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Eric Reguly

Why doesn't Canada have more top companies? Add to ...

Aren’t we clever? Our Top 1000 lists more than 30 Canadian companies with profits of $1 billion or more in 2010, a remarkable achievement given the worldwide corporate bloodletting since the 2008 financial crisis. Most Canadians know the names of the biggies, from Royal Bank to Rogers Communications, and probably consider them money-spinning proof that we can compete with the best of the best.

When I look at the list, however, my heart sinks. I recognize every one of the top 100, but I can only spot three, maybe four, that: a) compete in the international big leagues, b) have a brand that is known outside Canada and c) are making news. They are: Research In Motion, Thomson Reuters, Bombardier and perhaps Royal Bank or Barrick Gold. A few years ago, I would have put Manulife among that group, but its image has waned in the post-Dominic D’Alessandro years.

Congrats to those four, even though each lacks the “cool” factor that has, for instance, made Apple a supernova. So why doesn’t Canada have more international corporate champions?

Some of the world’s smaller countries, by population, are home to global giants. Australia has BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Macquarie Group. Switzerland has Nestlé, Syngenta, Glencore, UBS, Novartis and Xstrata. The Netherlands has Shell, ING and Philips. Sweden has Volvo, Ericsson and Ikea.

There’s no paucity of excuses from Canada’s political right, middle or left for our poor global showing. Corporate tax rates are too high? They’re among the lowest in the Western world. There’s too much government coddling? There’s too little. Canada is too small? The Swiss wouldn’t buy that argument. Costs are high, and training and education are inadequate? CEOs can’t endure Canada’s winters? Celine Dion intolerance? Blah, blah and blah.

Here’s my reason: epic Canadian investor greed.

I’ve worked as a business journalist in four countries—Canada, the United States, Britain and Italy—and nowhere have I witnessed greed to rival Canadian greed. From 1997 to 2007, I felt all I did was chronicle the eradication of corporate Canada as investors, and CEOs who encouraged them, hit the sell button. Here are just a few of the companies I no longer write about: Inco, Falconbridge, Dofasco, Stelco, Algoma Steel, MacMillan-Bloedel, Molson, Alcan, Ipsco, Gulf Canada, Newbridge Networks, Poco Petroleums and Masonite.

The sellout continues. In February, the successful TMX Group agreed to sell itself to the inferior London Stock Exchange. The TMX should have been the buyer.

Last year, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan almost became another hollowing-out victim. True, CEO Bill Doyle fought off BHP Billiton, but I don’t think he wanted to keep the world’s biggest fertilizer company in Canadian hands to generate local wealth and jobs. The share price wasn’t to his liking, and as things turned out, the takeover was blocked by the feds.

To be sure, each sellout is a special case. In a few takeovers, such as Falconbridge, the offering price was so huge that sellers would have been foolish not to take the loot and run. But others were just instances of plain, short-term greed. Canadian investors would rather take even a meagre payout today than stick with a company for years to create a world-beater.

Of course, short-termism isn’t uniquely Canadian, but patience often generates even bigger rewards. When Ralph Robins was CEO of Rolls-Royce in the 1990s, he earned no love from British investors and analysts by investing fortunes in jet-engine technology that wouldn’t pay off for years, if at all. But Sir Ralph refused to cave in to the gimme-returns-now mob. Today Rolls is one of the world’s top manufacturers and tech innovators.

That stick-to-it attitude is almost extinct in Canada. Evidence? How about the big push early in the last decade to turn corporate Canada into one monstrous, bloated income trust?

The income trust was a peculiar beast—discouraged or outlawed in many civilized countries—that avoided taxes by paying out almost all cash flow to unitholders. But that left little money for R&D, corporate development or overseas expansion. When Telus and BCE, Canada’s two largest phone companies, announced their intention to convert to trusts in 2006, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did the right thing and shut down the party. Five years later, investors still moan about that.

In 2008, Don Argus, then-chairman of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, denounced Canada’s sellout culture. “Canada’s policies are a worst-case scenario,” he said. “Canada has lost more head offices than any other country. Canada has already been reduced to an industry branch office and is largely irrelevant on the global mining stage.”

Policies? I don’t know if there are any. For every buyer, there’s a seller. Canadians love to sell. Yes, we have many companies in safe, protected industries that are making billions in profits. Sadly, most of them are nonentities on the world stage.

 

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