In 1941, the House of Seagram – then a Canadian maker of whiskeys, and later the largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the world – privately published Stephen Leacock’s “Canada: The Foundations of its Future,” a history of Canada’s growth and development to that time.
Samuel Bronfman, the founder of Distillers Corporation, which acquired Seagram in 1928, wrote the foreword to the book, explaining his rationale for publishing such a history when the country was at war. He was motivated by a desire to bolster public morale, but also – and this is the interesting part, from my perspective – by “a consciousness of the wider civic interests of industry.” He wrote:
“For Canadian business, it seems to us, is not merely availing itself of a privilege, but is also fulfilling a duty, when it lifts its eyes from the narrow confines of its ‘powers’ as described in its charters, to regard the wider panorama of that country to the history of which it contributes its record of achievement. The horizon of industry, surely, does not terminate at the boundary-line of its plants; it has a broader horizon, a farther view, and that view embraces the entire Dominion.”
One thing that struck me about this statement is its reference to ‘privilege’, the recognition of which seems to be widely lacking in modern society. Though regulatory frameworks may grant legal rights of access to natural resources, such access nevertheless remains, truly, a privilege and, with it, come attendant responsibilities to steward such resources. That the notion of privilege appears to have largely been forgotten may help explain the erosion of the stewardship ethic in recent decades.
Mr. Bronfman went on to say:
“There is no doubt but that the most important document among the records of any commercial enterprise is its balance-sheet. That document, of course, owes its importance not to the facts and figures it contains, but to the people, the human effort and striving, represented by its mathematical symbols. For a business is constituted, to paraphrase a well-known dictum, ‘of people, for people, and by people’. We feel that Appendix A to each and every business balance-sheet, an appendix unwritten yet undeniably there, is the general history of the Dominion, itself a projection in deeds of the personality of all its citizens. That, in fact, is the larger balance-sheet, without which all others are meaningless, purposeless, motion without progress!”
This excerpt captures eloquently the notion of human capital, the value inherent in the people who make up the company, the people it serves, and the people who have made it possible for the company to exist, indeed to thrive. Mr. Bronfman’s acknowledgement of the overarching importance of people, of the meaning and purpose lent to business by society, still stands, almost three-quarters of a century later, as an inspiring articulation of the basis for corporate responsibility.
As we increasingly understand today, the “horizon of industry” does indeed extend beyond the plant boundary, and, for many in our global economy, beyond even our national borders.
If we consider these two ideas together, however, the need for a “farther view” and the overarching importance of people, it follows that the horizon of industry must be broad not only in spatial reach, but in temporal terms as well. While understanding our history, as Mr. Bronfman advocated, is critical to recognizing and appreciating the privileges we enjoy, I would argue industry must also look to the future, to ensure the “larger balance-sheet” remains healthy for generations to come. Given its great influence in, and the scale of its potential impact on, modern society, the horizon of industry must indeed be far-reaching in every sense.
Although this particular volume of Stephen Leacock’s has been on my bookshelf for many years, my attention was brought to the foreword in particular by Phyllis Lambert, Samuel Bronfman’s daughter, who wrote about it in the prologue to her own excellent book, Building Seagram, about the planning, design, construction, and ongoing stewardship of the Seagram Building in New York City.