For the Toronto Star's David Olive, one of Canada's most respected business journalists, writing isn't what he does for a living. It's his life's work. But at what personal cost?
It’s near midnight in October on Bloor west near Keele in Toronto’s west end. All is quiet except for whirring winds and the thunder of late-night transports, but the neighbourhood coffee shop-reminiscent of a garage-turned-game show set-is still open for business. Under the pulsating glow of the flashing bulbs bordering the Galaxy Donuts sign, a man sits alone at a pressure-treated picnic table, hunched over in a green windbreaker and faded jeans. Gaunt and pale, he writes, longhand, on yellow foolscap, pausing only to draw on a cigarette or sip coffee. “Writing is isolating,” the man says. Which is why David Olive, regarded by many as Canada’s foremost business journalist, writes mostly in public.
Olive’s daily work route begins at Golden Embers restaurant, just up the street, where he chews on six morning papers (The Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Financial Times of London). He heads home to file newspaper clippings, arrange and conduct phone interviews and then he shifts to either Galaxy Donuts or the nearby Coffee Time to scratch on yellow pads late into the night. He eventually returns home to shape the story on his personal computer. And then Olive sleeps.
Since October 2001, the fruits of these long days have been appearing in the Toronto Star, where Olive, 45, is a business columnist. He writes feature-length stories, usually about what he wants, when he wants. But the daily 18-hour effort goes back to his days writing for Canadian Business, Toronto Life, the Financial Postand the National Post. His first book of 10, Just Rewards: The Case for Ethical Reform in Business, became a bible for business in the 1980s (during which time he co-founded the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Corporate Policy). At times, he’s swapped his picnic table for a desk as the editor of Report on Business Magazine or a seat on The Globe and Mail‘s editorial board. Since the late ’80s Olive has picked up 12 national magazine and book awards and honourable mentions. Writing is not what David Olive does for a living; it is his life’s work. “I’m wholly consumed,” he says, “with writing.”
So, for that matter, is the old Victorian house he’s lived in for the last decade and a half. The walls of the front room, which Olive calls his “office-library,” are lined with hundreds of books, alphabetized and categorized: classic and contemporary literature, politics, media, Bibles, biographies and, of course, business. Sliding Peter C. Newman’s The Flame of Power from one bookcase, Olive motions toward English literature on the opposite wall and says: “The elements of Shakespeare can be found in business.”
Indeed, drama is everywhere in this age of Enron and Nortel (insert preferred corporate catastrophe of late), but business writing is more than accounting scandals, share-price manipulation and stock market collapses. Olive says there are three kinds of business stories: triumph, tragedy and turnaround-stories of ambitious goals achieved, setbacks suffered and redemption revealed. He says the beauty of business is that a product can be conceived and implemented, acclaimed or killed with astonishing speed. “I love business,” Olive says. “I love what business can do by bringing together resources and driving ambitions, and matching that with an idea that may fly-or not.”
A five-metre beeline from the office-library, just off the kitchen, Olive has fitted the space above the basement stairs with shelves that hold six white binders, five inches wide each. These thick volumes contain hundreds of alphabetized profiles of every national and international company that has made news since Olive began this collection with an eight-page Duo-Tang in Grade 12. Showing off the corporate profiles he’s researched, written and updated, Olive flips open the second binder and runs his finger down the pages-Canadian Tire-Canon…CanWest Global-a sounds off highlights. On the top right-hand corner of the first page of each profile, Olive has electronically copied the company logo in red. “It’s just for me,” Olive says of the collection. “It’s one of the joys in life.”
It’s also raw material for the production line of Olive Inc. His newspaper and magazine stories have spotlighted convergence (BCE), corruption (Nortel), nepotism (Quebecor) and patriarchy (Rogers). He’s written about politicians as businessmen (Paul Martin, Jack Layton), businessmen as celebrities (Garth Drabinsky, Paul Reichman, Edgar Bronfman Jr.) and one litigious journalist-businessman (Conrad Black). He’s also covered housing shortages and evictions.
His books survey business leadership (No Guts, No Glory: How Canada’s Greatest CEOs Built Their Empires, 2000), business ethics (Just Rewards, 1987), business terminology (White Knights and Poison Pills: A Cynic’s Dictionary of Business Jargon, 1998, and A Devil’s Dictionary of Business Jargon, 2001) and Canadian identity (Canada Inside Out: How We See Ourselves, How Others See Us, 1996). He has also authored quirky quote collections including Genderbabble: The Dumbest Things Men Ever Said About Women, 1993, three volumes of political babble quotes and his 2002 release, The Quotable Tycoon: A Treasury of Business Quotations.
Last summer, he wrote a five-part series in the Toronto Star about the death of the new economy that described high-tech pipe dreams, overpaid CEOs, misinformed investors and merger madness. The series showcased Olive’s ability to synthesize information and provide historical context. “The corporate landscape today looks like a gigantic yard sale,” he wrote. “Buy high, sell low, sack the CEO. That is how the new economy ended, not with a bang but with a severance package. And a reminder that we’ve seen this before, from the damage wreaked by takeover sprees in electronics in the 1960s, oil, mining and forest companies in the 1970s and PC makers and real estate in the 1980s.”
“He seems to know everything that’s going on,” says Don Obe, Olive’s friend and first editor at Toronto Life. Fellow journalists say that when they stumble on a story written by Olive that has to do with a topic that they are researching, they experience simultaneous exaltation and panic: the article is an invaluable resource but it makes them realize how much they don’t know. “He just helps you get a grasp of what’s going on in the world,” says Rick Salutin, the lefty Globe and Mail writer known for his anti-business sense. “He helps you feel as if you’re not quite as much at the mercy of distortions and delusions and self-promotion.”
Just talking to Olive is like entering a keyword into a search engine. Ken Kidd, a long-time colleague and Olive’s editor at the Star‘s business section, calls it a “data download”: ask Olive a question and he spews every related micro-byte of info stored in memory. Why is business more interesting to write about than politics? “Because business people get things done really quickly,” Olive responds, and proceeds to cite the success of Imperial Oil, Starbucks, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Holiday Inn and WalMart compared to the logistics of passport offices and the labour laws of Tennessee.
His speech is speckled with historical references:
History is important to Olive, which is why his favourite part of annual reports is the 10-year summary. He says the best businesses have staying power. They create loyalty and maintain integrity for generations. Olive says: “They manage for the long term.”
slipping the white binder back on the shelf, Olive springs up the basement stairs and pauses in his kitchen. There’s no food or culinary equipment in sight. There are, however, four large black filing cabinets in the corner opposite the stove. Inside, hundreds of file folders contain clippings collected over three decades. “I cut them and then I label them and then I file them according to topic,” Olive explains. The three-drawer cabinet nearest the wall is for Canadian companies like Algoma Steel. The next two cabinets, four drawers high each, are for internationals-General Motors, IBM. The last, also a four-drawer, is for subjects, places or people that interest him-Buffalo, diamonds, Frank Lloyd Wright. Olive’s system: if, say, Home Depot acquired Canadian Tire today, he would combine the folders on both companies and the corporate profiles in the white binders to see how history had brought matters to this point.
Olive’s own history begins in a white, middle-class Toronto Star door-to-door. His interest in business began in a high school economics class, where he discovered that a small group of people could have great control over immense financial, natural and human resources. Reading the daily newspapers became a habit and he subscribed to magazines like Forbes and Fortune.
His parents, both children of the Depression, were keen to see their only child get a good job that offered benefits and long-term prospects. Olive studied journalism at Ryerson in the 1970s and remembers once expressing concern to his father about the scarcity of writing jobs. Harold Olive suggested he go into insurance sales, because, of course, the insurance man who showed up at their house selling mutual funds or car insurance always seemed prosperous. “That’s when I became even more resolved to succeed in journalism, because I didn’t want to go into insurance,” Olive says, expelling first a gust of air, then three chuckles and a sigh of satisfaction.
So when Olive landed his first journalism job, as editorial assistant at Toronto Life in 1980, he was determined to make an impression. One of his first nights there, he stayed at the office until after midnight organizing the shelves of back issues. And his filing system was already in progress. Joann Webb, then managing editor of the magazine, remembers Olive’s arcane catalogues, in which he would record on index cards, for future reference, all the business news of the day. “He had a startling fascination with Canadian business,” Webb says.
Several months later, Olive moved to Canadian Business magazine to work under editor Margaret Wente as editorial assistant. Jennifer Wells, Olive’s current colleague at the Star, was copy editing at CB then. She recalls the sounds of papers rustling and three-ring binders clicking in Olive’s cubicle every morning as he organized his indexes. Around a year later, Olive moved up to senior writer.
Olive left Canadian Business in 1984, at the age of 27, to help strengthen the recently launched Report on Business Magazine as staff writer. The release of Just Rewards in 1987 cemented Olive’s authority; awards were bestowed and his reputation established as one of the country’s top business journalists.
But for all the success of those years, Olive’s voice softens and his eyes lower when he remembers 1983. It was his third year as working journalist, his second as husband. Olive was writing his first cover story forCanadian Business, a 40,000-word, two-part feature on the 10 largest private companies in Canada. He’d often sleep at his desk at the office; other nights, he’d come home at 10 and write for two or three more hours in the second bedroom, which he’d commandeered as his private workspace. Sometimes, Olive says, he’d come home early enough to cook dinner for his wife. They’d eat in front of the television and barely speak until he retreated to the second bedroom and shut the door to write for the night.
“This has been a problem in all my relationships,” Olive says. “I’ve always put the work first. But I don’t really know how it could be any other way.” Wente, former editor of the daily ROB section of The Globe and Mailand now one of the paper’s most prominent columnists, says, “He was so focused on what he was doing that he did it 99 hours a day.”
In 1986, the marriage dissolved. “I knew I was this sort of person,” Olive says. “It was more important to prove that I could write than to prove that I could make a marriage work.”
Proving himself has been a theme in Olive’s life. He remembers being in Grade 6 and starring in a school production of The Pirates of Penzance. Minutes before the curtain rose on opening night, the stage fright that hadn’t occurred to Olive during six weeks of rehearsals finally befell him. Sick and sweating, he made for the nearest washroom. The teacher/director saw him and demanded, “Where are you going? We’re on.” Near tears, Olive sputtered, “I can’t ? I can’t do this.” The apathetic response: “That’s fine, David. We’ll just get John Raymer to do it.” John Raymer was the coolest kid in class, with a Kennedy smile and all the girls’ affections. With that, Olive spun on his heel and pronounced, “No, I’ll do it.” And he did, nausea and all. “One of the motivators for me has always been that if I don’t do it, somebody else will, will do a fine job of it, and hell, I’ll have missed my chance,” Olive admits.
In the late ’80s, Olive left business writing for a brief stint at Toronto Life to see if he could write about unfamiliar territories like homelessness, urban decay and municipal politics. (He could, winning a gold National Magazine Award for a story on the homeless.) In 1991, a 33-year old Olive became editor of Report on Business Magazine, succeeding Wente. At a time when the recession was killing publications like the Globe’s other magazines (West, , , Destinations and Domino), he wanted to see if he could spend prudently yet produce quality.
Prerecession RoB Magazine had enjoyed popularity for its irreverent zeal, typified by the famous cover shot of Harry Rosen, naked save a strategically placed necktie. But as the economy slumped, Olive sobered the magazine with more managerial and how-to-cope content, hiring Ken Kidd and Jennifer Wells as senior writers. The focus was on cost-cutting, so Olive slimmed the book in order to maintain its profit margin. As editor, Olive thought of himself as a businessman with a $1.3-million budget. He’s kept profit-and-loss statements from his tenure showing the magazine’s performance relative to the entire Globe company. “I really prided myself on spending that money wisely,” he says. “We were the only profitable part of The Globe and Mail for part of that time.”
Always the nighthawk, Olive would often arrive at the office after the others had left for the evening. Kidd remembers coming into work in the morning and finding a memo from Olive, sent at 3 a.m. “I’ve been accused of being a workaholic and I hate that because it sounds like a disease,” Olive says. “But I guess I do live for my work. It’s the one thing that will cheer me up. And it’s the one thing that will drag me down.”
Bolting down the stairwell housing the white binders, Olive stands just outside his bathroom. Adorning the door is a copy of the Globe‘s front page of February 17, 1919, the day that Wilfrid Laurier died. Framed speeches by Martin Luther King and Pierre Trudeau flank the mirrored medicine cabinet-“Just something to look at while I’m brushing my teeth,” Olive laughs. He’s hung a picture of Roosevelt and a sketch of Churchill upstairs. And there’s a Clinton/Gore campaign sign in his Flag Room, a den-cum-storage space at the back of the house where the flags of locations he’s visited drape the walls and ceiling.
The first three words of Olive’s first book, Just Rewards, read: “I like business.” He believes that the capitalist system works better than any other that’s been experimented with over the last 300 years but that it’s in constant need of reform. Fifteen years after that first book, Olive says he is more wary of the free-market system and the “cupidity” that accompanies economic booms. He expects more of business than mere profit. “I will never embrace the excitement of closing a big underwriting deal or selling shares of companies to the investing public,” he says. “What’s important to me is what businesses do with the money.”
Accordingly, Olive criticizes and commends Canada’s business elite case-by-case. Air Canada’s Robert Milton? An unfit leader who’s squandered public goodwill to his company’s cost. Paul Tellier, CEO of Bombardier and formerly of CN Rail? A smart businessman with the experience and personality to nourish an ailing company. Olive describes himself as a Red Tory, but says that left and right are subjective terms. “I’ve been accused of both, so that’s how I know things are probably going well,” he explains. “I like to think of myself as a radical moderate. If I criticize big drug companies, I’m a left-wing pseudo-communist. If I make the case Frank Stronach is a good businessman, I’m a right-wing zealot.”
In the late 1980s, Olive and a group of business executives, accountants and academics started the Canadian Centre for Corporate Ethics and Policy, an organization that tracks and promotes business ethics. For over a decade now, Olive has been a columnist for the Corporate Ethics Monitor, a bimonthly subscriber-based business publication that analyzes and rates companies in various industries from a responsibility perspective.
“Olive’s forte is in having the courage to say what he thinks about situations, and particularly individuals, who have performed badly or well in the corporate world,” says Len Brooks, editor of the Monitor. Adds Ed Waitzer, former chair of the Ontario Securities Commission, a senior partner at the law firm of Stikeman Elliott and one of the ethics centre’s founders: “I can’t think of any other journalist who’s consistently focused on corporate responsibility issues as thoughtfully as he has in Canada.”
Money could have coaxed Olive out of journalism for a lucrative career doling out corporate advice. A brief hiatus from business writing in 1989 led him to paid speaking engagements at Alcan and trade associations and he helped update the ethics manual for Imperial Oil employees. During the referendum-obsessed mid-’90s, he spoke to the Conference Board of Canada about separatism being the by-product of an eroding social safety net. And Olive still works the corporate lecture circuit addressing issues ranging from corporate governance to branding. Last fall, he spoke to executive MBA students at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business about the need for enhanced accountability in the capital markets.
But writing has always called Olive back, as demonstrated during his last year as editor of RoB Magazine. Olive was getting stale, both he and colleagues say. He’d never been at a job for more than a few years and he missed writing full time. The magazine wasn’t reflecting the excitement of the high-tech times. Olive began suffering severe intestinal cramps, though he said little about it to anyone. The staff was forced to compensate for his frequent absences. In 1997, Patricia Best took over as editor and Olive moved down masthead as senior writer for a short time. Trish Wilson, a senior editor at the magazine during his tenure, now says of Olive: “Writer mode liberates him.”
at galaxy donuts, late night is becoming early morning. Olive’s coffee is cold, but the du Maurier perched between the yellowed fingers of his left hand glows warmly. Black pen and yellow paper shoved aside, Olive watches a white car drive out of the doughnut shop’s parking lot, looking but not seeing; he’s thinking, maybe trying to find the right word.
Major criticism of Olive’s work is scarce, but last October an article in Frank magazine accused him of plagiarizing John Cassidy’s book, Dot.Con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Most people who get “Franked” dismiss the criticism as cheap charges from a disreputable source. Instead, Olive ended his next Star column with a mea culpa: “Although I didn’t copy Cassidy’s prose, I relied too heavily on his superb book, which I had praised March 8 and should have cited in this piece. My apologies.”
But it’s criticism of his first published work, in the early 1970s, that Olive remembers with pathos. On page 14 of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier high school yearbook appeared Olive’s poem about his first crush. It began, “Skies of azure blue-” With a fresh-off-the-press copy, Olive approached his English teacher, who began reading silently, looked up at a beaming Olive, then down at the page, and proceeded to read the first line aloud. Now Olive mimics the teacher’s Brit-snob scoff: “Skies of azure blue…azure…ajour…asher…” The teacher slammed the book shut and continued, “Could you have started the poem with a more clich?d sentence? You have committed this to print with the idea that people are going to pay attention to what you have to say. You want to call attention to yourself. And you have. With this azure. And it’s terrible.” Olive says he tried to defend his work but soon realized that the man might be right. Some 30 years later, he shakes his head and says, “I’m never satisfied with what I write.”
The Globe‘s Wente noticed Olive’s harsh self-judgement at Canadian Business. “He’s one of these people who’s very competitive with himself,” she says. “You had the sense that the standards he set for himself were impossibly high, that he was, in his own mind, never quite living up to them.”
But opinions of Olive have always been high; editors have sought him out. Charles Davies, a colleague from the Financial Post, remembers the scramble to recruit Olive in 1997 when he was on his way out of RoBMagazine. “It was a one-time opportunity. It was like van Gogh was passing through town.”
By 1998, Olive was back writing full time at the Financial Post (eventually swallowed by the National Post), his cramps and discontent having subsided. He stayed as senior writer until 2001, when Ken Kidd lured him to the Star to build the business section of Canada’s largest daily. Olive, who’d wanted to write for the Star since his days as a paperboy in the 1960s, says he likes the freedom to pen stories with a dramatic narrative. “You’re looking for companies that have ambitious goals, which seem impossible to achieve,” he says, “or that were in terrible trouble but have managed to turn around.”
And so he sits at his picnic table, writing and rewriting, striking out redundant words, searching for the right verb, comparing history with present day. He sometimes ruminates over stories for days or weeks before he figures out what he wants to write. But Olive is certain about what business writing, at its best, is about. “It’s the story of passion and ambition and one lonely company,” he says, “one lonely person up against the world of competitors and droughts and floods and other acts of God that we don’t have control over.”