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Can't Buy Me Love: How Martha Billes:
Made Canadian Tire Hers


by Rod McQueen
282 pages,
ISBN: 0773733221


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The Martha Billes Story
by John Oughton

One of the few sure-fire tests of a genuine Canadian is knowing what the term "double-double" mean. Another is storing in your wallet or glove box currency adorned with a red triangular logo and thrifty tam-sporting Scot: Canadian Tire money.

The Canadian Tire Corporation, CTC or "Tire", as insiders call it, is a rare phenomenon in Canadian retailing. Brothers J.W. and A.J. Billes developed several innovative ideas besides CTC dollars including employee profit-sharing and roller-skating stock clerks and correctly bet that Canada's cars would always need inexpensive parts. CTC has prospered for (depending on who dates the company's inception) at least 75 years. Now it rings in $5 billion in annual sales. A startling 60% of Canadians buy something there monthly.

Under the familiar bland exterior of Tire stores is an intricate and fascinating tale. As American big-box chains moved into Canada, homegrown retail dynasties such as Eaton's and Consumers Distributing went broke. Tire was described then as "a deer caught in the headlights." But, despite a few bumps on the way like botched expansions to the US and Australian markets, a reputation as "Crappy Tire", and poor customer service, it rolls on. It remains not only a money machine for investors, dealers (average income $500,000 a year), and profit-sharing employees, Tire has also been an engine of business news and tabloid-worthy scandal.

Here's a pitch of the elements that would make for a Canadian Tire production of "Dallas". When senior founder J.W. dies at 59 (of an infection¨ nobody shot J.W.), his complicated will leaves shares to charity, blocking his wife and children from controlling the company. Surviving founder A.J. retires for health reasons, giving his three children equal 20% shares. They try to sell all their voting shares while preventing non-voting shareholders from profiting, sue each other, and are rebuked by the Ontario Securities Commission. When all the infighting ends, the darkest horse winds up owning both the prized family cottage on Lake Simcoe's Shanty Bay and control of 61.2% of CTC's voting shares. It is Martha Billes, the youngest child, and her control of Tire is as assured as her love life is tangled.

Now 61, Martha Billes is a fixture on Canadian lists of the wealthiest and most powerful businesswomen. Depending on Tire's share prices, she owns about $100 million in stocks and $25 million in private investments. Although she wants to be the public face of Tire, as the only Billes now owning voting stock and remaining on its board, she is also a deeply private, contradictory person. Rod McQueen, well-known for his books on Confederation Life, Sinclair Stevens, and the Eaton's debacle, met this tall heiress with icy blue eyes while working on another project. He recalls: "Martha struck me as one of the most complex people I'd ever encountered in twenty-five years of business journalism."

To unravel some of her complexities, McQueen did extensive research: interviewing many from the Tire and the Billes clan, looking up her high school and college acquaintances, digging into old yearbooks, Tire catalogues, ads and videos. To some extent, he covers the same ground as Ian Brown's Freewheeling of a decade ago, but recent events make McQueen's book topical.

One is Martha's 1997 victory over her brothers Fred (who calls her a "heller") and David, when her farsighted plan to buy them out finally succeeded. The other is the Calgary court case weighing lawsuits and counter-suits between Martha, her former lover Paul McAteer, and his former wife Pamela Mason over his Devoncroft real-estate development company.

While pursuing the affair that broke up the McAteer-Mason marriage, Martha lent the company several million dollars through various companies and her adopted son's estate. When Devoncroft couldn't meet interest payments, and she and McAteer broke up, Martha called in the loans. This forced the company into bankruptcy. McQueen relates how she soon found herself famous for the worst possible reason. She had to endure one witness repeating McAteer's boast: "When we really need money, all I have to do is sleep with Martha." (After McQueen's book went to press, the case was settled, with McAteer ordered to repay some of the loans, and make up losses to his own children's estates.)

McQueen does a workmanlike job not only of simplifying the complex deals, shareholding structures and takeover maneuvers, but also of outlining the gender and sex-role expectations that impeded Martha's generation. Men thought that women's primary role was in the home, and females could contribute little to business management. When A.J. Billes gave the voting shares to his children, sons Fred and David got seats on Tire's board of directors. Martha was kept from hers for another decade. She appeared the brightest academically, and certainly has the practical streak one would expect in a hardware store heiress. McQueen describes her enjoying fixing toilets and operating a backhoe to upgrade her property. Associates praise her prodigious memory and attention to detail. However, neither her father, her brothers, nor Tire's executives wanted her help running the family business. She proved to all of them that she could not just compete, but win.

McQueen also tries hard to dissect the springs and gears of her emotional life. Her problems with relationships include two divorces (the second led to her paying $4,000 a month in alimony), the affair with McAteer, and periodic alienation from her adopted son Owen. McQueen speculates that issues of control and the need for love and approval both bedevil her private life and drive her to succeed in business. Uncle J.W. had always been seen as the "controlling" Billes until his death, while her father and family were considered also-rans. Tire was her father's favourite "child," with a level of success no human sibling could match. A.J. didn't encourage Martha to get involved in the family business. Martha wanted to pursue a career in science, but was pushed by her parents into a degree in home economics. Anecdotal accounts like the kind that Martha, the only car-owning student in her small Guelph college, would charge others fare for a drive to Toronto, and that she still claims her director's discount on goods purchased at Tire stores, are telling. But McQueen never succeeds in completely illuminating her character, the challenge that inspired this book.

At times, he commits unlikely analogies, comparing her to Cinderella (his subject has seldom been forced into housework, and is a stranger to poverty), overwrought metaphors ("Martha had found in Mason a bendable straw though which she was going to drink the love potion she needed"), and simple misuse of language ("a smatter of ridicule"). Some of these problems may infect McQueen's prose precisely because of his long association with business people who value clarity in balance sheets over elegance in language. He quotes Fred Billes, for instance, about a troublesome US subsidiary: "We have to cauterize the devil", and Paul McAteer writing in a letter: "When I look at it in hindsite [sic], it seems almost too unreal to believe this would be happening."

Although Martha's business and love interests are his focus, McQueen rounds out the portrait by covering her roles as a caring friend to some, an investing angel for musicals such as Cats (which made money) and Napoleon (which didn't), and an owner/breeder of Lakeland terriers. He also asks the necessary questions about the future of Tire: long accustomed to keeping her cards hidden until the right moment, Martha has revealed no plans for succession. She has yet to confirm whether her son Owen will inherit her shares, or whether any Billes will have a future role in the corporation. But you can bet your Canadian Tire dollars that she has a plan. ˛

John Oughton, whose latest poetry book is Counting Out the Millennium, has reached middle age without inheriting a cent. He shops at Canadian Tire.

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