Too Big to Fail:
Olympia & York - The Story Behind the Headlines

by Walter Stewart,
368 pages,
ISBN: 0771001770

K. C.:
The Biography of K. C. Irving

by Douglas How, Ralph Costello,
384 pages,
ISBN: 1550134930

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Business In The Family
by Ellen Roseman

THE REICHMANNS and the Irvings are two ofCanada`s best-known business families. Both built worldwide financialempires. One collapsed, the other thrives. These books try to get inside the privatelyheld, secretive companies and find out why they succeeded or failed. They alsoattempt to give readers a feel for the personalities behind the businesstransactions. Walter Stewart, a left-of-centrecommentator and author of many business books, admits up front in Too Big toFail that he never got an interview with the Reichmanns or anyone else atOlympia & York. He strings together his own research with quotes andtidbits from the public record to explain why the property empire crumbled andhow the system should be changed to avoid future disasters. Despite his disdainfor capitalism, he admires the Reichmanns and likes their buildings. Douglas How and Ralph Costello arc NewBrunswick journalists who knew K. C. Irving well and had extensive access tohim. Costello, now retired, spent his career working for Irvingowned newspapersand appears as a character in the biography. For example, when consideringwhether Irving dictated editorial policy, the book quotes Mr. Costello atlength denying any interference. Then it goes on to say, "Not everyoneagreed with Costello`s version of Irving`s hands-off relationship withthe newspapers he owned." While K.C. suffers from too much intimacy with itssubject -- it started as an authorized biography, then the Irvingshad second thoughts -- Stewart`s Too Big to Fail is marred by toolittle access to the intensely private Reichmanns. The author has to reach forinformation, to wit: "What is Reichmann`spersonal reaction to all this?" I asked Andrew Sarlos, a Toronto financialguru and Reichmann ally. "Embarrassment, I think," Sarlos replied. Stewart recounts the by now familiardetails of the Reichmanns` rise and fall, drawing liberally from publishedaccounts such as Elaine Dewar`s 1987 article in Toronto Life, thesubject of a successful lawsuit by the family. He gets more interesting when hetravels to the British docklands (more than halfway through the book) anddescribes the development that brought the empire down. Unlike Prince Charles,he likes the Canary Wharf project: "If you are going to build somethinglike this, this is the way to build it." Along the way, Stewart moralizes aboutthe failings of the capitalist system. Early on, he spends eight pagesdiscussing corporation law and how it shields the rich from liability when theyscrew up. Later, he throws in editorials about unjust tax and bankruptcy laws,imprudent lending practices, and lop sided urban planning procedures --all delivered in a folksy, off-the-cuff style that will do littleto convert unbelievers How and Costello are far less critical ofthe system that allows energetic businessmen like K. C. Irving to build uphuge, monopolistic corporate empires. Even his abrupt move to Bermuda in 1971to escape threatened Canadian inheritance taxes does not draw censure. "Heleft, in good part, because he wanted what he had built to survive," theauthors conclude. The book ends with Irving`s death in December 1992, and does notmention his controversial will, which left most of his property in a trust thathis three sons can help run only if they live outside Canada. Where How and Costello shine is in theiruse of anecdotes depicting Irving`s character, a mixture of stem perfectionismand rigid attention to details. He comes across as a hard man to like --habitually late for meetings, lacking any hobbies or interests except work,reluctant to waste a penny of his vast fortune. He often ate in second-raterestaurants, the authors say: "You ate faster there and he was always in ahurry." Still, despite his persnicketypersonality, Irving is a man you can`t help but admire, the only Canadianbillionaire ever to own a province. Unlike other illustrious New Brunswicknatives -- Lord Beaverbrook, R. B. Bennett, Cyrus Eaton, Louis B.Mayer, Alfred Fuller (America`s "Fuller Brush Man") -- hedidn`t go away to make his fortune. He saw the opportunities at home. In 1947, Irving was offered a chance toget in on Alberta`s early oil play and turned it down. "I didn`t want tolive in Alberta," he`d say. "This is where I wanted to live. Youcouldn`t get a better place than the Maritimes." Critics say he came toconfuse what was good for him with what was good for New Brunswick, but K. C.was one of a kind. We can thank his two biographers for giving us an insightinto this powerful Presbyterian industrialist.

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