It was a typical Winnipeg autumn morning—cold and windy—on Nov. 16, 1925, when a group of 134 businessmen from across Canada’s nine provinces gathered at the Manitoba Legislative Building. They represented the boards of trade and chambers of commerce in cities as large as Montreal, the nation’s economic and cultural hub, and as small as Elmira, a newly incorporated town of 2,500 in southern Ontario. Sounding somewhat impatient for former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier’s promise that the 20th century belonged to Canada, the stated purpose of their gathering was to “do something to overcome the growing feeling of unrest in evidence in various parts of the Dominion, to improve economic conditions, and to establish a better understanding and spirit of co-operation between the several Provinces.”
That “something” became the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. It sounded bureaucratic, and it most definitely was—over the next few years, chamber members held meetings, gave speeches, took meticulous minutes and, in February 1928, published the first edition of the chamber newsletter, The Commerce of the Nation.
For the next 2½ years, the eight-page Commerce of the Nation dutifully informed chamber members of conferences, local board activity and the like. But by 1930, with national membership at more than 250,000, the chamber realized its widely circulated newsletter read by the country’s business leaders had a greater potential to fulfil the mandate it had set five years earlier. With its August 1930 issue, The Commerce of the Nation, headquartered in Montreal’s Board of Trade Building, was relaunched as a publicly available periodical. The new magazine sported a tag line that both hinted at its future while also being understandably blind to the societal changes that were to come: “A Magazine For Canadian Business Men.” In January 1933, that descriptive slogan overtook the magazine’s original title, and The Commerce of the Nation was renamed Canadian Business.
The new magazine’s editorial team consisted of a trio of men, all chamber executives: Wendell McLeod Clarke, consulting editor; Kenneth J. McArdle, managing editor; and Hambley White, editor. In hindsight, 1930 doesn’t sound like the best time to launch a magazine, least of all one focused on business. The stock market crash of 1929 was only nine months in the past, and North America had entered what would eventually be known as the Great Depression. This irony wasn’t lost on the magazine’s staff: in the debut issue, McArdle dryly observed that the periodical was being launched “at a time when the present business situation may not be exceptionally brisk.” The birth of Canadian Business was, in many respects, a leap of faith. J. H. Woods, president of both the chamber and the Calgary Herald, said it was the organization’s hope that by building gradually and progressively, “this monthly review for business men will serve intelligently the economic interests of the country and the greater unity of the Canadian people.”
Business journalism in 1930, especially in magazine form, was in its infancy. At the ripe old age of 13, Forbes was already a biz-mag granddaddy. Business Week had launched in 1929, and Fortune would take its bow alongside The Commerce of the Nation the following year. In Canada, The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine and The Financial Post Magazine were decades away. The Canadian businessman of 1930 got his news from the dailies, something McArdle keenly was aware of: “Where [the dailies] particularize in special fields of activity, we assume a general, national view of each business situation as the occasion for discussion arises.” (Later versions of Canadian Business would do both.)
Like all magazines, Canadian Business carried its own series of regular departments and columns, including How’s Business?, a monthly look at commercial and financial developments; In the Business Spotlight, a gallery of businessmen in the news; Reading for Profit and Pleasure, a review of books the editors felt “might assist or amuse the business man” (early sections contained favorable reviews of such then-new releases as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Stephen Leacock’s Economic Prosperity in the British Empire); The Selling Parade, a long-running digest of successful selling ideas by Charles B. Roth that spawned several books; and regular correspondent letters from Ottawa, London and Washington. One of the more curious sections to the modern eye is a monthly review of industrial training films. The relatively short life of this section suggests it was somewhat curious at the time as well. But the most interesting section, when viewed from 2013, has to be New Ideas in Business, a look at advancements in office technology. Along with nearly monthly updates on improvements to the pencil, such wonderful inventions as the combination pen-stapler were promoted with all the gusto the magazine reserves for a new smartphone launch today.
Though the Canadian Business of the 1930s covered many topics that wouldn’t seem out of place in the 21st century—rising taxes, truth in advertising, the imminent death of the airline industry—it also ran many stories the editors of 2013 likely would never touch (“The story of safety glass”) or would at least think twice about (“The ‘social’ diseases and business: what is syphilis costing Canada?”). But the formula worked, and non-chamber readership skyrocketed. By 1939, the magazine that had started with 3,000 readers and 32 pages was now read by 15,000 and was three times as thick.
While the Depression eventually ended and the economy rebounded, it did so at a high cost: Canada’s involvement in the Second World War. Like the rest of the nation, Canadian Business did its part for the war effort. Covers often were given over to calls for blood drives and promotions for Victory Bonds. Within its editorial pages, the magazine made the best of a bad situation, offering such articles as “Canadian herring help hit Hitler” (a story about how home-fished sardines were being sent overseas to feed the troops) and “How to travel in wartime” (the gist of which was, “Don’t”).
As the war neared an end, the original trio that built Canadian Business was nearly gone. Clarke died in 1940. White had moved on years before, replaced by Donald L. Morrell, a young business graduate from McGill University, who subsequently replaced McArdle as consulting editor upon the latter’s departure in 1943. The magazine was left in the hands of its recently named financial editor, S. C. (Sid) Scobell, an investment counsellor with Jones Heward & Co. in Montreal. Scobell began writing for the magazine in 1931, and in 1935 he contributed a series of articles that he parlayed into a monthly investment column.
Considering how the magazine had prospered, both editorially and financially, it was obvious that Clarke, McArdle and White had been the best team to see it through the war. Scobell equally was the best man to see Canadian Business through the less burdensome postwar era. His monthly editor’s notes (always signed “Faithfully Yours, The Editor”) suggested a man of intelligence, wit and humility. Though not a journalist by trade, Scobell was a natural writer and, judging by how much more sophisticated the magazine was becoming, a natural editor: with a circulation approaching 20,000, Canadian Business was now one of the biggest magazines in the country.
Some of Scobell’s most significant coups were in the area of design. In 1944, he discovered a “versatile young Montreal artist” by the name of Grant Timmermann, who, for the next four years, would have an almost exclusive lock on illustrating the magazine’s covers. Canadian Business covers up until that point had been, for the most part, what only could be described as bland. Timmermann’s colourful work showed not only a talented hand, but imagination. And even when bland was forced on him, as seen in a series of cover portraits of white-mustachioed businessman, Timmermann produced work on par with any cover artist of his day.
But it was Scobell’s commission of an award-winning redesign that garnered the real attention. While it had never been on par with Fortune, Canadian Business wasn’t a grey-looking magazine either. It had undergone redesigns before, but nothing like the one executed in December 1948 by Carl Dair, a Montreal-based designer and typographer. Much of the Dair design, with its loose scripted type and individually designed headlines, might be considered “retro” today, but for a Canadian magazine in 1948 it was years ahead of its time. “It was the first professional redesign of a magazine in Canada,” says Rod McDonald, another renowned typographer who worked on the magazine’s 2000 redesign. “It influenced almost every magazine in the country. Up until that point, magazines evolved—they weren’t designed.”
Scobell continued to write his investment column for years to come, but his editorship came to an end in November 1949. Replacing him was Howard Gamble, a Toronto-born chartered accountant who had joined the staff of The Financial Post in 1945 and was acting as its Montreal editor before arriving at Canadian Business. Though a competent editor, his magazine lacked the flare of Scobell’s. Gamble rarely wrote editor’s notes or ran letters from readers, giving the publication something of an aloof air. (“He was a great editor, but often, when you’d go into his office, he’d be sitting there half-asleep,” according to one former staff member.)
Throughout Gamble’s 23-year reign (still a Canadian Business record), most of the magazine’s long-running regular features were discontinued, as was, in 1955, Carl Dair’s design. Sadly, instead of building on Dair’s accomplishments, what followed was another series of utilitarian designs that would plague the magazine throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Regardless, readership continued to climb and, by the time Gamble retired in 1972, circulation had reached nearly 32,000 copies per issue.
In 1977, poor health and old age caught up with Sid Scobell. His June investment column that year was the last he would write before retiring to British Columbia. In 41 years and eight months, Scobell missed only one issue (due to a 1972 hospital stay), making his investment column not only, in the words of one competitor, “the longest-running series in business publishing history,” but likely Canadian magazine publishing’s longest-running column, period. Considering that Scobell’s involvement with the magazine (then in its 50th year) dated back to its Commerce of the Nation beginnings, his retirement marked the end of an era.
Behind the scenes, the end of another era was just beginning. By the late 1960s, Canadian Business, with its increasing readership and advertising pages—and the profit that came with them—had become a victim of its own success. Revenue Canada was pressuring the not-for-profit Canadian Chamber of Commerce to divest itself of its money-making publication. To ease the situation, the chamber separately incorporated Canadian Business under the name CB Media Ltd. in 1970. While the magazine was no longer its official organ (offices even moved from the Board of Trade Building), the chamber still held 100% of CB Media’s shares. Gamble’s successor, Robin Schiele—a seven-year veteran of the magazine who had also worked at the Montreal Gazette and a Montreal investment house—continued the profitable run, and by 1977 Revenue Canada again insisted the chamber divest or fold the magazine, which then boasted a circulation of 52,000 and, with multiple readers per copy, a readership of 185,000. Just prior to the publication of the June 1977 issue—probably not coincidentally the same month of Scobell’s retirement and the same month Schiele’s editor’s notes mysteriously vanished—the chamber completed the sale of CB Media to a new trio of Canadian businessmen. Two months later, without fanfare or farewell, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce—an organization that still survives in 2013—published its final issue of Canadian Business.
The new owners of Canadian Business were no strangers to either business or publishing. Roy MacLaren, the new publisher, had a career spanning diplomacy, public relations and advertising. (He would later serve in Parliament as a Liberal cabinet minister and become Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.) CB Media’s new chair, Michael de Pencier, chairman of Key Publishers, was well known for turning around such magazines as Toronto Life, Quill & Quire and Owl. The third partner, Alexander (Sandy) Ross, would become the magazine’s editor. A veteran of Maclean’s, The Financial Post and the Toronto Star, Ross most recently edited Toronto Life during a period that saw it become the country’s fastest-growing magazine.
Ross had a vision for a new kind of business magazine, one that “reflects our basic editorial conviction: that business is important, interesting, understandable and—more often than many people realize—fun.” Canadian Business would continue to play up the strengths that had made it successful, but it would do so in a way that appealed even to casual businessmen (and increasingly, despite the magazine’s original tag line, women), not just hard-core management types. “Sandy’s goal back then was to bring all the glamour of consumer magazine publishing to business journalism, which was a revolutionary concept in Canada,” says Paul Jones, publisher of Canadian Business from 1990 to 1999, and later publisher of Maclean’s and a senior vice-president of Rogers Publishing.
Despite moving the magazine to Toronto from Montreal and hiring an almost completely new staff, Canadian Business was back on newsstands the month following the chamber’s final edition. The cover of the relaunch issue, dated September 1977, sported an illustration of a gunslinger carrying a briefcase under the heading, “The management consultant as hired gun . . . and how to hire him.” The drawing expressed the magazine’s playful new attitude, but also had another meaning. “The cover with the cowboy on it said, ‘Hey, we’re a new magazine entirely, and anything looking like the old chamber magazine is long forgotten,’” says MacLaren.
Ross was a strong believer in new talent. While several of the writers who would appear in the magazine over the next several years were recognized commodities, he was responsible for launching the careers of an incredible number of then-unknowns. The pages of Canadian Business from the late ’70s and early ’80s now read like a who’s who of Canadian journalism: Margaret Wente, Diane Francis, Philip Marchand, John Haslett Cuff, Patricia Best, Rick Salutin and Charles Davies, to name a few. Ross’s ideas worked, and the new Canadian Business was an instant success.
In 1981, after four years at the helm, Ross stepped aside, though he remained on board as a consulting editor. Taking his place was Margaret Wente, the magazine’s 30-year-old second-in-command, and Ross’s handpicked successor. Wente was not only the magazine’s first female editor, she was also only the second woman to hold a senior editorial position in the magazine’s 54-year history. “I think there was some sense that Sandy would be there in the background to prop me up if I fell down,” says Wente, who went on to head Report on Business magazine and The Globe and Mail’s daily Report on Business, before becoming one of the newspaper’s most recognized columnists. “Sandy was wonderful, of course, because I never heard from him again for two years.”
With Wente’s departure in 1984, the direct line from Sandy Ross was broken. The next six years would see a succession of editors (Charles Davies, 1984–1987; Joann Webb, 1987–1989; Wayne Gooding, 1989–1990), and a splintering of ownership. During this time, MacLaren and de Pencier had become busy with new projects and decided to bring in Maclean Hunter, the country’s largest magazine publisher, as minority shareholder. (Maclean Hunter had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Canadian Business from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in 1977.)
In previous decades, the magazine could easily weather a few years of turmoil. By the 1980s, however, Canadian Business had direct competition for the first time in its history, in the form of The Financial Post Magazine and Report on Business, which was launched as a give-away insert in the Globe in 1985. Though Canadian Business was still profitable, it quickly began losing ground, especially in terms of advertising pages, to ROB, and it became obvious that a sudden economic downturn could mean trouble for the company. To solve the ownership issue, shareholders agreed to allow Maclean Hunter to acquire a majority stake in CB Media in 1990, and, in 1994, the magazine was moved from its makeshift warehouse office on Toronto’s Esplanade to the Maclean Hunter Building on Bay Street.
With one problem out of the way, the new owners turned their attention to content. “We needed to inject some kind of editorial stability and the fastest way to do that was to bring Sandy back,” says Jones, a former research manager at The Financial Post, who was installed as publisher after the buyout. “We knew he wouldn’t be there for the long term, but he would stabilize things, he would produce a credible magazine, and one of his tasks was to develop a team that could take over from him down the road.”
Ross again assembled a new staff and, within two years, Canadian Business had reversed its market share decline and was back on top. This time, Ross planned his departure slowly, elevating himself to editor-in-chief while handing day-to-day operations over to Randall Litchfield, its executive editor.
Sadly, Ross died unexpectedly in 1993 at the age of 58 after suffering a stroke. “If there’s any one person who deserves the credit for the success of Canadian Business, it’s Sandy Ross,” says MacLaren. “He did it, and he did it in spades, and Canadian business journalism hasn’t been the same since.”
When Litchfield left the magazine in 1994, Arthur Johnson, another of Ross’s handpicked staff, assumed the editor’s seat. A veteran of The Globe and Mail and Report on Business, Johnson not only would continue Ross’s vision of a reader-friendly business magazine, but would take it one step further by overseeing the biggest change in the publication’s history.
In 1995, Canadian Business took the first steps in a long-held vision to increase its frequency by publishing a quarterly special titled Canadian Business Technology. In 1997, after nearly doubling its staff, the magazine rolled the technology special into its regular pages and made the leap to publishing twice per month, beginning with its Sept. 26 edition. “There had been a recognition for a long time that being a monthly wasn’t cutting it—we were one monthly among three,” says Johnson. “If you’re a monthly, you can’t be timely, you can’t cover investing, you can’t cover a whole array of things.”
As the 1990s came to a close, Canadian Business’s ownership changed one more time. Maclean Hunter was purchased by Rogers Communications in 1994, and five years later Rogers purchased all outstanding shares of CB Media, which was officially dissolved as a company in December 2002. Combined with long-standing Maclean Hunter titles such as Maclean’s, Chatelaine and Flare, and eventually newer titles including MoneySense, Sportsnet and LouLou, Canadian Business now helped form Rogers Publishing, the print media arm of Rogers Communications.
By the time of the magazine’s 75th anniversary in 2003, by then under the leadership of Joe Chidley—a former Maclean’s staffer who quickly rose at CB from writer to technology editor to finally take over the editor’s chair upon Johnson’s departure in 2000—Canadian Business was a true biweekly, with a readership of nearly 1.1 million and several popular annual issues, including the Investor 500, the Rich 100, and the annual MBA Guide.
Recent years have seen another big change for Canadian Business. In 2009, Steve Maich, a reporter and editor with experience at Bloomberg, the National Post and Maclean’s, assumed the editor’s chair to create a Canadian Business that was entirely new, while at the same time the strongest reaffirmation in years of Sandy Ross’s belief that business should be understandable and fun. “I felt like there was an opportunity for the magazine to be a little more fun and kind of tap into the excitement of business,” says Maich. “We wanted to give the sense that there was a lot more packed into the magazine. Really fast-paced, lots of information. We’re going to bring a little more humour than maybe we had in the past, a slightly different voice, more focused on splashy layouts. And that has continued on and, arguably, been taken further since I left.”
Under the editorship of former MoneySense editor Duncan Hood since 2012, Canadian Business continues to meet the goals set out by both McArdle and Ross—reinterpreting them when required, and evolving in step with the always interesting, never dull, world of Canadian business.
(An earlier version of this story appeared in the Feb. 3, 2003, issue of Canadian Business.)