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.