The sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company by one American owner to another sent me to my bookshelves to pull out Peter C. Newman’s 2000 book on this storied old enterprise, Empire of the Bay: the Company of Adventurers That Seized a Continent. It is one of Newman’s less celebrated works. I say that because, as a semi-official history of the fur trader cum department store, some critics have questioned whether Newman was as tough as he should have been on the company’s management — dead and alive.
Many Canadians lamented the sale by Toronto’s Thomson family of The Bay to American entrepreneur Jerry Zucker. The store’s been up for sale again since his death in April. The buyer, real estate investor Richard Baker, controls Lord & Taylor, the big American department store that’s respected for its long heritage but is having the same problems as The Bay in attracting younger and more affluent shoppers.
Newman, as always, wrote an engrossing tale in Empire of the Bay. He has that ability to transport the reader into an exotic environment. And that was certainly one way to describe the court of King Charles in 1702 when two French fur traders, Raddison and Groseilliers, convinced British investors and the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert of Bavaria, to put money into a scheme to bring furs out of the country around Hudson’s Bay.
The Company of Adventurers of course went on to reign over most of Canada’s territory west of the Great Lakes. Newman properly salutes the role of George Simpson, the Scottish-born trader who headed the company in its glory years of the 19th century. Like a modern day jet setter, he spent most of his time on “the road” (except in his case it was on the river, by canoe). He also found time to father around 70 children by various Indian maidens he maintained at different trading posts.
Canadians by now have become accustomed to seeing many of our major assets pass into foreign hands. Just as well, because that’s what the global economy is all about. In fact, more Canadians are investing abroad than foreign companies are investing in this country. And foreign investment has declined in Canada as a share of total global investment — 2.9 per cent in 2001 compared to 7.1 per cent in 1985.
Foreign take-overs still stir Canadian emotions, however. One of the things that’s always puzzled me about the Left has been their strident support of domestic capitalists. There’s tons of evidence that Canadian owners have been complacant, non-innovative, and generally lacking in the wit or will to invest in technology and systems that increase productivity and build wealth.
Perhaps it was okay to give an edge to local entrepreneurs when the country was young and our manufacturers were unable to compete against bigger and richer foreign (American) operators. Hence the National Policy of Sir John A. Macdonald that kept low-priced farm implements out of Canada. The Masseys and the Harrises got rich on it.
In today’s global economy, the factor of ownership really doesn’t count for much. You can argue all you wish that a Head Office in Duluth has no interest in keeping jobs in North Bay. The same goes for a Head Office in Toronto, or in Calgary. They’re all pretty well driven by the same economic realities.
We should wish Richard Baker well in his venture with The Bay. He’s going to have to meet the Canadian “value challenge,” as the retail analysts call it. Better products, lower prices, good service. What’s not to like about that?