Skip to content

This week has seven days

For the last few years I’ve escaped to Cuba around this time of year to rest up for my next birthday, which is in May.

For the last few years I’ve escaped to Cuba around this time of year to rest up for my next birthday, which is in May.

This is something you can do without recrimination when one becomes as old as me, which is no great bargain, but you take what you can get. I look on it as a sort of a Betty Ford clinic for communications addicts.

It’s a straightforward formula. The Internet doesn’t work in Cuba, even when they say it is working. Neither does the Blackberry. End of story. Pass the Mojitos. 

You don’t think about these matters again until about 5,000 feet on the way home. As the plane descends you know you are arriving somewhere, even if not at your intended destination because the Blackberry explodes and thinks it is a barber giving you a massage for what seems like half an hour. After a week it is full of all kinds of junk.

After a cursory review over the luggage carousel, I close it up. Betty would be proud. I can be of little value at three in the morning and I’m not ready for this stuff anyway.

The next morning, I acclimatize by looking through the week's newspapers before heading for cyberspace.
“Fed moves to contain deepening crisis”
“Canada begins to track U.S. in slump”
“ FBI expands probe into subprime industry”
“Brutal wake up call”

And then, this delightful piece in the Globe and Mail on the compensation and departure packages of the geniuses who oversaw billions of write-downs on Wall Street. At Merrill Lynch, Stanley O’Neal looks after the company’s write off of $14.1 billion and leaves with $161 million in stock options and benefits. Citigroup CEO Charles Prince writes off $18.1 billion and departs with $68 million in options and benefits. John Mack’s Morgan Stanley writes off $9.4 billion and earns $18 million. He hasn’t lost his job yet, so he doesn’t get the big money yet.

The great part about reading all of this after a week in hibernation is that the insanity looms larger. The clutter and speed of information and the inexorable march of the news cycles makes it hard to internalize this stuff. Can these numbers be true? Is this really happening? Is it actually possible that rational board members of some of the largest companies in the world think this makes sense? I mean, would you rather have Conrad Black managing your business schlepping non-compete fees or one of these geniuses investing in the subprime market for you?

I prefer people who work for a living. Amongst all the hand wringing of collapsing hedge funds and cratering banks, two great stories emerged: John Bragg (Globe and Mail) and the other Joseph Ribkoff (Canadian Business). 

John started Oxford Frozen Foods in Oxford, Nova Scotia. He grows wild blueberries and exports them around the world. I drive by Oxford (pop 300) every summer. He now has 2,000 employees worldwide. Along the way he started Bragg Communications and was one of the first cable companies to bring phone service to his customers in the Maritimes. He is innovative, unassuming and at 67 suggests you should be able to outline the key elements of your business on a cigarette pack. Just break down your problems and solve them one at a time.

Joseph Ribkoff owns a fashion house, carrying his name located in Dorval, Quebec. He designs, manufactures and distributes to more than 1,000 outlets across Canada with similar numbers in the United States and Europe. All this work is imagined and manufactured in Canada. This is not supposed to be able to be done in today’s world of box store pricing and Far East outsourcing. He’s lived through numerous recessions, currency adjustments, globalization and even Quebec politics.

“Our business is not about cheap labour; it’s about fashion and with fashion you have to be nimble.”

Canada is full of these kinds of entrepreneurs. They put these bankers to shame.

As the true depth of this financial crisis reveals itself, the gulf between greed and hard work becomes ever larger and is playing out on the front pages of our newspapers.

The question now looms as to whether the financial engineers will destroy the people who do the work.
Michael Atkins
Laurentian Media Group