To understand Alexander “Sandy” Ross, the man who engineered the rebirth of Canadian Business magazine and almost single-handedly created the consumer market for business writing in this country, you must understand that at age 51, at the height of his career, his jazz band fired him for speeding. Try as he might, Sandy just couldn’t help pushing up the tempo. To the frustration of his bandmates in the Rainbow Gardens Jazz Orchestra, he played the drums with a natural inclination to let it go-a joyful abandon that eventually forced them to do the same with him. As a drummer, he was a victim of his own enthusiasm, but as a journalist, author and editor, that enthusiasm was the motive power of a legendary career.
Yet if you were holding auditions for the role of a business journalist you probably wouldn’t have chosen Sandy Ross from among the hopefuls. Rather than the well-groomed patrician in the crisp blue suit, Sandy would have been the distracted, scruffy-looking guy standing beside him. The one with the big grin, the shock of brown hair, the unkempt suit (if he decided to wear one that day) and the genial, go get ’em manner of a happy schoolboy: “Sounds good,” “Great idea,” “Fooled ’em again!”
Not that he couldn’t perform. Sandy was a song-and-dance man at heart, “a journalistic Fred Astaire” in the words of his first wife. His initial shot at fame came in the form of a satirical song mocking B.C.’s ruling Socreds, he’d penned in college, and he was definitely not cast in the mold of the analytical types who inhabit the dimly lit offices of the Report on Business. As a business journalist he was playing against type. When he died in 1993 at the age of 58, it was the end of a life imbued with an enormous theatricality: remarkable achievement, outlandish behavior, reckless romance and a heartbreaking personal tragedy that may be the encryption key to the Ross paradox.
In the opening of The Risk Takers, his groundbreaking 1975 book about Canadian entrepreneurs, he could have been talking about himself when he wrote about a flamboyant mining promoter named Murray. A friend of Murray’s tries to articulate what motivates the businessman to do the seemingly reckless things he does in order to succeed. “‘What you guys are doing,’ says the friend, ‘is trying to defeat death. You’re trying to build monuments that’ll stay around longer than you do.’ But Murray had the last word. ‘It’s not about death and it’s not about monuments. It’s about living – living to the hilt….I enjoy everything I do. Everything.'”
It would be easy to mythologize Sandy Ross, a man for whom there is already “an enormous amount of hagiography,” says Penny Williams, who worked with him from 1984 to 1988.
A glimpse at his résumé will help explain why: editor of the University of British Columbia’s Ubyssey in the mid-fifties, the days of the infamous “Vancouver Mafia” that included Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, John Turner, Joe Schlesinger and Helen Hutchinson; London correspondent for UPI; award-winning columnist for TheVancouver Sun; managing editor of Maclean’s; story editor for the CBC’s legendary (that word again) This Hour Has Seven Days; co-author of the famed 1970 Report of the Special Senate Committee on the Mass Media (headed by Senator Keith Davey); columnist for The Financial Post and The Toronto Star; editor of Toronto Life; and author of two highly acclaimed books about the Canadian business scene.
That peripatetic record would probably be enough to reserve him a spot in the pantheon of great Canadian journalists, but Ross’ most resonant achievement was the re-creation of Canadian Business magazine. In 1977, along with business partners Michael de Pencier, owner of Toronto Life and other publishing ventures, and Roy MacLaren, then president of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather’s Canadian branch and now Canada’s High Commissioner to London, Ross purchased the original Canadian Business, a bone-dry, 49-year-old Canadian Chamber of Commerce house organ steeped in the diction of the trade press.
Some sample features from the pre-Ross CB: “The Long Term Returns from Advertising Can Be Measured,” or how about “Wheat: The Big Business Story of the Year”? The first issue of the new CB in September 1977 featured a cover illustration of the Lone Ranger holding a briefcase, with a stylized factory with smoking stacks in the background. The headline: “Management Consultant as Hired Gun.” Under Ross, the magazine would bring business to life and focus on the people who made commerce click. A typical story might detail the shady business practices of previously unassailable megacompanies (“The Arrogance of Inco”) or celebrate the successes of young Canucks at U.S. business schools (“The Canadian Whiz Kids at the Harvard Bschool”)-all with an eye on the humanity behind the numbers.
“‘Business as a spectator sport’ was the line we used,” says de Pencier. “Sandy had this idea that he and all of us together could produce a business magazine that people would really like to read. One that would have profiles of real live business people and would take chances and risks.” Margaret Wente, a former Ross protégé and now editor of the Globe‘s Report on Business section, explains the approach this way: “He was generally looking for heroes, for people who were larger than life and had done really neat and interesting things. He liked entrepreneurs, he liked buccaneers, and he was essentially an entrepreneur himself.”
Substitute Peter Munk for Michael Jordan and the drama and high stakes of a professional sports match could be injected into a corporate acquisition battle. By putting the personal into what had always been a specialist genre, Ross and the stable of young writers whose careers he helped establish spoke to a generation of post-sixties executives tired of the grey-suited facelessness of corporate culture. He reflected their growing desire to see their work humanized, dramatized – lionized – and placed them squarely into the Canadian social context.
That stable of young writers reads like a Who’s Who of the Canadian business journalism and media establishment. People like Wente, Diane Francis, David Olive, Der Hoi-Yin, John Partridge and Charles Davies, to name just a few. They are a key part of Sandy’s professional legacy. “He was extremely generous with young talent. He would take tremendous chances on people,” says Wente. “He would send young, untested people out, throw them into the deep end and give them absolutely plum assignments to see what they could do. He’d also exploit them mercilessly by paying them nothing, but he gave a lot of talented people a chance to show what they could do, and that’s a tremendous gift if you’re a young journalist trying to test yourself in the world. He gave me that chance.”
In 1964, when Sandy Ross was himself a young journalist, he won a National Newspaper Award for a series of articles he wrote for The Vancouver Sun on Quebec’s fledgling separatist movement. Sandy was a brilliant stylist with a keen eye for the new and the unique, and the award brought him to the attention of Maclean’s national affairs editor Peter C. Newman. He decided to visit Ross in Vancouver and offer him a writing job with the central Canadian monthly. Ross, his first wife, Bess, their newborn son, Darby, and their two-year-old son, Alec, were living in a small house on the slopes of North Vancouver when Newman came to call. They made a lasting impression. “I always remember sitting on the top of a mountain,” says Newman. “His wife had long, long blonde hair and she had a sort of peasant blouse on and she played the guitar beautifully, in candlelight. It was very difficult not to hire him.”
Allan Fotheringham, a college buddy and colleague from the Ubyssey, says Ross was quite a sight in those days, oblivious to his personal appearance and all the more striking for the lack of effort. “I guess his father [a doctor in a B.C. penitentiary] had been an ambulance driver in the war, and Sandy inherited his army boots. This was in the days before anybody wore them, but this was Sandy. He always wore these boots. After Sandy moved to Toronto, Borden Spears became the editor of Maclean’s. They were having a party and they were talking about the usual thing: Maclean’s getting old and fuddy-duddy and being written only for people in Moose Jaw. Spears was talking about how the magazine had to appeal to younger readers and this guy came walking in. It was Sandy [who was writing for Maclean’s], hair all over the place and some crazy suit and his goddamn army boots, and Spears says, ‘Who’s that guy? That’s the type of guy we want.’ So Spears sat down and had a long talk with him and hired him to be managing editor.”
The spokesman for a new generation? Hardly. Despite his pre-protest-era musical forays at university, Sandy’s politics were small-c conservative for most of his life. His carefree persona wasn’t so much an attempt to match the tenor of the times as it was a function of his constantly shifting attention span. He was able to use it to his advantage and channel it into his creative process, but as is often the case with gifted soloists, he sometimes ran into difficulty when working in an ensemble.
According to medical experts, attention deficit disorder is the most common of an entire category of childhood developmental disabilities, what people used to call hyperactivity. It occurs in three to six percent of children and is caused by a kind of glitch in the brain’s maturation process. Some of the more common symptoms ADD sufferers exhibit:
- Excessively fidgets or squirms
- Easily distracted
- Difficulty remaining seated
- Difficulty sustaining attention
- Shifts from one activity to another
- Difficulty playing quietly
- Often doesn’t listen to what is said
- Often loses things
Meet Sandy Ross.
The same guy who had the entrepreneurial vision to reshape Canadian journalism was also a notorious scatterbrain who could barely contain the rush of creative urges that seemed to bombard him or maintain a single focus for any length of time. There was so much to see, so much to experience. At CB he kept a vintage pinball machine from the fifties in his office. “It’s how I work off nervous energy,” he told a friend. He would do handstands in the middle of editorial meetings to emphasize a point or, completely oblivious to the effect on those in attendance, lie down on the floor while he outlined a particularly interesting association or plan. If he wasn’t talking he was biting his nails, humming, fiddling with his hair, tapping his fingers on the nearest desktop.
In 1975, two years after the breakup of his first marriage, Sandy moved to the free-spirited cottage community on Toronto Island with Linda Rosenbaum, an American expatriate and writer. He was editor of Toronto Life at the time. She was in her late 20s. He had just turned 40. No doctor ever diagnosed him as having a neurological disorder, even a mild one, but Rosenbaum, who now has a son with ADD, says, “We just didn’t have a name for it then. It would be sort of a running joke. You’d be talking to him and he’d pull out a pencil and start playing drums on his desk in the middle of a deep, meaningful conversation. It could make you crazy, crazy, crazy. And it did definitely affect his relationships with people.” For the editors who followed him when he vacated the editor’s post in 1980, Sandy’s shifting interests and behaviours had broader consequences.
Canadian Business was almost an immediate success, so much so that by 1980 “the Boys” as Ross, MacLaren and de Pencier had become known-to friends and enemies-were looking for fresh ventures. They hit on the idea for a magazine that would chronicle Alberta’s then-burgeoning oil scene. Sandy and his new wife, Minette, went to Calgary and Energy got under way.
Meanwhile, Ross had hand-picked Margaret Wente to be editor of CB. Her tenure was a great success-at least in part because Sandy was half a continent away. But the troubled apostolic succession of editors who followed her endured everything from minor tampering to outright interference in CB‘s editorial affairs when Sandy returned from Alberta in 1982. It would come full circle in less than a decade: Sandy Ross, then Margaret Wente, Charles Davies, Joann Webb, Wayne Gooding, and then, in 1990, Ross redux. Wente seems to have fared best, but Davies, Webb and Gooding, who laboured under a new CB management structure that made Ross a sort of “uber-editor” after Energy magazine hit the skids, still show the scars. “I just don’t want to be part of the contingent that glorifies him,” says Webb when asked to comment about her time working under Sandy. For his part, Davies is cordial but still wary about dissing his former boss: “Best to let sleeping dogs lie.”
Davies and Webb are reluctant to say much at all about their stints as editor of CB, but Penny Williams, who was editor of Your Money magazine, which was launched by CB Media, Canadian Business’ parent company, has some observations about the goings-on with her counterparts at the flagship magazine. “My sense, looking from the Your Money side of the fence, seeing it over more than one editor, was the other side of Sandy’s restlessness, of his creative energy and enthusiasm. What I thought I saw happening more than once was that Sandy would come back into the life of CB magazine with whatever red-hot enthusiasm of the moment. And because he had the power and because he was an owner and because he was no slouch, he got to have his ideas listened to and implemented, which meant that when Sandy would come in all afizz with something they’d have to crank the machinery around to go in that direction. But what could also happen is Sandy would lose interest and just move on, leaving people stranded.”
Wayne Gooding followed Webb as editor of CB and held the job from 1987 to 1990. His tenure preceded a complete editorial repositioning at CB, a move to take it away from the consumer magazine focus that had made it such a success and target more of a senior-management audience. The Report on Business Magazine and the Financial Post Magazine, consumer-business publications that followed in CB‘s wake, had diluted the market and CB needed to respond, but Gooding fought the move. “We [Gooding and then CB publisher Michael Rea] started to have disagreements, which eventually got to real screaming matches.” Rea and CB’s vice-president of publishing, Allan Singleton-Wood, were keen to change the magazine’s editorial focus and kept butting heads with Gooding. At one point they travelled to Ottawa to propose an advertising supplement to the federal government. The supplement was a major initiative and was to be edited by someone outside the CB organization. Gooding only heard about the plan in an editorial meeting, by which time it was a fait accompli.
Gooding decided this was the last straw and resigned, but an appeal from Roy MacLaren convinced him to withdraw the resignation and continue the battle. Besides, Sandy was still CB’s editorial director and Gooding felt Ross had been supporting him throughout his battles with Rea. If Sandy would just remain consistent, he thought, it might be worth another go. Shortly after…. “Sandy phones me up and wanted to talk to me and I went over to his office. His office was set up in such a way that when you sat down, his computer screen was right in front of you. And I was sitting there and he said, ‘Excuse me,’ and went out of the room. I don’t know what it was, curiosity or whatever, and I looked at the computer screen. And it says, ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa. I know I’ve been supporting Wayne but I think I’m wrong.’ It was the beginning of a memo to Michael Rea.” After five or 10 minutes Sandy came back into the room and the two men had a conversation about something with no relation to the memo. But Gooding took it as a sign that-as Sandy had warned him when the conflicts with Rea began-“the Hun was at the gate.” He resigned for good.
Within his extended family, Sandy’s verve brought a lot of joy, but a lot of stress too. Sandy was romantically hyperactive, and many of his escapades read like the outtakes from the last season of Knot’s Landing. He had a succession of girlfriends that included many of the young, intelligent, attractive women to whom he had given that first big chance as a writer. He couldn’t resist. “I don’t think he was womanizer,” says his son Alec, now a freelance journalist, editor and author in Kingston, Ontario. “He liked women. There’s a difference. A womanizer is sort of one-night stand and toss them away. That’s not the way it was. He was a good-looking guy in a powerful place and women – I mean in publishing, God, it’s swarming with women. Especially at Toronto Life in the free-and-easy seventies, you know? Put it together. There were many temptations for a guy like Dad and it was in his nature to succumb to them sometimes.”
Maybe it was the era, but people seem to accept his philandering, at least in hindsight, as just another aspect of his character. “That was just Sandy,” they say indulgently.
It’s been emblematic of pop psychology in recent years to connect male infidelity with a sublimated fear of death. Call it the Moonstruck syndrome: men of a particular age come to believe, on an unconscious level, that they can ward off the grave by indulging the procreative impulse. By doing that which creates life, you negate death.
That probably didn’t apply to Sandy. He wasn’t some caricature of middle-class, middle-aged insecurity. Anything but. The creative impulse, however, was central to his approach to life and journalism. His extended family fortified him at home – Minette and children Alec, Darby, Kent, Thea and Paget-while the search for new enthusiasms drove his efforts at work. Here’s what he had to say about it in The Risk Takers, the book that solidified his reputation as a business journalist and, two years later, would define the editorial strategy for Canadian Business. “My friend [a businessman engaged in a new venture] was really doing what artists do: creating something where nothing had existed before. To me there is nothing ignoble about this basic entrepreneurial impulse, because it lies very close to my notion of what human beings are all about.
“In every aspect of human affairs, from building button factories to achieving nirvana, growth necessitates risk. And this risk-taking impulse, this rare human capacity to make the next jump outward into the unknown, has something of the divine about it.”
External forces, parental influences, traumatic events, biological and neurological dispositions – they all coalesce with varying degrees of resonance within the human soul, helping to shape our behaviour, our motivations and our responses to the random circumstances life throws at us. In Sandy’s case, the primary influence in the second half of his life, the half where he achieved so brilliantly, was the death of his son, Darby.
Darby Ross was born in Vancouver on September 19, 1963, to Sandy and Elizabeth-“Bess” to her friends and family. She says Darby was very different from Alec. “They used to call him ‘the little professor.’ He was very, very measured. Very calm. For example, say you had a pile of Legos on the floor. Now, Alec would get frustrated and he’d knock it down if it didn’t go the way he wanted it to. But Darby would persist and persist patiently until he got it exactly the way he wanted it.” She recalls how Sandy and the kids would go off on goofy excursions, using their imaginations to find fun in odd places. “He’d take the kids to a used car place and they’d arrive home with a used muffler. They’d rig it up in the backyard and put hoses through it and pretend that it was something. And it was actually Darby that loved these kinds of thing. He liked these kinds of gadgety things.”
At age five, Darby was diagnosed with a rare tumour in his right ear, and for the next four years he went through a series of debilitating complications and treatments. But in the end it was more than science could handle. He died on January 19, 1973. “He was not a complaining child. It was sort of like, children who go through a lot of things become very different from others. They seem sort of wiser. I can’t explain this to you, but Sandy would have known what I meant,” says Bess.
Alec, just 12 years old at the time, remembers the night after Darby died. “Dad and I went and played pool. That was one of the things we liked to do sometimes, and we weren’t really talking much. There was a lot of suppression of feelings and there was a long walk across this bridge, in the dark, and it was cold. We were playing pool and sort of trying to aim with our eyes filling up with tears and not really talking about it.”
The loss hit Sandy hard. So hard that he could not bring himself to go near Darby’s grave. So hard he couldn’t bring himself to ask Bess where their son’s ashes were buried for nearly 20 years after his death.
It may help explain the direction of his personal and professional behaviour. Minette Ross says he was “so sensitive, so vulnerable, that he built up layers like a pearl. A lot of life is an irritation to someone that sensitive and so, like an oyster, they build up little, beautiful, luminous defenses. Layer upon layer upon layer, so that they can cope. That’s why he bit his nails and that’s why he hummed. He had all these little distancing, defensive mechanisms,” she says. “He had a large part of himself that was intensely private.”
For Ross, a lifelong autodidact, writing was the balm that helped him heal himself, reinvent himself after Darby. Sandy told many people that his 1971 to ’73 Toronto Star column, a daily slice-of-life piece about the characters and calamities that defined Toronto, helped him reconnect with people after Darby’s death. But he connected with something else during the period. He had discovered something primal and life-affirming in business, in the productive activities of entrepreneurs like those celebrated in The Risk Takers who “made something from nothing.” He came to associate business with creativity on a whole other level, somewhere down deep, well past the distraction and the laughter and the enthusiasm. It’s no coincidence that he started writing The Risk Takers in the same period.
By embracing business, Sandy was embracing life-joyous, creative, exuberant life, and maybe finding a way to forgive himself for Darby’s death, for not being able to protect his boy.
There are echoes of it in almost everything he wrote after 1973. A rough estimate shows he composed some 1,500 pieces for publication in the years following Darby’s illness-1,500 celebrations of lives well-lived, 1,500 tributes to a beautiful, earnest nine-year-old boy.