Andrew Allentuck

Monday, December 3, 2001

Can't Buy Me Love; How Martha Billes Made Canadian Tire Hers
by Rod McQueen
Stoddart, 2001, 281 pages

Rod McQueen, a gifted investigative journalist, delves into the question of what drives Martha Billes as entrepreneur and queen of Canadian Tire. Along the way, he investigates the car parts business, Canadian retailing, and the operations of what some would say is the core of Ms. Billes' life - her frustration in her quest for one good man.

Mr. McQueen is sympathetic to his character's foibles, but within the story is the core of a major business rise and stagnation. Despite the existence of what he estimates is $100 million of outstanding Canadian Tire money and the presence of Tire, as the firm is known on Bay Street, in the front of most Canadian shoppers minds, the firm faces a country saturated with retailers and malls. Tire has nowhere left to expand, Mr. McQueen says, and in spite of the ability of the firm to survive hard times, it could become irrelevant when American big box retailers move further into Canadian retaildom.

The dilemma of the future of Tire is embedded in the fact that Ms. Billes holds 61 per cent of its voting shares. Mr. McQueen raises the question of whether Tire can be run as a personal fief of one woman or even of one family - appropriately enough, given the fall of the Eaton empire. The story is told vividly and with compassion. But for owners of stock in Tire, what happens to Martha and her block of shares may foretell the fate of the firm.

For outsiders - those who don't own Tire stock, Can't Buy Me Love is a compelling read. For those who do own the stock or are thinking of buying some, the story is a study in the history and strategy of retailing. Either way, it's a great read.