Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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When giants roamed this town

REPORT #1,134: There was a time in this great land when London punched well above its weight, both provincially and nationally. It was a time when a number of national companies had their head offices here and when the men that ran them loomed large in the city’s affairs. Those days are gone.

Monday, Dec. 14, 2015 – LondonOntario

The death last week of Mowbray Sifton brings to mind a time when giants roamed this town. 

It was a time, as John Winston, general manager of Tourism London, observed a few days ago when this city punched way above its weight on the provincial and national scene. 

Not so much anymore.

Back in the day the giants who walked London streets included men – and they were all men – like Joe Jeffrey, who helped build London Life into the largest insurance company in Canada; J. Allyn Taylor, who helped turn Canada Trust into the largest trust company in Canada; Tom Lawson, whose benevolence through the Lawson Foundation and community spirit was legendary; John and Hugh Labatt, who drove the family brewing business into top spot in national sales in the 1970s; Walter Blackburn, whose media empire included The Free Press, CFPL television, two radio stations, a classified shopper and a magazine; Richard G. Ivey and later his son Richard M. Ivey, who were lawyers and businessmen whose interests once included packaging, transportation and manufacturing; more recently Don Smith, who guided Ellis Don Construction into one of the country’s biggest; and Fred Kingsmill, scion of a family that operated a department store in downtown London almost from its birth. 

There were a few others, including Mr. Sifton, who took over the construction company his father had founded, went on to reshape a west and southwest London with his carefully crafted subdivisions of Oakridge and Westmount.

These giants made London go, and largely they decided how and when.  

London was a national presence in those heady days from about 1930 to 1980, in part because this was where the head offices for Labatt’s, London Life, Canada Trust, Blackburn Media, the Ivey businesses, Ellis Don and other major companies were located.

In 1961 London became the 10th largest city in the land, after Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Hamilton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Quebec City. It commanded what you could call an Inland Empire that stretched from Windsor and Sarnia up through the Bruce Peninsula and including Kitchener-Waterloo. 

And then it all started to disappear. One by one the giants died, head offices shifted elsewhere.

Labatt’s decamped for Toronto, then was purchased by foreign companies, although it still retains a brewery in London. 

Canada Trust merged with TD Bank and while it still retains a large labour force in Canada the head office went to the provincial capital. 

London Life got gobbled up by Great West Life and the power shifted to Winnipeg. 

The Ivey family moved to Toronto and the focus of their business interests was altered. 

The Blackburn media empire was sold piecemeal – the television station ultimately ended in the hands of Bell Media, the radio stations with Corus, and the publishing interests now with Post Media, all based in Toronto. Like media operations everywhere, the local companies struggle.

Ellis Don has operations all over Canada including London, but its head office is now in Mississauga.

Kingsmills is gone, what remains of the building will soon become part of an auxiliary campus for Fanshawe College.

Now we are the 11th largest city as a population centre, but perhaps more meaningful is the fact we’ve dropped to the 15th largest municipality

Increasingly Canada is a country of mega metros – Toronto’s direct influence now extends southwest to Kitchener-Waterloo and east to Peterborough. London is part of it. We sit, isolated, between the Greater Toronto area and a re-awakening Detroit which is rediscovering its across-the-river cousin, Windsor. Kitchener-Waterloo is rapidly becoming just another bedroom for the big smoke just over its horizon.

So where does that leave us?

My sense, as someone who came to London in 1987 as the Day of the Giants was waning, is that we’ve essentially wasted the last 25 years looking for them and the business acumen and employment they took with them on departure. 

Enormous energy and capital has been expended trying to recapture the hard-goods manufacturing capacity we’ve lost – and will almost certainly never get back. But we’ve been slower to capitalize on what we’ve been quietly growing, especially in medical research and in emerging internet products. 

Oh we still have good people doing good, even great things. But not with the civic command of a generation or more ago.

On The McLeod Report radio show last week, Carmi Levy, CTV’s technology analyst, made these points about London’s position today:

“We're just far enough away from a major centre like Toronto that our talent doesn't or can't simply commute in. Instead, we're challenged to build our own self-sustaining ecosystem. This makes our environment unique from a funding, marketing, networking, and talent management perspective, and to a certain extent makes it harder to ‘make it’ because of our relative geographic and psychological isolation.

“But we're actually better off than we think we are, with high-speed internet access –broadband and wireless – considered to be better here than in many similar centres elsewhere in Canada. Fibre implementations downtown are also attractive to startups whose very existence depends on affordable, robust high-speed connectivity.

“Our real problem: We don't market these capabilities as well as we should. So investors and entrepreneurs – from here and elsewhere – don't always see the opportunities, and as a result default their planning process to other markets. In other words, they assume London isn't as well equipped as it is, so they bypass it. If we shouted from the rooftops and did more to celebrate our tech successes, we'd stand a better chance of creating more early-stage buzz and keeping those folks here when they decide to set up shop.”

That’s true not just in the technology sector, but in the medical research area and the agri-food sector too.

It’s time for us to stop looking for new giants to lead us. Instead we need to look around at the legacy they left us and starting building that into something really big.

Comments   

# is it incentives or just what happens?observer 2015-12-14 01:33
Can a government really do anything? Do we know "marketing" works to attract? Did we "market" to get 3M here? Western? And what keeps businesses here when capital is mobile as are people? I don't have the answers. Perhaps people responding can explain why they came here and why they stay. For me, I stay because it is a nice place to live, little traffic (yes, really), low housing prices (yes, really), and extremely safe. Your turn.
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# Start building something REALLY BIG.Tucker 2015-12-14 03:47
Let’s not forget “SOME” of the following companies that employed thousands of Ontarians in London and surrounding areas.

Commando Chrome Plating Co
General Steel Wares Limited
C.S~ Hyman Leathers
Eagle Machine Co
Ford Motor
General Motors Diesel
International Harvester
Jones Box & Label Company Limited
Kellogg Company of Canada Ltd.
Kelvinator of Canada Ltd
London & Petrolia Barrel Company
McCormick’s limited
Nopco Chemicals (Canada)
Richards Wilcox Canadian Company Ltd
Silverwood Dairies Limited
Spraymotors
Vanadium-Alloys Steel (Canada) Ltd

Hoping Londoners are smart enough to know what happened to them and many others.

Of course……….techn ology sector, medical research and agri-food sector will save our destiny……..many thanks to the “Liberal diarrhea swamp” and junior.

Enjoy.
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# Start building something REALLY BIG.Tucker 2015-12-14 04:27
Oops, past my bed time, should read……..many thanks to the “Liberal diarrhea swamp” and in advance…….junio r.
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# TiradeJ. David Scott 2015-12-14 15:15
A comment that started with promise and quickly turned into a boring diatribe with no relevance to the article and no basis in fact.
What's next, you're theory that Liberals ...and junior...are the root cause of tooth decay and jay-walking?
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# Start building something REALLY BIG.Tucker 2015-12-14 19:27
J. David Scott thank you for your comment

It is more important to know why our industries, standard of living are gone, not just who created them. We need to see, understand what has changed our way of life and not just accept Bull Shit.

With all the lies, waste, destruction this “Liberal diarrhea swamp” has created in Ontario, are you so dumb, docile, naive to think it is acceptable……you my friend are the fool for not seeing past your running nose, as for boring diatribe with no relevance to the article and no basis in fact, I can only hope your vision of history improves.

Enjoy.
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# RE: Start building something REALLY BIG.Elaine Rickert 2015-12-14 15:53
Tucker, please find another phrase besides your over used "Liberal diarrhea swamp". It is not clever. It is tiresome and childish. We get that you hate Liberals. Keep on hating if you wish but maybe you could find another way to express you political opinion.
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# Start building something REALLY BIG.Tucker 2015-12-14 19:29
Elaine Rickert thank you for your comment.

Until another accurate description of this so called party in Ontario comes out, will continue using the “Liberal diarrhea swamp" as it is so descriptive of everything it thinks, does and its outcomes.

And it shows to the rest of Canada and the World Ontarians level of intelligence.

Enjoy.
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# GiantsRick Young 2015-12-14 03:56
No mention of Joe McManus in your listing of giants and other assorted robber barons? An odd omission to be sure.
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# RE: When giants roamed this townbill brock 2015-12-14 04:38
When giants roamed: This Council wants to ignore yesterday and charge ahead for the future (Councillor Park). Since London began the future was decided by those and other giants as politicians, city staff (experts)or key business people. Their future became the past and their decisions left us with a city as you see today. Follow the maps in "Dobbyn to Diesel"; the city divided by class (east and west). The lack of corridors, bridges and vibrant downtown is the result of the past visions. Today spend millions to put London back the way we were yesterday. Lost in the shuffle (but not by yesterday's giants) is that education facilities and transit follows the people so you see London today. The difference is now Council and staff are trying to make people go; at any cost, where they went yesterday. So it appears one could conclude the giants of yesterday moving us forward have been replaced by those who want to take us back. It is called lead the people not follow the people; lead by forcing one to do it their way because today's giants are different?
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# Maybe the "Protestant Work Ethic"Leila Paul 2015-12-14 07:52
The giants who were also men of philanthropy worked hard and their identity was bound up with the companies they built and with their workers and their community. This was their home and they were the patriarchs. And they were also men of merit, not plopped in as preferential unearned visible minorities.

We've been so busy putting unqualified people into decision-making positions and sidelining those who once knew the meaning of hard work, punctuality, and the need to deliver a good product, reasonably priced, that was also actually needed. What we call compassion and "welfare" has become habitual and disabling. To know how to work and be productive a person must actually do that. Instead, our culture has created dependencies and inabilities. With that kind of culture it's hard to find a reliable and capable work force.

it may be the giants were successful because they had workers who made their companies capable of success. Until we start again to demand competence we'll never attract excellence. What's the old saying? Nothing succeeds like success.
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