooty Toronto Club, despite the fact that it was like eating in a funeral home. He once refused to hire an exceptionally qualified executive because the man was wearing–of all things!–white socks. (He wasn't that fond of argyles, either.) He spent six weeks a year in Britain, and had a permanent room at Claridge's. His last words, according to Peter Newman, were "Tell him only I can fix Massey."

Newman later claimed Canadians became interested in McDougald's funeral because he and his ilk were what passed for royalty here. I respectfully disagree. What Canadian business three decades ago reminded me of was Jane Austen. All you need to write a gripping novel, she famously told her niece Anna, is "three or four families in a Country Village." Canadian business became a great story because that's precisely what it was.

Ian Brown is the author of FreeWheeling, about Canadian Tire and the Billes family, which won the National Business Book Award. He is a roving feature writer at The Globe and Mail.

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