Sometime in the early 1980s, Sid Oland became the head of Labatt Brewery, the main subsidiary of the publicly-traded holding company John Labatt Ltd. Even though the Labatt companies were clients of Clarkson Gordon (now Ernst & Young) Sid became a personal financial planning client of mine when he moved to Toronto.

            As president of the brewery, Sid was on the board of directors of the parent company and also served on its management committee. When Sid learned about my “rent-a-director” activities he got me involved with Labatt as an advisor to the management committee on entertainment, broadcasting and sports matters. This meant that I was somewhat involved in such projects as the launch of TSN and The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour.

             As mentioned at the end of last week’s column, by late 1989 it was clearly time for me to move on from Deloitte & Touche. So when Sid Oland and Sam Pollock (the former Montreal Canadiens’ major domo, who was now the chairman of the management committee of John Labatt Ltd.) approached me to become a full-time employee of John Labatt Ltd. I was definitely interested.

              After a few rounds of negotiations involving Sam, a Labatt HR consultant by the name of George Enns, and Labatt’s vice-president of HR, Bob Dolan, I agreed to join the parent company on September 1, 1990, as President of Labatt’s Sports andEntertainment, which, as with joining IBM in 1968 and moving to PEI in 1974, turned out to be a mistake.

               I want to make it clear that John Labatt Ltd. was a great company, a great place to work, and had a lot of great people. But after over twenty years of making my own decisions and executing them with little or no interference, I couldn’t adjust to having to go through, over and around all the hoops, hurdles and roadblocks inherent in the organization of a large public company; especially one that was wandering into areas outside of their core business and which not all the senior management people understood.

                Even though I’d been an advisor to the company for almost ten years, being there on a day-to-day basis was completely different than periodically sitting in on high-level decisions as an independent consultant. As an independent consultant my career didn’t depend on whether or not Labatt followed my advice, but as a full-time employee my career did depend on what Sid Oland, Sam Pollock and Peter Widdrington (the CEO, which made him Sid’s and Sam’s boss) thought of my ideas. In addition, many of the things I wanted to do had to also pass muster with both the management committee and the board of directors and, perhaps most importantly of all, Peter Bronfman, who was Labatt’s major shareholder.

              Also, my title was a little misleading. The Blue Jays were the only sports property that Labatt owned and the ballclub was operated almost completely independently, reporting directly to the Labatt board. So really I was president only of “entertainment,” (although the CEO of TSN, Gordon Craig, officially reported to me, something that he and I used to have a good chuckle over, because Gordon was one of the most respected and competent broadcast executives in the country). 

               My mandate as president of “entertainment” was to look for ways to expand Labatt’s involvement in this broad field and to act as oversight on their two main entertainment properties, BCL (the concert promotion and merchandising arm) and a dog’s breakfast of recording and musical activity run by Syd Kessler, a friend of Sid Oland’s wife, Ingrid. The problem here was that BCL was doing just fine under the stewardship of Michael Cohl and Bill Ballard and needed no input from me whatsoever, and Sid Oland wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to with the Kessler activities, which was to jettison them. In fact, Sid Oland, who was the guy who wanted me there in the first place, blocked pretty much everything I tried to do.

                Projects which Sid wouldn’t let me proceed with were: 1) Buy the Weather Network; 2) Enter into a broadcasting arrangement between TSN and either CTV or Global; 3) Buy some radio stations; 4) Get an NBA franchise; 5) Find a way to get around Molson’s hold on the Toronto Maple Leafs; 6) Get into music publishing and artist management; and, 7) buy IMAX.

                With each passing month the gap between my ideas of what Labatt should be doing and Sid Oland’s ideas inexorably widened. There was no point in taking my case to Peter Widdrington or Sam Pollock (who, in addition to being chairman of the management committee, had controlling shareholder Peter Bronfman’s ear) because they really cared only about beer, other beverage products, and the Blue Jays. As a matter of fact, one day in February, 1991, Peter Widdrington came into my office and told me that Sid had been complaining to him that I wasn’t doing my job. When I told Peter that was because Sid wouldn’t let me do it, he just chuckled and said something along the lines of “well, try to work it out.”

              I went down the hall to Sid’s office, told him that things weren’t working out and handed him my resignation, which he wouldn’t accept, saying that we should give it a few more months. We did, but nothing changed. By June of 1991 Bob Dolan and I were working out a mutually acceptable termination agreement and I left Labatt on August 31, 1991.

              While all this Labatt drama was going on, Steve Stavro, who had gotten effective control of Maple Leaf Gardens, tried to hire me as CEO. The Toronto press had gotten wind of this with the result that my departure from Labatt made headlines in the business and sports sections of the Toronto papers amid speculation that I was on my way to the Gardens, which will be the subject of my next column.