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Five business books bring awards, but no crystal ball

Five business books bring awards, but no crystal ball

When Gordon Pitts joined The Globe and Mail in 1992, business stories had jumped to the front page. He has helped keep them there for the past 17 years, but if you want his best advice, read his books, or the answer he offered writer Georgie Binks.
Gordon PittsGlobe and Mail writer-editor Gordon Pitts has struck
literary gold with his latest book, Stampede!
Gordon PittsGlobe and Mail writer-editor Gordon Pitts has struck
literary gold with his latest book, Stampede!

When you’re employed as a business reporter nowadays, you have to be on guard when meeting friends for lunch, showing up at family reunions, or simply leaving the house in the morning. “Everyone asks, ‘What do you think is going to happen to the economy?” laughs Gordon Pitts, Arts’69, Ed’70, senior editor and writer at The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business.

Gordon, who majored in history during his undergrad years at Queen’s and then earned his education degree, never planned on a journalism career; he fell into one after a brief teaching stint. After studying journalism at Carleton and interning at The Ottawa Citizen, with journalist Gordon Legge, he became fascinated with business journalism.

“This was in the late 1970s, during the heyday of OPEC, rising oil prices, inflation, and interest rates of 20 per cent. The business story moved off the business pages to the front page.”

As well, Gordon says the democratization of investing encouraged people to pick up the business section of the newspaper and learn more about what they were doing with their money. This made it all the more challenging to report on it. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, more people owned stocks and were buying mutual funds. People became very interested in their stocks.”

Gordon hit the world of business journalism just as the lines between business, economic and political reporting were fading. “The old Report on Business covered business news in a drab, but serviceable style, but that age of journalism went. Now there was a much wider audience and these stories became the huge stories of our era – inflation, depression, recession and energy ups and downs.”

Gordon gives credit to The Establishment writer Peter C. Newman for personalizing business journalism with his stories about Canadian business elite. Ironically, Gordon beat out Newman for the 2009 National Business Book Award this year with his latest effort, Stampede! The Rise of the West and Canada’s New Power Elite (Key Porter). Other nominees for the $20,000 prize included heavyweights Margaret Atwood and the late Ted Rogers.

Stampede! makes some bold predictions about the future of Canada. Says Gordon, “When I started writing the book, oil was $60-$70 a barrel, high by historical standards. Then the oil price took off to $140 a barrel, and I figured the book would be a phenomenal success. I put it to bed in August, and then the price started dropping. Now oil is where it was when I started. I had to just figure, well, this is a long-term book.”

Even though he maintains Stampede! is a national book (“I wanted to tell the story of Canada in 2008-2009,” he explains), Gordon knows people in central Canada might not want to hear his message.

“It’s a bit of a harder sell in Ontario and Quebec, because people there are in denial. It’s a tough message. I think Alberta embraces it a bit more, but not all of it, because there’s a lot of criticism of the get-rich-quick short-termism of Albertans. The people of Saskatchewan must be happy about it because they have the strongest economy right now.”

Stampede! is Gordon Pitts’ fifth book. While a Press Fellow at Cambridge University in 1989, he started his first, Storming the Fortress: How Canadian Business Can Conquer Europe in 1992. It was nominated for the same award Stampede! has now won. His next three books – In the Blood: Battles to Succeed In Canada’s Family Businesses (2000), Kings of Convergence: The Fight for Control of Canada’s Media (2002), and The Codfathers: Lessons from the Atlantic Business Elite (2005) – all were finalists as well. Just as people in the Alberta oil industry strike black liquid gold by dint of hard work, so, too, did Gordon finally strike literary gold with Stampede!

He says his favourite business stories are about what he calls the ‘tectonic shifts’ of big companies. “Stories like Nortel up, Nortel down. It’s like fiction. I’ve covered a lot of the personalities around it and it makes for great stories.”

As for those crystal ball questions about the future of the economy, Gordon has an answer. “I tell people who ask that it’s going to do just about what it’s done over the past 100 years: It will have some up years and it will have some down years. Some of the down years will be really down years, and some of the up years….”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-4 cover]