As it turned out, Stronach couldn’t live with the magazine. In March, he announced the final cut: he was selling Vista. The most expensive magazine in Canada seemed ready to vanish from Stronach’s horizon.
The world is full of criticism. It’s critics, critics, critics. Besides criticizing, we also should have solutions. So this national magazine I visualize as a form of education, a form of provocation, a form of information and a form of solutions.”
So declared Frank Stronach in The Globe and Mail, June 1987. For the past 29 years, Stronach had championed Fair Enterprise-his socioeconomic vision where entrepreneurs would rule by sharing their riches. An Austrian immigrant, Stronach had forged a tool-and-die shop into a $1billion-a-year auto parts empire called Magna International. The self-made millionaire became a hero to young MBAs as well as to leftist writer Rick Salutin. But it wasn’t enough.
In 1986, he had launched Focus on York, a lifestyle monthly delivered across the affluent region north of Toronto where Magna flourished. He bought half a radio station, CKAN, and established a video company, Tier One Communications, and was considering politics. Now, he wanted to promote Fair Enterprise.
The self-styled philosopher-king boasted that his magazine would’ fill the “vacuum” left by such “mediocre” publications as Business Week, The Financial Post and The Globe itself. His magazine would include the standard lifestyle and entertainment fare, but also offer solutions to the nation’s social and economic ills. It would be daring. It wou}d be different. It would be, envisioned Stronach, a manifesto for people with “hopes and dreams and aspirations to be economically free.”
Gerry Barker thought he had already found his way. The previous summer Barker had heard that Frank Stronach needed media people to start a national magazine. Recognizing an opportunity, the 55-year-old Toronto Star assistant managing editor contacted Magna and was hired.
After helping launch Focus on York, Barker got the word around March: “I want you to take this whole thing over and get it up and get it running.”
Barker wasn’t clear what “it” was, nor did he believe Stronach knew. For one thing, Stronach wanted to reach university students, “the people of the future,” but that meant a weak advertising base. “Certainly they’ll go along with it,” replied Barker, “but I think you should do more research about the audience.” Then, Stronach wanted to hire an editor-first. Barker insisted on a publisher. The chief relented, only on the condition that the “quarterback” come from magazines. Barker, a newspaper man, would be general manager and with the publisher lay the groundwork.
Barker recruited John Dunlop, who was heading Homemakers. Before, Dunlop had been a research and business development manager at Maclean Hunter, Saturday Night’s advertising and sales director, then an executive at Comac Communications where he directed sales for the now-defunct Quest. Quite a resume for a biochemistry try major who never dreamed of a publishing career. Certainly he impressed Stronach, who in turn convinced Dunlop that he was serious about starting a magazine. As his fortieth birthday approached, John Dunlop left Homemakers and became Magna’s vice-president of communications in August 1987.
Though enthusiastic, Dunlop and Barker had little with which to shape what Dunlop called Stronach’s “ethereal, gossamer notion” into a consumer magazine. It was hard enough convincing Stronach that using the magazine as a pulpit for Fair Enterprise would ruin its credibility. Nonetheless, that December they managed to unveil their business plan to Magna. Dressed in marketing lingo was the “Survival Guide to the Future.” Like a crystal ball, the magazine would foresee opportunities for success in economics, politics and lifestyle, all answering the question, What does this mean to you? The reader wouldn’t be defined by age or income, but by mind set-entrepreneurs. This greed manual called for a “maverick” editor, someone of intelligence and style, of diplomacy and inspiration. And the magazine would be called Vista.
Stronach was sold. He entrusted Romulus and Remus (Dunlop’s nickname for himself and Barker) with $10 million to cover the first five years of projected start-up losses. The cost was the highest ever in Canadian magazmes.
As Dunlop assembled a sales and a production team, Barker left on a continental odyssey searching for a computer publishing system, eventually choosing an Apple Macintosh. Together, the “twins” hunted for office space and an editor.
Dunlop approached Nick Steed who consulted on the business plan. Steed had been the founding editor of Quest, a service magazine for men and an inspiration of sorts to Vista. But Steed didn’t have the time for Vista (and wound up as the editorial consultant instead). Dunlop and Barker then searched Toronto, but found that no one wanted to work for a magazine of Frank Stronach’s. About to run for federal office, Stronach was so annoyed with his recent press coverage that he granted interviews only to reporters who printed his every word. Recalls Barker: “A lot of really good editors out there said, ‘This guy just doesn’t understand the publishing business.’ ”
With time running out, the “twins” looked abroad and found their man out west-Mac Parry.
“Mac’s like the gunslinger that walks into the saloon at midnight and wants things to happen,” says Barker. “It was always on the brink with him.”
To Mac Parry Vista was a long way from Vancouver. As the city magazine’s editor, the outspoken Parry knew his turf and his personnel. It showed with the Western Magazine Awards (two for best publication) and in his longevity (,13 years before leaving for sister publication, Western Living). Vista, on the other hand, would speak to the entire country atop a plateau of immense capital. It was to be a new kind of business magazine and to set it apart, Vista needed the spark which Dunlop recognized in Parry’s Vancouver.
“The main thing is that Mac Parry will be running it,” Parry boasted to Masthead. “This is my personality.”
The personality called for lavish visuals, no “boring corporate photography.” The editor also sought a young, ambitious staff, people he could turn to and say, “Here’s an opportunity-do what you can with it.” And Parry envisioned correspondents as far as London and Hong Kong to be directed by “remote control. “That included himself. For one week a month Parry would work from his Vancouver home (with his family), linked to Toronto via modem and fax machine. At other times, he would stay in Toronto as part of his $100,000 annual arrangement. “He actually wanted to break all the rules,” says Parry’s first employee, Jackie Kovacs. “He wanted us to be forward-thinking and spotting trends… a magazine based in Canada but for anyone entrepreneurial-minded.”
Kovacs had just graduated from Ryerson after working on the Review of Journalism. She was looking for a job that May in 1988 when, on the eve of her twenty-second birthday, Parry hired her, based on an interview and an instructor’s recommendation.
She began work a month later at the messy, uptown offices dubbed “Beirut.” For the sales department, she helped complete the prototype in which Parry mapped some points of his vision: opportunities, trends, success, travel, alternative investment and health. Otherwise Kovacs had little to do, except field Parry’s Dickensian faxes. Finally, in mid- July, Vista moved into “the penthouse,” 12,000 square feet atop the Grey Canada Building in Yuppie midtown Toronto. Everything was new, down to the lobby, which was a two-storey atrium that sheltered a pair of lovely, green trees made of expensive plastic.
After unpacking, Parry and Kovacs began taming the computer system, then a rare beast among Canadian magazines. Meanwhile, Dunlop was sparing no expense over the coming November launch. To attract advertisers, he promised them a 100,000 circulation rate base and spent almost $100,000 on a video. To test reader response he (with the circulation and advertising departments) mailed five creative packages to potential subscribers; their replies would determine how much business, lifestyle or trend watching coverage the magazine should feature. “We’re looking for hot buttons for the consumer,” Dunlop told Marketing. “There’s no point in creating a product if no one wants to buy it.”
But Parry hadn’t created any product, and didn’t begin until he hired more staff. Even then they were shorthanded, not to mention largely inexperienced (all under 30). So two months before the premiere, the penthouse turned into a frat house. New computers, new roles and new relationships struggled under a disorganized editor to create a vague magazine. For one thing, they didn’t have a house style (Kovacs: “We just knew we had to use Webster’s.”), and Parry assigned features very late, including the cover story (“We brought in extra folks to fact check.”).
By all accounts it was a hellish but spirited ride. “It was quite an experience,” recalls assistant editor Peter Hendra, who had been sitting in a classroom with Kovacs five months earlier. “In school you get the idea that you’ll be one of 10 fact-checkers at some magazine. But I was checking tons of stories all at once and copy editing. Maybe it was too much work. “Beyond the hum of the “frat house,” tales of Frank Stronach’s new magazine buzzed around Toronto. Stronach had already taken knocks for gracing a cover of Focus on York after stepping down as Magna’s CEO and announcing his Liberal candidacy. Now there were tales of an abrasive, Vancouver editor “interviewing” Toronto women writers for this coming magazine.
“He asked me what my age was,” recalls Saturday Night contributing editor Anne Collins. “He asked me if I was Jewish.” She wasn’t. “That’s no good,” Parry recalls saying in their fiveminute chat. He explained he was looking for people “representing as many points of view and backgrounds as possible” and, yes, it was a joke. However, Collins didn’t get it and neither did others.
Writer and Ryerson instructor John Gault heard this and other stories, and cautioned his magazine class about Parry. In Toronto’s magazine village, word ricocheted back to Vista and Mac Parry: “The next I heard about it… I reportedly said, ‘That’s good,’ the total reversal of what I said.” Soon after, Parry was at CBC studios near Ryerson. Being in the neighborhood, Parry dropped into Gault’s class-unannounced-and invited them to see
Vista. But students recall a tense encounter and the showdown hit the gossip columns.
“In hindsight I realize that I probably was hotheaded,” says Parry a year later, but adds: “Frankly, I expected to be made a little more welcome in Toronto.” The impression he got at the time was that “climbing-in-with-that-geek-from-the-coast-in- Toronto was not considered the right thing to do by certain people.” Reflects Gault: “I’m sorry the Mac Parry affair exploded the way it did. On a noble level, I wanted to be a counterforce to what I perceived as an attitude which, in my terms, was detrimental to my craft. On a less noble level I was being a gossip. We [journalists] dine out on gossip. We adore gossip.” But Jackie Kovacs saw it differently: “I was really annoyed that these people I admired so much were so narrow-minded and so incestuous and so gossipy. I knew what Mac was like. He isn’t sexist. He isn’t anti-Semitic. He’s not racist. But I can see how one may get that impression, because he’s very flippant and he’s very sarcastic.”
The talk grew when a month later and a week after Stronach’s election loss-Vista hit the newsstands. OPPORTUNITIEIS, INNOVATIONS, SUCCESS, POWER, PROFIT trumpeted the “greed bar,” a narrow, red strip across the top, while below it proclaimed “Billion Dollar Trends for the 1990s.” A photo inset of an American woman with an IQ of 228 graced the cover of Canada’s newest business magazine, while in the background loomed a horizon, either a sunrise or a sunset.
It was a slick package: 128 pages of perfect-bound 10 x 9-inch oversize trim and 70-pound matte-coated Finnish stock. But, inside lay a mess. The cover story they barely finished was an endless 21 pages of predictions, ranging from hotels to New Age religion. Service pieces about film production and investment in Australia confused rather than enlightened the entrepreneur. A profile of boxer Donny Lalonde was caught out of its deadline, running two months after Lalonde’s defeat by Sugar Ray Leonard. Parry’s profile of Vancouver Stock Exchange crusader, Adrian du Plessis, was reworked after a dispute with the subject (who originally submitted an overlong expose of the VSE). The only bright spot was Doug Coupland’s “Generation X,” an ingenious study of the dispossessed, post-Boomer generation, complete with comic strip (that would be a regular feature). But this was a hollow victory, considering an earlier version had appeared 14 months earlier in Vancouver.
In his CBC “Media File” review, Toronto writer David Hayes found the editorial most distressing of all: “If you see yourself as adventurous, Vista is for you. If you would agree that you are confident, influential and sophisticated, Vista is for you. If you are forward looking, optimistic and motivated by healthy self-interest, Vista is for you”
“This isn’t a statement of editorial philosophy,” said Hayes. “It’s a message to advertisers written in modem marketing mumbo-jumbo. There is no indication of any clearly defined guiding principles. The only thing in this first issue is a promise to advertisers that Vista will deliver an upscale, self-obsessed consumer.”
Parry, who doesn’t write editorials, copied the lines from promotional material. Still, if the editor couldn’t describe his magazine, who could?
“I don’t think that it necessarily was going to be sharply focussed on its first issue,” says senior editor Jim Cormier. “We were feeling around a bit, trying to find a new kind of business magazine.”
John Fraser, editor of Canada’s oldest magazine, sympathized with the newcomer: “Knowing from my own experience at Saturday Night, it really takes a better part of a year to put your mark on a magazine.” But he adds: “It [Vista] was working too hard to be a very attractive medium to advertisers rather than about what it was going to be as a magazine.”
Marketing said it all: “You’d think with all the money that’s been poured into this thing, editor Malcolm Parry and publisher John Dunlop could have come up with something that has a little more sizzle. Maybe next month.” Next month.
Beneath the cover line, BIG CITY POWER, was a photo of a lingerie-clad blonde gazing from the back seat of a taxi. The cover story, “Knockin’ em dead in the undie world” was a fluff piece about a west-coast lingerie designer. This was Vista’s second issue.
“I think that was really insulting to anybody,” says former Toronto Life art director Teresa Fernandes, “particularly to women.” Masthead editor Doug Bennet found the cover not only embarrassing but confusing: “I couldn’t quite figure out what the hell it was doing in a business magazine.” Neither could writers, editors and advertising agencies who wondered whether Vista was a business, lifestyle or even a fashion magazine. Yet, one thing was certain, and that was Parry’s reputation. “It seemed to have entered the common law,” says Parry in hindsight, “that this [cover] was big, ole sexy guy Mac Parry’s contribution to national journalism. Well, I’m fuckin’ embarrassed by it”
Stronach wasn’t pleased either. Parry claims that Dunlop suggested he return to Vancouver in June 1989; Jim Cormier would take over and Parry become a consul ting editor. Parry says the date was moved to April, then to now. “Frank says you got to go,” he was told. “We’ll offer you a deal.” Dunlop though, insists that the distance between Vancouver and Toronto, and that between Parry and Toronto’s journalists prompted Parry’s firing. “I have to make this magazine work and I didn’t have the luxury…of waiting for people in the literary community here to understand that Mac Parry didn’t have horns or a big forked stick.” Dunlop adds that Parry’s stay was always to be temporary, even though Parry signed a three-year contract.
Essentially, Parry feels that Dunlop and Stronach lacked the nerve to stick it through the launch. “They seemed to be more concerned about, ‘Oh, my golly, we’re getting this ad out Whereas from the very beginning,’ Vista was portrayed as a relatively impregnable organization that could sail through start-up difficulties.” That January there was little room for talk anyway. Stronach had already found a replacement. Suddenly, it was only a matter of numbers: a $70,000 settlement and a turnover date of February 3.
“Okay, you scum. Get into the office,” called Parry.
“Sure, yeah, yeah,” the staff replied.
“We’ll be there in a second.” “No, this is important. Come in here now.” The staff gathered in his office. There they saw John Dunlop and another fellow. Parry gripped his chair. Before he said anything the staff knew he had been fired.. Then the stranger introduced himself as Rod McQueen, the new editor: “I just want you to know that I’m nobody’s man but my own.”
The staff missed the irony. Upset, they filed out of the office, went to lunch and drank away the afternoon in a long good-bye. To Jackie Kovacs it was a shock. After all, this was the man who gave her her first chance out of school. But as she later realized, Parry’s firing was a good lesson: “Magazines are a business.”
Parry was out Friday and McQueen in Monday. The staff noted the differences. The former editor was playful and spontaneous, the other formal and meticulous. At 44, the other was an award-winning business writer for Toronto Life, Canadian Business’ and Fortune. From 1978 to 1982 he was the business editor then managing editor of Maclean’s and Magna’s latest vicepresident of communications. Rod McQueen seemed perfect for Vista.
He cleaned up the frat house. To enforce deadlines, McQueen hired Joann Webb, a Maclean’s colleague who had just been ousted from rival Canadian Business as editor. For accuracy he recruited Prue Hemelrijk, the legendary fact-checker. He rounded out the editorial staff in June with Liz Primeau, founding editor of Ontario Living. And, in contrast to Parry, McQueen used his contacts to enlist some outstanding writers: Robert Fulford, Judith Timson and…John Gault. Now, Vista was a magazine. But of what type?
“Stories with a Vista twist will have the research heft of Fortune, the writing style of Vanity Fair and the cheek of Private Eye,” announced McQueen in his first editorial. The first sign already appeared on the April cover (Parry’s fourth and last issue). Gone was the greed bar, the inset and the horizon. In its place was Brian Mulroney’s grinning face tacked onto the body of matador Peter Hendra, a la Spy. May’s cover looked like Saturday Night with three athletes posed before a baseball diamond. June was Vanity Fair month, with its soft-focus shot of Shirley MacLaine, really a come-on for a throwaway, two-page profile. The confusion spread inside: a fashion layout, a feature on sports tickets, even a critical piece about business journalism. Instead of “Catching the Billion-Dollar Wave,” the Survival Guide to The Future now advised “How office cokeheads and boozers can finally get help.” Vista was many magazines, but not its own.
Concerned, Stronach hired market researchers to recover Vista’s identity. Dunlop was more distressed: “Rod was laking the magazine into the general interest area. This was going to be an alternative business magazine. We can do material that might be general interest; as long as you can make a business spin on it, I think you can make it work.”
But McQueen didn’t, at least not in his publisher’s eyes. Their visions clashed.
“The last couple of weeks I was aware, just from Rod’s demeanor, that he was troubled by something,” recalls Liz Primeau. After meetings with Dunlop, McQueen returned to his office with his head down. “Oh, hi Rod,” Primeau said. “Nice day?” McQueen looked up, silent. Primeau paused and replied, “I guess it isn’t a nice day after all.” And he grinned.
McQueen met with John Dunlop for the last time on the morning of June 30. Half an hour later, McQueen emerged.. He returned to his office, rounded up the staff and calmly told them that he was fired. He packed and left by noon.
Recalling Parry, the old guard was outraged. “What the hell is going on here?” thought Jackie Kovacs. “What is it-three issues per editor? Is this the quarterly-editor syndrome?”
Others wondered too. Some suggested McQueen was fired for misnaming Canadian astronaut, Ken Money, “Ed” Money, on the July/August cover, McQueen’s last issue. Wrong. Others believed the dismissal was over a personality conflict between Dunlop and McQueen. Yet others simply looked at the 6agazine and wondered if after two editors in eight months Vista could survive.
Joann Webb: “A year or two into the start-up, a whole pile of staff are no longer there. There has been much gnashing of teeth and much difficulty. Then, things settled down”
Webb picked up the September issue in mid-production after McQueen left. The content was all his and the cover, which he had restored, was Parry’s, down to the horizon and the inset. In turn, Webb softened the greed bar by adding TRENDS, REWARDS and INSIGHT, tagged “Canada’s Alternative Business Magazine” above it, and added a final touch-a bird. “It says the future.”
Since then, she’s given the magazine some depth and a clearer identity. One new department, Green Power, examines the relationship between business and the environment. Another, Solutions, offers “answers to the larger social problems,” such as the national debt and the penal system, and appears on recycled paper. Though still aimed at innovators and entrepreneurs, her Vista looks at business in a “larger social context.” Says Webb: “I think there’s room in the Canadian market place for a magazine that reinvents the business magazine.”
But it’s grown more difficult. Frank Stronach resumed the wheel at Magna last November in order to steer the corporation out of massive debt. When he dispatched the planning committee, Vista’s total spending ran between $6 and $8 million. Suddenly, instead of nine issues per year there would be eight, no longer 70-pound stock but 62 or so, and a move to cheaper offices. The group also cut down on staff in all departments, including one from editorial, Liz Primeau.
This instability unnerves advertisers who list Vista among “secondary publications” such as Goodlife and Equinox, instead of with Report on Business and Canadian Business of the “primary buy” group. In its first year of publishing Vista carried 21 I pages of advertising compared to Canadian Business’ 885 and Small Business’ 504. Add to that the impending goods and services tax, free trade and a looming recession. In a country where four out of five magazines die by the fifth year, Frank
Stronach’s Vista may go down as the fanciest dive in history.
“The good thing about Vista is that it provides an outlet for good writers and photographers,” says Report on Business Magazine editor, Margaret Wente. “I just don’t think the whole package of the magazine will find enough readers to make it pay.” Even the magazine’s founders have their doubts. Gerry Barker (who left Vista before the cuts) doesn’t believe it will last another year. John Dunlop, who envisioned a profitable, international Vista by 1992, couldn’t live with the revised plan.
“My mandate…was to build a Porsche and not a Volkswagen,” said Dunlop, shortly before resigning last Christmas.
Webb, though, remains hopeful. Even after Stronach announced that Vista was for sale, she told The Globe and Mail, “It is business as usual.” At 38, she has years of experience not to mention a thick skin. She lost the editorship at Harrowsmith (during a family ownership squabble) and at Canadian Business (in a housecleaning). At Vista, Webb is determined to stay. Besides assuming more editorial work, Webb had asked for a say in the magazine’s financial decisions. Belinda Stronach, the new general manager, had been helping her. At 23, Belinda has no magazine publishing experience but does have Frank Stronach as a father.
But Magna is a leaking ship and Stronach is throwing Vista overboard. A magazine needs strong editorial, healthy capital and sound management to survive. Under Stronach, Vista never had all three at the same time.
“I guess I expected things to be smoother than they have been,” says Jackie Kovacs, “but I’ve learned a Lot. I was talking to Rick Salutin about this some time ago… ‘Can you believe this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, no Jackie, this is great. This is the kind of shit you want to happen in your first year out of school. If this happened when you were well into your career, it would be just devastating. But right now you have nothing to lose-this is the best time for things to just go weird.’ ”
“Well, I thought, it’s true, because whatever happens here is not really my fault because I’m not important enough. But it sure is interesting to watch.”