Thursday, September 04, 2008


I've always been intrigued by that phrase -- "A Captain of Industry". If it's meant to describe someone with great corporate power, how come the middle-management rank? Are there no Generals or Admirals of Industry? These days, Captains fly commuter routes, haul in lobster pots or point to which guy's going to carry your bags to a hotel room. Is that all it takes to run a company?

Or do I think that way because I'm Canadian?

We have a lot of big and important companies in this country -- or we think we do. The interesting thing is, when you take a close look at how they do business, you notice the chinks in their armor and realize how petty, bereft of class or propped up they really are.

Some examples...

When you walk into a Tim Horton's in the USA -- and yes, they're are a lot of them now and not just in places where little boys play hockey -- you'll notice that when you order your traditional large double-double, it comes in the cup an extra large comes in in Canada. You're paying the same price, but getting 25% more bang for your buck than all those commuters lined up at the drive-through back in your hometown.

And when you sit down to enjoy that coffee in the US, you get free wi-fi, something that also isn't available to the Canadian customers who built Timmy into who he is today.

A few months ago, pundits had a field day pointing out that the bulk of Tim Horton's "Roll Up The Rim" contest prizes were going to folks in the border states and weren't turning up in the hands of the hockey moms and dads who've been loyal daily customers since they deep fried the first Honey Cruller. Apparently Tim was attempting to build his Southern market share at the expense of the his Canadian base.

But enough about Tim -- except for the lids...

How come a company that makes Billions still can't come up with a coffee lid that doesn't leak? It's a feat of engineering that Seattle's Best, Van Houte and Starbucks long ago accomplished stateside. I'm not sure if their lids are patented and unavailable or Tim just feels they're offering a public service on chilly mornings by warming your hands with slopped over brew.

Now, before you think I'm turning into Andy Rooney here, there's a point or two to this (related to the TV business eventually) -- and one of them is that Tim's an example of how Canadian companies seem to take us consumers for granted. They don't consider (nevermind sweat) the small stuff because we're more or less a captive audience.

Take Toronto's Pearson Airport. No free wi-fi there either unlike so many of their American, European and Asian counterparts. And it used to be that if you needed to swap currency at the airport, you could deal with a real bank and get exchange rates more or less comparable to what you'd get at any local branch.

Not anymore.

Either because they can get a higher rental fee for the kiosks or a better kickback, the currency exchanges at Pearson are now run by people who (with a Canadian dollar hovering around 94 cents US) sell US dollars for $1.14 and buy them back at 96 cents Canadian. I'd call these people bandits, but I kinda feel sorry for them. I mean, Jesus threw them out of the temple for a reason. They know they're not going to heaven. Honest, they're not!

But let's say you're coming home and figure "Screw it, I already took a hit buying US dollars and I'm not letting them screw me again selling them back", and you go to an ATM. The Toronto Airport doesn't have bank ATM's anymore either. So even if you only want twenty bucks for a gypsy cab, they'll ding you $2 for the transaction.

It's a wonderful way of introducing visitors to the Canadian way of doing business and of reminding Canadians you're back in the land of being milked, honey.

Let's move on to some of our best milkmen, our mobility providers. I got a wonderful insight into their inability to see the customer relationship as anything other than a one-way money stream when I tried canceling my brother's phone after he died last Spring.

In all, I had to speak with 9 different people at Telus Mobility to cancel his service. Four of them used the opportunity to try to sell me new features or improve his long distance package. Admittedly, I didn't help matters by making comments like "What part of 'He's dead' don't you understand?" or "Boy, this job is so much harder than Special Ed, isn't it!?!".

Now, I'm told by several Western Canadians that Telus hires the dumbest people on the planet. But I don't actually believe that's the case. These folks had simply not been trained to deal with the death of a customer. In the same way they can't get their heads around concepts like taking their current number to a new service provider or reducing their service options -- because to Canadian Captains of Industry, the Customers is only there to provide his monthly tithe -- and that stays the same or increases. It never goes the other way.

So, I'm sure Telus customers weren't surprised when they learned last month that the "unlimited" mobile internet options they'd purchased were being discontinued. Over at my guy, Bell Mobility, they didn't discontinue "unlimited" service, they just promised it and didn't provide it in the first place.

Although I swore last month that I wasn't going to switch over to the Samsung Instinct to punish them for sponsoring China's Olympics, my phone started sputtering and I had to make the change.

Okay, technically, I didn't have to get the Instinct, but my only other option was a Blackberry and I knew if I gave Jim Balsillie 200 bucks he'd just use it to pry Nashville's hockey team away from the rightful owners. So between supporting Chinese Communist thugs or a Greedy Canadian CEO, I chose the lesser of two evils.

The smiley guy at Bell Mobility was all too eager to show me all the cool things I could do on my new phone with my "Unlimited" internet package. Although, once operational, it seems email isn't included in "Unlimited". Even though it's coming over the same internet, picking up spam will cost an extra $8 a month. Same with many of the other services you access through your Bell Mobility "Unlimited" browser.

The capper was that one month after renewing my services, the nice Bell Mobility minions sent a lovely note letting me know that "Unlimited" service was now being provided at an additional $5/month rate.

I'm sure somebody's thinking of suing them for false advertising or filing a complaint with the CRTC. But the former will cost you more than you'll win and the latter is pointless since the CRTC is an owned and operated affiliate of the phone companies.

And you have to accept that as the reality of the way Canadian Captains of Industry operate. While their entrepreneurial spirit is lauded and used to horsewhip groups like Artists who need to learn to function in the "real marketplace", that real marketplace is as fake as our corporate icons' image of competitive success and customer service.

In Canada, nobody is apparently able to succeed without being handed, purchasing or bribing their way to a captive audience. Phone companies and cable operators have designated turf. TV channels receive genre protection from their competition. Hell, even the richest hockey teams in the world need hundreds of mandated miles between them and the next professional rink.

Ted Rogers has learned this "corner and gouge" strategy so well he gets to ding me $9 for a beer, $5 for a hotdog and $25 for a baseball cap because he owns the Blue Jays and the ballyard. The sad truth about our Corporate moguls is that Ted would be just as much a struggling minimum wage serf as the next guy if he had to be on the street on equal terms and hawking his dogs and caps for less than half those numbers.

No wonder these guys are only lowly Captains. Not one of them is capable of building an industry without a little help. And no wonder they and the politicians they champion hate seeing Artists get a little assistance. Because some people might start noticing how little they could accomplish without all the help they get.


John said...

You can always choose to not own a cellphone, not buy a $9 beer, not pay for Wifi at the airport. So why don't the customers rise up and "vote with their wallets" against all of these monopolistic practices?

Because Canadians are whinging, compliant bitches who love to complain, but never actually DO anything about it.

That's why.

Webs said...

"Captain of industry" probably comes not from the military rank but from the captain of a ship. He's the one that leads and guides it. And there are many ships on the sea, just as there are many companies in any given industry (usually).

Clint Johnson said...

Actually John, it is the landline that is optional today. I could see dropping that but a cellphone is the baseline for personal communication.

Blenz coffee shops here in Vancouver have free wi-fi and I support them over Starbucks whenever I can. Timmie makes some nasty coffee so I don't go there anyway.

I'm not a fan of corporate welfare be it a mining company, telecomunications company or a film production company. It makes them weak and uncompetitive so that they then need state protection against competition.

They cost the taxpayer to subsidize them - then we are stuck with a substandard product made palatable only by; keeping superior products out of the market, handicapping them with tariffs or forcing them to go through the protected indigenous industry.

This isn't really a problem of capitalism, it is a problem of politics. As long as politicians have the power to select the winners, the "Captains of Industry" will pay them for that.

Remember that the key players in a capitalist system are not advocates of capitalism, they are advocates of economic power and if it is possible to build it through buying politicians to set up a socialist or fascist system with them at the peak of a protected sector... that is fine by them.

Between the politicians and the businessmen, the businessman is by far the lesser of two evils- but capitalism still has to be protected from the depredations of both.

Cunningham said...

Yes, Captain in the Navy = Colonel in the USAF or Army.


Veteran Bill

jimhenshaw said...

You're probably right about the origin of the phrase, Webs. I'm just saying that while the rest of the world evolves, Canadian corporations still resort to Rum, buggery and the lash.

Kay said...

A couple of weeks ago I got my quarterly call from Bell Mobility thanking me for being a "loyal customer" and oh yes - the real point of the call - to try to lock me into another 2 year long contract. I declined his nice offer & then took the opportunity to tell the guy that the 1st time they charged me for an incoming text message I would be cancelling my service & switching to another "service provider" (now there's an oxymoron). He then tried to sell me on a text message plan. I explained to him that I don't text & that the only time I ever receive texts is when I call 411 & I get a text of the number automatically - I already pay $0.75for every 411 call!!! Of course, the guy couldn't do anything except quote the party line, so I gave up after a couple of minutes.

You're right Jim - they simply aren't trained in any aspect of service.

Since Rogers (at this time anyways) says that they won't charge for incoming texts I guess I'll switch to them - not because I like them, but because I hate them less than the other two.

(I'll never forgot the endless hours I spent on the phone w/ Telus several years ago attempting to convince them to stop billing {the series I was working on}, for cell service which they had been told to cancel between seasons.)