"Can't Buy Me Love: How Martha Billes Made Canadian Tire Hers"
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Nov 2001, p. 218-228

McQueen, Rod, Speaker
Media Type:
Item Type:
A review of the author's book, and Martha Billes life. Many anecdotal instances.
Date of Original:
29 Nov 2001
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Rod McQueen
Chairman: Bill Laidlaw
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Ken Shaw, National Editor, CFTO Television and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; The Reverend Dr. John Niles, Victoria Park United Church and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Stephen LeDrew, Lawyer, LeDrew Laishley Reed and President, Liberal Party of Canada; Peter Worthington, Editorial Writer and Columnist, The Toronto Sun; Jack Stoddard, OC, Chairman, Stoddart Publishing Company Ltd.; George D. Anderson, President and CEO, Insurance Bureau of Canada and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Julie K. Hannaford, Partner, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Angela Ferrante, Senior Vice-President, Corporate Communications, Bank of Montreal; and Derek Burney, OC, President and CEO, C.A.E. Inc.

Introduction by Bill Laidlaw

I enjoy reading biographies of any individual who has left a mark on my life. I particularly enjoy those dealing with business or political figures. Reading about such people provides me with a window into their lives and allows me to view a life that I otherwise would not have been able to.

In Canada we have had the good fortune of having many individuals and organisations featured in our bookstores. These have provided us with many hours of enjoyable reading. Our guest today has been the author of many of these books, and I have had the good fortune of having read all of them.

I am fortunate that I have not been written about, but as they say my life is still in progress and who knows!

Rod McQueen was born in Guelph, Ontario. He obtained an Honours English Language degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1967. He then worked as a general reporter for the London Free Press until 1970 when he became press secretary to Robert Stanfield, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.

In 1978 Rod joined Macleans Magazine as business editor and was quickly named managing editor of the publication in 1979. In 1982 he became a freelance writer as well as broadcaster, his work appearing in most major Canadian as well as several U.S. and British publications.

He spent a few years in London, England in the late 80s and acted as bureau chief for The Financial Post in Washington before returning to Toronto where he spent three years as a columnist and senior writer at The National Post.

Rod has received numerous awards for his writing including the National Business Book Award for "Who killed Confederation Life? The Inside Story" and the Canadian Authors Association Award in History for "The Eatons: Rise and Fall of Canada's Royal Family."

His most recent book, "Can't Buy Me Love: How Martha Billes Made Canadian Tire Hers," was published in October of this year. Today we will hear about this book and the individual featured in it. We are very pleased to have as our guest today--Rod McQueen.

Rod McQueen

It's an honour to be invited to speak at the Empire Club, the same podium that since 1903 has welcomed heads of state and government, as well as so many leaders in matters spiritual and temporal.

The head table was introduced earlier but I want to recognise one other person who's here today--Sandy--my wife, high-school sweetheart, and the creative mind who came up with the title for the book, "Can't Buy Me Love."

This biography of Martha Billes is a story about love and ambition and how the two cannot always coexist. As controlling shareholder of Canadian Tire, Martha Billes oversees a huge national empire with 441 stores, 206 service stations, 38,000 employees, and $5.2 billion in annual revenue. Her holdings in the company are worth about $100 million, and by my estimate there's another $25 million to $50 million invested elsewhere, making her one of the 10 wealthiest women in Canada.

Tire, as Martha likes to call it (not Canadian Tire or The Tire) is the country's most shopped retailer. Ninety per cent of Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire store, each month 60 per cent of all adults buy at least one of the 100,000 items on their shelves, and the catalogue was delivered to 10 million households last year.

My curiosity about Martha was first piqued more than two years ago when I interviewed her for a newspaper feature about the 50 most powerful women in Canada. Martha was ranked third and struck me at the time as one of the most complex people, male or female, I'd ever encountered during my 25 years in journalism. Beneath the self-assured shell there was a strangely shy demeanour and the promise of multiple mysterious layers. I wanted to find out more.

There had previously been a book written about the Billes family, but it had been published in 1989. Since then Martha had bought out her two brothers and the story of her life had never been fully told.

And what a story it turned out to be. After all, Martha was not a woman who had easily inherited either her wealth or her power. She'd fought her way to the top against all odds, doing battle with her father, her brothers, two ex-husbands, numerous lovers, a posse of regulators, and a sexist society. The company she now commands is a most unlikely place for female leadership: a macho paradise of auto parts and lube jobs.

Intrigued, I researched the company, pored through archives, interviewed friends, business associates, dealers, directors, presidents past and present. I also interviewed her two former husbands, her two brothers and her son, none of whom had ever been interviewed at length before.

What I found was a woman who turned 61 this past September and as such belongs to a generation of women who were not supposed to work. They were meant to attend school, find a man, get married, and settle down to raise a family.

You can see her picture on the cover of the book and there are more photos inside in a 16-page section, but let me describe her for you. At 5 foot 11 she is taller than average for a woman and serious of manner, as if being Martha Billes isn't easy. Her icy blue eyes suggest a wary woman who trusts no one at first, and only a few people over time. She is both shy and determined; ambitious but lacking in self-confidence.

Her translucent skin, lightly peppered with freckles, remains her most transfixing feature. Many a man wrongly believed he could see inside to her very soul. In fact, Martha had in the past revealed so little of herself and her motives that she might as well have been masked.

Here's a quick sketch of her life: Born in Toronto to Muriel and A.J. Billes, who, along with his brother founded Canadian Tire in the 1920s. Martha was the youngest child and had two older brothers, Fred and David. As a youngster, she was, shall we say, obstreperous. Her father called her the "little red-haired devil."

Her brother Fred is equally explicit: "Martha was a heller from day one to the present time. She's just a heller, simple as that. She makes up stories. She gets the other kids in trouble as much as possible. She breaks things and blames the other kids."

David, the middle child, told me how when the family travelled by car and the three kids were in the back seat, his mother would put him in the middle. David was supposed to provide the buffer between Fred and Martha. Said David: "My mother told me I was a diplomat, and that's what I had to be. My brother and sister clashed their whole lives. If one is black, the other's white. If one is red, the other's green."

Even Martha will admit to being a bit of a rebel while she grew up learning about the tools being used by a father and two brothers. "I certainly knew what a monkey wrench was," said Martha, "because they always told me I put the monkey into everything."

All that noisy activity was just a masquerade. Martha didn't seem to fit anywhere. At home, she was very much in a male environment where women were regarded as lesser beings. Martha attended Forest Hill Collegiate, a high school that was at the time three-quarters Jewish. As one of the few Gentiles, she had problems connecting with her classmates. Even the jobs the three siblings held as teenagers were unfairly handed out. The boys were regarded as heirs presumptive; they had the good jobs that paid top dollar. Martha was relegated to the switchboard and the steno pool.

After graduating from high school in 1959, Martha was interested in pursing science research but women didn't get to choose their career path in those days. Nursing, teaching, or home economics were all that was allowed, so she attended Macdonald Institute in Guelph for a degree in household science.

The family money was another reason that she became a loner who was embittered and embattled. Her father became a millionaire in the 1940s, back when that amount of money meant something. As a result, Martha couldn't tell if people liked her for her wealth, or liked her for herself. That dilemma, what people really thought of her, would dog her all her days. At Macdonald Institute, for example, she was one of the few students who owned a car. Every weekend she'd go home to Toronto. If anyone wanted a ride, she'd charge him or her for the trip. Martha knew the exact cost of busfare between the two cities and would assess her schoolmates just slightly less. Her belief was that if they were willing to pay, they must really want to go.

I interviewed Nancy Kerr, the woman who was her roommate for three of the four years they were at Macdonald Institute. Despite all that time together, Kerr never really warmed to Martha. "We used to take turns cleaning the room," said Kerr. "I never cleaned the room to her satisfaction. We weren't soul mates. I had other friends at Guelph that I was much closer to. She meant well and she probably didn't understand why she didn't have more buddies."

After graduation, Martha taught school for a while because she was frozen out of the family business. Fred and David went on the board of directors in the mid-1960s; Fred even got a dealership. Her father's proposal for Martha's involvement was for her to work as a dietician in the company cafeteria, an idea that galls Martha to this day.

"I was very, very much missing," she told me. "I was just ignored." Martha began investing on her own and then in 1978 fled the shadow of her father and moved to Calgary to prove herself in business as an investor in oil and gas. She succeeded and finally, in 1980, she was made a director at Canadian Tire.

In 1986 Martha briefly became notorious when she and her brothers feuded over a takeover attempt at Canadian Tire. She was summoned to appear before the Ontario Securities Commission, was castigated for greedy behaviour, and promptly withdrew from sight.

Martha then launched an intricate plan to buy out her brothers, a plan that included suing her own brothers, a plan that took more than a decade to carry out, and much of the book is about how she achieved her goal.

I won't go into the detail of that plan today, but I will say that her single-mindedness was both a strength and a weakness. Her patience and persistence meant success was eventually possible, but her inability to involve others or take into account their views eventually drove everyone away. Said her second husband, Dennis: "If you don't do what she wants to do, then you're in trouble." More than a decade after their divorce, Martha is still pursuing Dennis through various court proceedings.

Brother Fred, now a tax refugee living in the Cayman Islands, concurs: "If you can't get your way one way, you get your way another way. You get your way; that's the big thing; get your way. We never learned how to deal with her--nor did her first husband, nor her second husband, nor her various boyfriends, nor her son." Martha and her two brothers rarely see each other today.

Martha would be mystified by these negative views from the men in her life. As far as she's concerned, what she has accomplished has been in everyone's best interest. Here's what she has said about the need to preserve Canadian Tire: "If you had this wonderful hen that keeps laying golden eggs for you and for other people, don't you want to keep her alive and in the best possible condition?" Canadian Tire dealers would certainly agree. They're all millionaires and earn, in total, about $200 million a year, the same as the entire company makes in profits and seven times what shareholders are paid in annual dividends. As Churchill would say: "Some chicken, some neck."

If Martha Billes were cast in a movie she would be Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, all high cheekbones, flashing eyes, and firm practicality. The parallel goes beyond their looks to the kind of life the two women led. In that 1945 film classic, Mildred Pierce is at first the housewife, kept slaving in the kitchen by a lout of a husband whom she finally kicks out. Pierce goes into business, running a chain of restaurants to gain her independence. Her choice for a second husband turns out to be no better than the first. All he wants is her money and the lifestyle that comes with success. As with Mildred, Martha possesses both money and moxie, but she has never been able to figure out if a man loves her for her fortune or for herself. After all, relationships are all about how another person makes you feel. If a man can make a woman feel intelligent, loved, and desired, she is fulfilled. If he cannot, she falls apart.

Martha comes to every relationship haunted by her last failed alliance. Her father tried to keep her down and so did her brothers. The husbands she chose were lesser lights whom she thought she could control. Once she realised they were second-rate, she turned on them for their flaws and became angry that she had sold herself short. Again.

Martha's inability to remain emotionally committed is a trait more normally associated with powerful men. The classic type-A male chief executive never gives a second thought to working 100 hours a week and abandoning his family for days on end when a deal is in the works. For such a man, divorce, affairs, and lawsuits are not unusual. If Martha Billes were a man, she would go about her business life unobserved. And that may say more about our society that it does about her.

For most of the twentieth century the only way a woman could assume control of a business in Canada was through the death of a husband. In 1939 Muriel Richardson stepped in at Winnipeg-based James Richardson & Sons Ltd. after her husband died. Mrs. Richardson ran the company for 27 years, overseeing expansion in the securities business, grain elevators, and pipelines. Wendy McDonald took over B.C. Bearings Group of Burnaby, British Columbia, following her husband's death in 1952. She outlived two more husbands and brought five children into the business, before retiring in 2000. Jeannine Guillevin became head of her late husband's Montreal electrical distribution company in 1965 when annual sales were just a few million dollars. She sold the business 30 years later, having achieved annual sales of $500 million.

In the four years since 1997 when Martha Billes bought out her brothers, daughters have begun to inherit businesses from their fathers. Ron Southern anointed Nancy at ATCO Ltd. of Edmonton, Frank Stronach gave way to Belinda at Magna International Inc. in Aurora, Ont., and Linda Hasenfratz is succeeding her father at Linamar Corp. in Guelph, Ont.

In one instance the daughter beat out a brother, but none of these women fought their brothers as fiercely as Martha did to win the prize. Moreover, Martha's father was dead when she took over; he had neither groomed her for the role nor passed the mantle along to her while he was still alive. In comparison with the other two groups--widows and daughters--Martha is unique. She may be a difficult woman to like, but she is easy to admire.

Martha differs from other senior businesswomen in another important dimension. An increasing number of female executives have been able to achieve success because they have unusually supportive husbands. Linda Cook's spouse gave up his job as a gas trader to stay home with their three children so she could become chief executive officer of Shell Oil and Gas. Twenty years ago, when Carly Fiorina met her husband-to-be, he said: "You're going to run a big company some day, and I'm going to help you get there." Fiorina became president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard in 1998. Martha has enjoyed no such constant support.

Indeed, Martha often seems to be the cause of her own troubles. Earlier this month, the judge ruled in her Calgary lawsuit against Paul McAteer, her former lover and business partner. During the six week trial held in the spring of 2000, their intertwined personal and professional relationships had been laid bare for all to see, seamy side and all. She had been introduced to McAteer in 1990, invested $3 million in his business, and fell in love with him. He divorced his wife of 20 years and it looked as if he would marry Martha. In fact, there was even an engagement party scheduled at her place on Lake Simcoe, but shortly after the invitations went out, the wedding was called off. Martha was left standing alone in front of 200 guests, holding one of her beloved Lakeland terriers with nothing to announce.

The trial itself was right in keeping with Martha's character. She could have settled the matter out of court in advance but she chose not to. That's because Martha needs to win and she needs to win at any cost, even to herself. And the costs, were great. McAteer has few assets, so Martha is on the hook for payments that the court ordered should go to McAteer's ex-wife. Most of the money that's supposed to flow Martha's way looks unlikely ever to arrive. On top of that, the trust fund of Martha's son Owen is out $1.2 million--plus she has her legals, likely in excess of $1 million.

As for Martha's beloved Tire, the way ahead is murky. So far, the company has survived the onslaught of American competitors such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot, but for how much longer? In 1999, Martha and the board told Tire's chief executive officer, Steve Bachand, that the company needed a new vision. Bachand disagreed, saying that Tire should continue to focus on improving the core business through its well-established renovate-and-build plan. Martha and the board said that wasn't good enough and Bachand resigned.

Two years later, Tire has a new CEO, Wayne Sales, the man who had been Bachand's number two. The company spent months working with consultants at McKinsey, and this fall announced its new strategy: build new outlets, renovate and expand old ones and improve service in the stores. The plan sounds a great deal like what Bachand had proposed. That's a lot of running just to stay in the same place.

As for Martha, she has spent her life struggling to get what she thought she wanted, that which she believed to be her due. With that goal accomplished, she now has to adjust her sights, on both a personal level and on a business level. She knows it won't be easy. "A lot of my life has been put before me," she said. "There were things that happened. There was a progression because of where I grew up, who I was, people around me, and what happened to them. [I have to] create the next goal for myself. It's a bit of a challenge."

Martha has said that she wants the words on her tombstone to read: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." As a summation of her life, it's a fitting phrase.

After all, what's the rush? Maybe personal happiness and corporate strategy can wait a while as Martha revels in reaching her chosen destination. When her brother Fred visited the main store at age five, he raced through the aisles, shouting, "It's mine." Now, Martha can now say at 61: "It's mine."

Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Ken Shaw, National Editor, CFTO Television and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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"Can't Buy Me Love: How Martha Billes Made Canadian Tire Hers"

A review of the author's book, and Martha Billes life. Many anecdotal instances.