Raggedy Sandy: Part Two

Excerpts from my profile of Alexander ‘Sandy’ Ross, founder of Canadian Business magazine and one of the giants of Canadian journalism. (2 of 5)

It would be easy to mythologize Sandy Ross, a man for whom there is already “an enormous amount of hagiography,” says Penny Williams, who worked with him from 1984 to 1988.

A glimpse at his résumé will help explain why:

Editor of the University of British Columbia’s Ubyssey in the mid-fifties, the days of the infamous “Vancouver Mafia” that included Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, John Turner, Joe Schlesinger and Helen Hutchinson

London correspondent for UPI

Award-winning columnist for the Vancouver Sun

Managing editor of Maclean’s

Story editor for the CBC’s legendary (that word again) This Hour Has Seven Days

Co-author of the famed 1970 Report of the Special Senate Committee on the Mass Media (headed by Senator Keith Davey)

Columnist for The Financial Post and The Toronto Star

Editor of Toronto Life

Author of two highly acclaimed books about the Canadian business scene

That peripatetic record would probably be enough to reserve him a spot in the pantheon of great Canadian journalists, but Ross’ most resonant achievement was the re-creation of Canadian Business magazine. In 1977, along with business partners Michael de Pencier, owner of Toronto Life and other publishing ventures, and Roy MacLaren, then president of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather’s Canadian branch and now Canada’s High Commissioner to London, Ross purchased the original Canadian Business, a bone-dry, 49-year-old Canadian Chamber of Commerce house organ steeped in the diction of the trade press.

Some sample features from the pre-Ross CB: “The Long Term Returns from Advertising Can Be Measured,” or how about “Wheat: The Big Business Story of the Year”?

The new CB under Ross and de Pencier.

The first issue of the new CB in September 1977 featured a cover illustration of the Lone Ranger holding a briefcase, with a stylized factory with smoking stacks in the background. The headline: “Management Consultant as Hired Gun.” Under Ross, the magazine would bring business to life and focus on the people who made commerce click. A typical story might detail the shady business practices of previously unassailable megacompanies (“The Arrogance of Inco”) or celebrate the successes of young Canucks at U.S. business schools (“The Canadian Whiz Kids at the Harvard Bschool”)-all with an eye on the humanity behind the numbers.

“‘Business as a spectator sport’ was the line we used,” says de Pencier. “Sandy had this idea that he and all of us together could produce a business magazine that people would really like to read. One that would have profiles of real live business people and would take chances and risks.”

Margaret Wente, a former Ross protégé who went on to become editor of the Globe‘s Report on Business, explains the approach this way: “He was generally looking for heroes, for people who were larger than life and had done really neat and interesting things. He liked entrepreneurs, he liked buccaneers, and he was essentially an entrepreneur himself.”

Substitute Peter Munk for Michael Jordan and the drama and high stakes of a professional sports match could be injected into a corporate acquisition battle. By putting the personal into what had always been a specialist genre, Ross and the stable of young writers whose careers he helped establish spoke to a generation of post-sixties executives tired of the grey-suited facelessness of corporate culture. He reflected their growing desire to see their work humanized, dramatized — lionized — and placed them squarely into the Canadian social context.

That stable of young writers reads like a Who’s Who of the Canadian business journalism and media establishment. People like Wente, Diane Francis, David Olive, Der Hoi-Yin, John Partridge and Charles Davies, to name just a few. They are a key part of Sandy’s professional legacy.

“He was extremely generous with young talent. He would take tremendous chances on people,” says Wente. “He would send young, untested people out, throw them into the deep end and give them absolutely plum assignments to see what they could do. He’d also exploit them mercilessly by paying them nothing, but he gave a lot of talented people a chance to show what they could do, and that’s a tremendous gift if you’re a young journalist trying to test yourself in the world. He gave me that chance.”

[End of Part 2] [Back to Part 1]

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Mark Dewolf

Mark Dewolf

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Chronicling digital’s impact on absolutely everything. More at markdewolf.com.