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Conrad Black signs a copy of his book at the National Business Book Awards in Toronto May 28, 2012. He was one of the three finalists for the award last year, which was won by Bruce Philp. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Conrad Black signs a copy of his book at the National Business Book Awards in Toronto May 28, 2012. He was one of the three finalists for the award last year, which was won by Bruce Philp. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Reviews of National Business Book Award nominees Add to ...

The four finalists for this year’s $20,000 National Business Book Award were announced today: Double Double, by Douglas Hunter; Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland; The Power of Why, by Amanda Lang; and True North: A Life in the Music Business, by Bernie Finkelstein. PricewaterhouseCoopers and BMO Financial Group are co-sponsors of the award; The Globe and Mail is the media sponsor. The winner will be announced May 28. Following are reviews of all four books:

Double Double
Douglas Hunter
(Harper Collins)

After reading Double Double there’s a good chance you’ll never casually grab a box of Timbits or nip into a drive-through lane for a breakfast sandwich again.

Instead, every future coffee run will leave you pondering the societal role of community gathering places, franchisee profit margins, proprietary coffee bean blends, the impact of shifting demographics on fast food trends, the significance of introducing WiFi to doughnut shops, corporate re-engagement strategies or maybe even how Tim Horton earned a 93 in Grade 9 geography.

Those are just a few of the many topics Douglas Hunter has painstakingly researched and analyzed with his encyclopedic enthusiasm for all things Tims.

While the narrative of Double Double can get cluttered with distracting detail, it provides a solid socioeconomic history of post-Second World War Canada refracted through the prism of Tim Hortons’ growth, success – and more recently – challenges. The early prototype of the fast food chain mirrors the development of Toronto’s first suburbs, the relative affluence created by a booming, post-war manufacturing sector, the proliferation of cars and an increasingly mobile population. All of these elements quickly converged to create new appetite for fast(er) food, greater convenience, increased discretionary spending – and a template for national expansion.

Like Tim Hortons, Double Double has something for everyone. For sport fans, there is insight into the very average lives led by Original Six hockey stars: Mr. Horton sold used cars before starting the Tim Hortons business to help make ends meet.

For business junkies, the saga of the company’s efforts to establish a base in Manhattan addresses the perennial conundrum of why and how the expansion of so many established Canadian brands into the U.S. market so frequently fails.

Should Double Double inspire you to seek a Tims franchise, be warned: even if you meet the criteria, there are about 3,000 names ahead of you on the waiting list.

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Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else
Chrystia Freeland
(Doubleday Canada)

To her credit, Chrystia Freeland has written a book about the growing divide between rich and poor without a hectoring agenda.

Instead of indignantly clattering on about the immorality and injustice of economic disparity – or, conversely, trying to justify it – she attempts to explain how the gap came to be and what it portends for both ends of the spectrum.

Her foundational thesis is that the world is currently experiencing two concurrent Gilded Ages in emerging and developing economies respectively.

The original Gilded Age (roughly 1887 to 1900) was the result of the Industrial Revolution and the shift from an agrarian to urban society. This time around, it’s being driven by the convergence of technology and globalization, amplified by the collapse of Communism and the rise of new market economies.

Today, as it was in the first Gilded Age, a limited segment of the population has extreme material success, while the fortunes of the majority are languishing or declining.

The “New Rich” are described as “hard working, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats” who are “increasingly a nation unto themselves.”

Plutocrats explores how technology and globalization have combined to create unprecedented opportunities for these “superstars” who also command superstar premiums for their work.

The greatest challenge these international mercenaries face is to institutionalize the disruption that has spawned them. Most companies, according to Ms. Freeland, still respond to the seismic shifts that are taking place with “creative inertia.” In other words, they do the same thing as always – only more of it. And, she notes, “what works in ordinary times is a recipe for disaster in revolutionary ones.”

The ability to survive in the Age of Plutocracy also depends on grasping that “revolution is the new global status quo.” How individuals and organizations embrace and capitalize on that reality, determines their economic future. (In the case of Canada, for example, the willingness to welcome immigrants is a cornerstone because they bring new ideas, experiences and energy to the mix.)

Plutocrats may be over-reliant on a few voices (specifically that of Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury and former president of Harvard) and its multiple strands could be woven more tightly. But it does a good job of framing our times – and those to come.

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The Power of Why
Amanda Lang
(Collins, HarperCollins)

The Power of Why is a book that confirms its own premise: the key to innovation is to re-examine things that already exist and figure out incremental ways to enhance them.

So, while the basic fabric of Ms. Lang’s book may be familiar, it derives new value from fresh combinations stitched and packaged neatly together.

What is certainly original, is the decision to tack on a self-help component to almost every chapter. Once Ms. Lang has finished examining ways that successful companies challenge themselves or display the inspiration to change, she turns it into a guide for personal lives as well.

The result is a matter of taste: Some readers will embrace the exhortations for “self-compassion” in a book about business innovation. Others, not so much.

The Power of Why begins with a meditation on innovation that, like the rest of the book, is broken up into snack-sized pieces that are easy to digest.

That’s followed by one of its strongest chapters: an overview of how our education system fails to foster the curiosity, experimentation and appetite for risk that help develop the ability for innovative thought.

One point that is especially resonant is that while the economy used to require a very standard base of skills and knowledge – and the education system was created to serve that – it’s no longer relevant. “Schools were designed at the turn of the nineteenth century to meet the needs of a completely different economy, which required workers who’d be equipped with a reliable, standardized package of knowledge.”

The author also raises the issue of the role of Canadian culture in the context of domestic innovation: “With our fortress mentality and stiff-upper-lip British heritage, we may have unintentionally created a society that in subtle ways encourages us to resist the whole notion of challenging tradition.”

Observations that humans tend to avoid risk and “prioritize security and predictability” – especially when there’s a lot of money on the line – would be even more powerful if considered in the context of public companies a little earlier on. It isn’t until the end of The Power of Why that Ms. Lang turns to the reality that experimentation and innovation are particular challenges for companies that have quarterly financial performance targets.

The book relies on a series of Canadian corporate case studies from Canadian Tire to Lululemon, Four Seasons to Gordon Capital to make the point that innovators continue to question themselves and the market and have courage to act on answers even if means radical change. They also foster a “culture of inquiry.”

The Power of Why is contingent on Who, What, When and Where for full impact.

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True North: A Life in the Music Business
Bernie Finkelstein
(McClelland and Stewart)

Rollicking is a word that should be used very sparingly – if at all. But it happens to be the exact word that captures Bernie Finkelstein’s account of his life at the heart of Canada’s music industry.

This book is about the evolution of Canadian culture in the last half of the 20th century. It’s filled with personal anecdotes that bring that history to life and famous names that add plenty of glamour. But the largest character of all is the man telling the stories: Bernie Finkelstein.

True North is engaging from start to finish because the author is so passionate about music rather than just making money from his record company, True North Records. It’s refreshing to hear from someone who is driven by the sheer love of something other than cash, someone who doesn’t have an elaborate strategic plan for world domination underpinning every move.

That’s not to say Mr. Finkelstein isn’t all about hustling the next deal. As an army brat hanging around the pool hall or a music promoter and producer, he never stops hustling, whether it’s from a from a café payphone in Yorkville or, later, luxury office suites in Manhattan and L.A.

Of particular value is the vivid, first-hand recounting of the music scene and ambience of Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood in the 1960s and early 1970s. That’s where Mr. Finkelstein built a career as a promoter, manager and friend to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, John Kay, Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan, Dan Hill and Carole Pope, among many others.

His deep involvement in the Canadian music business also made Mr. Finkelstein an early and effective advocate for the Canadian content regulations that exist today. They stemmed from his fury at the unwillingness of Canadian broadcasters to use public airwaves to showcase homegrown talent.

Decades later, Mr. Finkelstein is still seething that broadcasters would blackball the music of any producers who publicly spoke out against their practices. He claims, “The threat of reprisals against anyone who would dare to speak out against the broadcasters was a real and present danger.”

After decades of booking night club acts, navigating the record industry, conducting contract negotiations with major U.S. labels, managing bands and musicians and organizing and promoting concerts, Mr. Finkelstein declares that “by 1981 there was truly a Canadian music business.”

By the time True North was sold in 2007, Mr. Finkelstein had put out 500 albums and countless singles, earned 40 gold and platinum albums and won 50 Juno Awards.

His legacy lives on at True North which continues to showcase and promote new Canadian talent and music. But there’s a pretty good chance it’s a lot less fun without him in the mix.

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