J.W. McConnell

J.W. McConnell: Financier, Philanthropist, Patriot

William Fong
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 752
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  • Book Info
    J.W. McConnell
    Book Description:

    J.W. McConnell (1877-1963), born to a poor farming family in Ontario, became one of the wealthiest and most powerful businessmen of his generation - in Canada and internationally. Early in his career McConnell established the Montreal office of the Standard Chemical Company and began selling bonds and shares in both North America and Europe, establishing relationships that would lead to his enormous financial success. He was involved in numerous businesses, from tramways to ladies' fashion to mining, and served on the boards of several corporations. For nearly fifty years he was president of St Laurence Sugar and late in life he became the owner and publisher of the Montreal Star. McConnell was an indefatigable and formidable fundraiser for the YMCA, the war effort of 1914/18, hospitals, and McGill University, where he served as governor for almost three decades. In 1937 he established what would become The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the first major foundation in Canada and still one of the best endowed. J.W. McConnell was a principled and brilliant visionary with a strong work ethic and a deep commitment to the public good, a Rockefellerian figure in both big business and high society who quietly became one of the greatest philanthropists of his time. His life story - told in uncompromising detail by William Fong - is a study of raising, spending, and giving away money on the grandest scale.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7468-7
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
    William Fong
  4. CHAPTER ONE A Boyhood in Muskoka: Blood, Religion, Sentiment, and Community, 1877–91
    (pp. 3-16)

    Jack McConnell, as he was known as a child and to his close friends in later life, was born on 1 July 1877 in Monck Township in Muskoka, a rural district about one hundred miles north of Toronto.¹ His father was Scots Irish and his mother probably English, but little else is known about his family background. One legend relates that Jack’s paternal grandfather had been a mill-owner in Belfast and died intestate. The ensuing confusion left Jack’s father, John McConnell, personally bankrupt, and he fled Ireland for Canada in 1863, thus escaping his creditors but still so poor that...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Onward, Ever Onward, Jack: Toronto and the Making of a Man, 1892–99
    (pp. 17-38)

    From 1892 to 1899, Jack McConnell came of age in Toronto. It was here that he acquired a practical education in life, equipping him to be supremely functional in an urban environment that was reshaping both itself and the rural culture, beyond it, into which he had been born.

    In the 1890s, Toronto was rapidly expanding in its wealth and its dreams, and well on its way to becoming the metropolis of a new industrial economy. In their origins, most of its people were even more homogeneous than those of Muskoka, but they were also much more densely housed. By...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Selling Wood Products and Settling Down, 1899–1907
    (pp. 39-62)

    Out of the deforestation that ravaged the landscape of nineteenth-century Canada there remained enough “waste” to spawn a new pulp and paper industry as well as many other industries with which McConnell was to be associated, beginning with charcoal manufacture. Canadian hardwoods, such as hard maple, yellow birch, and beech, were especially productive in charcoal production. For centuries, people had been engaging in the distillation of hardwood – or heating it in the absence of air – to produce charcoal. The Canadian wood-distillate industry had begun in 1887, when the Rathbun Company, of Deseronto, Ontario, began to convert the vapours from charcoal...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Partner, Promoter, and Believer, 1907–14
    (pp. 63-93)

    Following his sales campaign in England in 1904, McConnell grew increasingly eager to carve out a future for himself outside a company, and this desire led him to join the only partnership of his career. Some time in 1906, three Sunday school teachers, George Franklin Johnston, McConnell, and Hudson Joshua Creighton Allison, the first two from Douglas Church, and the last from Dominion Church, decided to establish a “financial house” – a term that defies clear definition. They called themselves investment brokers – many of their associates preferred the title of “financial agent”³ – and as such they were more than ready to...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Bittersweet: St Lawrence Sugar and Regulation, 1912–63
    (pp. 94-122)

    Like many rich businessmen, McConnell endured much criticism and was the subject of much speculation in the course of his career. His profits as a broker earned him envy, but they extended only over the few years, from 1908 to 1912, although the money that he invested from his brokerage days yielded him a handsome income for years to come. Most criticisms of rich businessmen are of them as individuals. But from 1912 and for 51 years, McConnell was a leader in an industry that attracted similar opprobrium. With his fellow sugar refiners he was from time to time accused...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Keep the Home Fires Burning: Fundraising for the YMCA in Peace and for Canada in the Great War, 1909–19
    (pp. 123-147)

    When McConnell returned to Montreal from Nelson in 1908, he already had begun to display his skills as a fundraiser both for the Trinity Church there and for the Douglas Church to which he was now returning. But in the following year he was to develop these skills on a much larger scale, helping to raise not merely money but, more important, the spirit of community in much of Montreal. He did this in the service of perhaps his favourite organization since his youth in Toronto, the YMCA .

    Founded in 1851, the Montreal “Y” was the first to be...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Developing and Financing Tramways and Electricity, 1890–1925
    (pp. 148-180)

    In 1877, when McConnell was born, only people in rich cities enjoyed the luxury of gas and dim and isolated electrical lighting. Most people cooked and heated their houses with wood or coal. The best that urban areas could offer their burgeoning populations was horse-drawn trams. In the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, however, electrical generating stations and electrified street railways became integral to the utilities industry, which had been long supplying gas and water to urban areas.

    The rapid advance of both technological and financial innovation made investment in electricity central...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT The Rise and Fall of Holding Companies for Power and Paper, 1925–39
    (pp. 181-211)

    By 1925, McConnell could take comfort in being free at last of the Tram-Power imbroglio. Further, with the recession of 1921–24 over, both he and the economy were on the threshold of profiting from a period of unprecedented prosperity. And with the freeing of shares in his own portfolio from their use as collateral for the loans of St Lawrence Sugar, he had millions of dollars to invest in the market.

    The following four years were economically among the headiest of the twentieth century. Most countries prospered in this period, and none more than Canada with its practically limitless...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Almost a Jack of All Trades, 1911–39
    (pp. 212-240)

    As we have seen, by 1911, McConnell had already become one of the richest men in Canada. He had made a fortune in his promotions, was vice-president of the transit system of Canada’s biggest city, and was on the way to taking over one of the largest sugar refineries in the country. He might well have contemplated spending the remainder of his life playing golf and tennis, skiing, entertaining, and being entertained. In fact, he was already doing all this even before 1911, and he would continue doing it over the almost half-century to follow. But retirement held no allure...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Insecurities: McConnell’s Investments, 1921–39
    (pp. 241-256)

    Both in Canada and internationally, the business world between the two world wars sparkled with a galaxy of financiers and captains of industry. In the company of only a handful or so other Canadians, McConnell was a major player on Wall Street just as he was on St James Street. Such flamboyant colleagues as Lord McGowan, the chemicals manufacturer, Lord Kemsley, the newspaper proprietor, A.R. Graustein, the utilities magnate, Sir James Dunn, the mining executive, and Alfred Loewenstein, the Belgian takeover artist, embodied his age as surely as the Prince of Wales and Hollywood stars in other spheres. They were...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN Wider, Ever Wider, Shall Thy Bounds Be Set: Social Life in Montreal, 1901–63
    (pp. 257-288)

    One of the most remarkable aspects of McConnell’s life was how fast he rose socially, to become almost a symbol of the established order in the ten years following his arrival in Montreal. That a dirt-poor son of barely literate failed farmers from Ontario should come to mix so easily, as an apparent equal, with the most privileged of Montreal – and indeed of Canada, Great Britain, and the United States – tells us much about the city and even more about McConnell himself.

    Montreal always lacked the wealth, the ostentation, and the numbers to rival London and New York in social...

  15. Plates
    (pp. None)
  16. CHAPTER TWELVE For King and Empire, 1927–39
    (pp. 289-323)

    The years 1927 and 1928 marked a pinnacle of McConnell’s success, above all socially. Other years, such as 1929 until the market crash in October, and 1938, when he took over management of theMontreal Star, were landmarks in their own ways. But by 1928 he was settled in his house on Pine Avenue, he was engineering his International Nickel reorganization, and he was collecting directorships. He also was named chairman of the Royal Victoria Hospital Charity Ball, and he was becoming the confidant of Lord Willingdon, the new governor general who arrived in 1927 and the first of several...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Faith and Works: From Charity to Social Welfare and from Fundraising to Philanthropy, 1922–45
    (pp. 324-350)

    McConnell’s story as a financier, patriot, and philanthropist does not reflect a simple linear development. The three roles were facets of one personality. For at least the last fifty-six years of his life, McConnell demonstrated himself, over and over again, as playing all of them. At any one time, one of the roles would predominate over the other two, but it never overwhelmed them; and he was always able to switch emphasis very swiftly to meet changing circumstances. What made this possible was the simple fact that raising money and applying it to good causes were not in the least...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN There’ll Always Be an England: The Second World War, 1939–45
    (pp. 351-385)

    Like nearly all Canadians, McConnell dreaded the onset of another world war from every point of view. He was sixty-two years old and somewhat tired and frail. His sons might have to face injury and death in battle. His business interests would probably nearly all suffer, particularly St Lawrence Sugar. The whole British Empire, including Canada, and democratic countries everywhere faced mortal danger. Friends and colleagues, employees, and perhaps civilization itself were confronted with possible extinction. For the Square Mile and indeed for McConnell’s friends everywhere, the declaration of war seemed to guarantee the end of an entire way of...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Dilemma of Conservative Politics, 1911–63
    (pp. 386-420)

    In politics as in much else, McConnell was a thorough-going pragmatist. He never even pretended to be a straight party man, even when his closest business colleagues were anguishing over their party loyalties, and indeed he was always ready to shift party allegiance when it seemed expedient to do so, whether for economic or other reasons. At both the federal and provincial levels, his choice of which individuals and parties to support was based on his assessment of their abilities and their records, never on considerations of ideological purity. Yet loyal he also was, to individual politicians whom he respected...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Press Barons, Publishers, and Editors: The Montreal Daily Star and Other Newspapers, 1925–53
    (pp. 421-463)

    Apart from St Lawrence Sugar and McGill University, McConnell was most often associated in the public mind with the MontrealStar, which was actually called the MontrealDaily Starfor most of the period of his ownership. Affiliated in ownership with this newspaper were theStandard, the ruralFamily Herald and Star, and, more distantly, the MontrealHerald, also all published in Montreal. From the 1940s, his newspaper company also publishedWeekend Magazine, a Saturday supplement distributed widely with various newspapers through Canada.²

    In 1925 Lord Atholstan, who as Hugh Graham had been one of the two founders of the...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Grandescunt Aucta Labore: Building McGill University for the Future, 1920–63
    (pp. 464-506)

    McGill University, as the next chapter will show, was the chief object of McConnell’s benefactions through his Foundation. But his contribution went beyond this. As a member of the McGill’s Board of Governors from 1928 to 1958 – and as a governor emeritus and a life governor thereafter – he devoted considerable time and effort to promoting the university’s interests in the face of unprecedented social and political change in Montreal, in Quebec, and in Canada. He naturally perceived the issues relating to McGill as a financier. Many have accused him of having a hidden political agenda for the university, but the...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN We Give Thee but Thine Own: The Making of the McConnell Foundation, 1928–63
    (pp. 507-545)

    Apart from his work for war efforts, McConnell’s preoccupations with medicine, education, and the young were at the root of his activities as a fundraiser and a benefactor over the course of his entire adult life. They received their most enduring support through the Foundation that he established in 1937 and that continues in existence today.

    McConnell’s first provisions had been for his family, both immediate and extended. By 1928, he was fifty-one years old, but he remained attached to his siblings and their descendants long after most of them had gone in 1901–05 to California. As early as...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN Keep Right on to the End of the Road, 1945–63
    (pp. 546-582)

    The end of the Second World War almost coincided with the weddings of the McConnells’ two youngest children. Four days after V-E Day, Kit married Peter Marshall Laing, a lawyer educated at Oxford and from a family long in business in Montreal and later in London. The wedding took place at the Erskine and American United Church, where the Laings had also been prominent. Since Wilson had been married at the house of his bride and John outside Canada, this was the first time that the McConnells had an opportunity to hold a church wedding in Montreal. The cook, Mrs...

  24. APPENDIX ONE J.W. McConnell’s Investment Holdings: An Overview, 1921–51
    (pp. 583-606)
    Nicolas McConnell
  25. APPENDIX TWO A Glimpse of the Interconnectedness of McConnell’s Circle
    (pp. 607-634)
  26. Notes
    (pp. 635-684)
  27. Bibliography
    (pp. 685-712)
  28. Index
    (pp. 713-733)