This year the machinery mythologizing the high rollers of capitalism is grinding mightily, with the focus turning to media magnates. Donald Trump still holds court on television’s The Apprentice
; there’s a new biography of William Randolph Hearst by Maclean’s
editor Ken Whyte; and two books about corporate daredevil Richard Branson are already in stores. Now the spotlight is being turned on two members of Canada’s media royalty. Relentless
is really three books in one: the story of Ted Rogers’ childhood and schooling, a retelling of his rise to power as head of Rogers Communications, and a brief set of principles for succeeding in business. The first act is certainly the most entertaining of the three. In effect, it is the archetypal orphan story, rewritten to star the young Rogers: Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One
set at Toronto’s Upper Canada College. When young Ted’s father dies and his company is taken over by unfaithful business partners led by his wicked uncle, the boy sets himself the goal of rebuilding the elder Rogers’ legacy. A skinny boy at boarding school, he takes to boxing and, despite many a knockdown, perseveres to become a champion. He hooks his first pay-per-view audience in his dormitory by charging fellow boarders to watch the TV programs he captures with a jerry-rigged antenna of his own design. From there, the book descends into a plodding timeline of investments, business deals, and power plays, punctuated with a litany of A-list name-dropping and astronomical dollar figures. The clichés come fast and thick. Throughout Relentless
, Ted Rogers is portrayed as a proud Canadian, a maverick, a self-made man, and so on. More than anything, Rogers strives to be seen as a simple man, a desire highlighted by statements like, “I don’t use long words because I can’t pronounce them properly and I don’t know what they mean.” But these bids for everyman credibility come off as comedic rather than genuine. Rogers and Brehl are so desperate to paint many different pictures of the mogul that the final image is hopelessly blurred. Newman’s portrayal of the late Israel Asper is equally flattering: the Izzy of Izzy
is a stubborn iconoclast, a populist politico, a nation-building philanthropist, seemingly more concerned with the thrill of the enterprise than with dollars and cents. But Newman does manage to posthumously imbue his subject with an offbeat liveliness. Asper, with his passion for jazz, cigarettes, martinis, and business (in that order), comes across as part scrappy entrepreneur, part buffoon. He signed major deals going on little more than his trademark chutzpah, engaged Conrad Black in business and linguistic dueling, and single-handedly put Winnipeg on Canada’s business map. On the other hand, in true Hearstian fashion, he thought that just because he owned a printing press he could dictate what his papers reported. Newman quotes him as telling his daughter Gail, “Why would I want a paper if I couldn’t determine what it said?” Unfortunately, Newman’s book falls into the same trap as Rogers’: there is only so much storytelling possible before descending into the nitty gritty of financing, contract-signing, and those other dull necessities of enterprise. Rogers and Asper are Canadian entrepreneurial icons and both certainly had uncommon business acumen. But the assumption behind chronicling their lives is that these lives – the personas behind the business deals – and the lessons they can teach aspiring entrepreneurs are fascinating in and of themselves. This is where both Relentless
fall short. Even as primers on corporate success, the books are flawed. They represent the old school of business thinking based on big credit, schmooze-and-booze dealing, and overt political manoeuvering. Asper and Rogers are men who knew what they wanted and worked all their lives to get it. Newman aptly describes their common personality as “visionary workaholic.” But this is hardly groundbreaking. These two books share the predicament of most business bios: they are, ultimately, unnecessary. For better or worse, some men, like Richard Branson, are made for the spotlight, and gladly embrace it. Those who are not, like Izzy Asper and Ted Rogers, should not be thrust into it.