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Gordon McGregor page 6

Story by Ross smyth

Gordon McGregor, an avowed capitalist who preferred to travel CP rather than Crown-owned CN in the prewar years, frankly summarized his management philosophy: “There isn’t a reason in the world why a corporation financed by taxpayers shouldn’t be as well managed as one financed by private capital.” Most of his years at the helm of the Crown corporation resulted in profits. Yet he believed that any surplus should return to the public in reduced fares, and that any windfall lay hidden through faster depreciation rates. He reasoned that revelation of a large profit would increase pressure from other operators to encroach on Air Canada’s more profitable routes.

McGregor defended and promoted the company position on the speaking platform and enjoyed describing the advantages of smooth rotary turbine power versus vibrating piston engines. He delighted recounting jet pioneer Sir Frank Whittle’s explanation: “Reciprocating motion might be all right biologically, but mechanically it stinks!” CN boss Donald Gordon once confided conspiratorially, “The fly boy goes around the world collecting jokes, which he gives me to clean up for Canadian consumption.”

With his business acumen, the serious, self-confident McGregor had little use for management consultants. He told of the lusty bull who, seeing a field full of cows, charged forward but didn’t quite make it over the high fence. “So he became a consultant,” said McGregor.

Beneath McGregor’s rugged exterior and his reputation as a disciplinarian lay a soft heart. During lunch at the hotel adjacent to the airline’s Montreal headquarters, McGregor’s waiter accidentally spilled coffee on him and nervously laughed. Instead of being upset, McGregor laughed too, engaged the waiter in serious conversation and suggested he apply to the airline as a flight attendant. He did and was eventually accepted. Always immaculately dressed and a little reserved, McGregor to his many friends reflected geniality and wit with stimulating views and a probing attitude. Childless, he and his wife Mae travelled the world and enjoyed their old Montreal home adorned with gadgets of the owner’s making. McGregor was a moderate Scotch drinker who once entertained friends with a concoction of lemon and orange juice, egg white, dry champagne and rum, a recipe picked up during intensive reading of his favourite author, Rudyard Kipling. “It put life into what otherwise might have been a dull evening,” he said candidly.

Between his retirement in 1968 and his death three years later, Gordon McGregor took some roundhouse swings at government decision-makers on Montreal’s new Mirabel airport. “Based on the Department of Transport’s past performance in estimating the cost of their projects,” he said, “you can bet that $400 million is less than half the eventual cost.” Once more, time proved his assessment correct.

His political bosses did not always agree with McGregor’s ideas for the airline. Two years before retirement he worked out a plan where executive vice-president Herb Seagrim, early company pilot and competent administrator, would replace him. The government did not concur; they appointed two successors, prominent Quebec lawyer Yves Pratte as chairman and chief executive officer and former Deputy Transport Minister John Baldwin as president. With styles unlike McGregor’s and relying heavily on the advice of U.S. management consultants, the new executives soon encountered stormy weather and a nosedive in employee morale. Shortly before his death, the wartime flier who helped make Air Canada one of the top 10 airlines in the world gallantly said, “They are doing a very good job under difficult conditions.” Gordon Roy McGregor remained loyal to his industry and his company even to the end. |

Author Ross Smyth worked for TCA and Air Canada from 1940 to 1977 in a variety of capacities from cargo clerk, radio operator and flight dispatcher to public relations manager. For several years he prepared speech material for Gordon McGregor.

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