Monday, March 26, 2007

Conrad: A Whiter Shade of Black

I have complicated feelings about a Chicago judge and jury hearing the case against Conrad Black and his Hollinger underlings. There's something repugnant about using one of Canada's own to fuel the careers of ambitious Chicago prosecutors. What, there were no local businessmen or politicians acting corruptly or breaching securities law? In Chicago? And I am horrified at the photos of the prosecutor's wife and young children showing up to hear Daddy's opening argument. It's unseemly. I certainly never take my children to business meetings so that they can watch mommy try and stick it to the other side.

Perhaps I feel protective because, when you boil it down, Conrad is one of us - a Canadian entrepreneur. I don't care that he's a British citizen now. The Queen is on my dime and I still welcome her to town when she comes. And we still claim Jim Carrey, now a US citizen, as one of Canada's finest comedians. One shouldn't quibble about it. Lord Cross-Harbour is our homeboy.

The entrepreneurs I've worked with fall into two categories: the visionaries, who are driven by a new technology or business model to create a market, and the overachievers, who are driven by the principle that they can have anything they want if they work for it. Conrad is one of the latter.

Overachievers typically play in traditional and established industries,drawn to them in part by their individual needs to reinvent themselves as leaders of the business establishment. They play big and when they lose, they lose big. Robert Campeau was my first experience with this kind of entrepreneur. At the height of his success, the man travelled in a private jet with the song "My Way" programmed to play in a continuous loop. His empire was dismantled in a courtroom in Cinncinnati full of New York and Toronto lawyers (need information on what to do during a court recess in the midwestern US? Call me). Now he lives as a semi-recluse in Ottawa.

I don't expect Conrad Black will meet the same fate. I think the story that will unfold in the next few weeks won't be about Conrad at all, and could be far more damaging to the rest of us: how a board of leading directors failed to provide proper oversight (or any oversight at all), and how a prominent law firm fumbled by providing a legal opinion blessing Conrad's actions.

This is not the kind of message about the Canadian business community I want in circulation. And I believe we will as a business centre be tarred with it for some time. Spin doctors, start your engines. Please.

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