Following Labatt down his 'Different Road'
By Jason Winders
December 06, 2012
Road: A memoir
By Arthur Labatt
BPS Books (September 20, 2012)
You know the name, but you may not know the 17-year-old kid pictured on the green BSA motorcycle. And if you tell Arthur Labatt that kid looks a tad bit like Marlon Brando, well, let’s just say he won’t argue with you.
Starting when he was 12 years old, Labatt collected war savings certificates – depositing them in a bank account for years. When he was 17, he was ready to cash in and went into a local dealer looking to buy a Whizzer, a small motor kit that turned bicycles into motorbikes. But the salesman would talk him into “a real motorcycle” – a green 125cc Birmingham Small Arms (BSA).
“I had quite a small stash of money. My father was amazed I had done this. That’s why I went out without asking anybody and bought my first motorcycle,” said Labatt, who included a picture of him atop that first ride on the back cover of his book, A Different Road: A Memoir. “I just loved it.”
Labatt would ride all over in all conditions – dirt and gravel roads, main highways in rain storms, once sliding beneath a car a driver pulled in front of him. After one too many close calls, his father would offer him a trade – sell your motorcycle and he would buy Labatt a car.
“I was delighted to accept,” he said with a laugh.
The story is one of, literally, thousands of memories Labatt crammed into his recently released memoir. Part family history, part business textbook, part travelogue, the reflections of this long-time friend of Western, and honorary degree recipient this past fall, provide quite a window into the man, his famous family and London’s glory days.
Labatt was born into privilege, the youngest child of John Sackville Labatt, who, with his brother, Hugh, ran the family-owned brewery, John Labatt Limited in London. Arthur spent his youth looking forward to, and enjoying, summers at Port Stanley on Lake Erie and Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park.
But he admits he felt like an observer of his own life in his early years: What was he supposed to do next? Where would his decisions take him? How would it all turn out? Labatt was always keenly aware of the blessings – and the burdens – of a famous name.
“I was always afraid I would be drinking underage, and a photographer would come in and my picture would be taken and on the London Free Press,” he said. “It’s a prominent name, and it was on a lot of beer. But I really did want to get out of London.
“And so I was always happier living in Montreal where the name meant something, but not much. And I enjoyed living in France where it didn’t mean anything. But you learn to live with it.”
His brother and son, both named John, carry a heavier burden of history, Labatt said. “At least I was Arthur,” he laughed.
Cast in what he sees as his father’s mould, Labatt describes himself as “shy and a bit introverted,” not the easiest personality traits when one wants to write a memoir. During the process, he found a new appreciation for the written word, and those who use it.
“You have to be quite a disciplined self-starter to write. I have always respected authors, but I have a real respect for them now,” said Labatt, who opted against a ghost writer. “It’s a tough job, but I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to see if I could do it.”
On these pages, he would explore all corners of his life. For instance, he dedicated a chapter of the book to the shadow cast over his family by the famous kidnapping of his father in 1934. He was only vaguely aware of those dark days.
“I knew virtually nothing about my father’s kidnapping,” he said. “It happened the year I was born and it wasn’t talked about at all at home. I learned a great deal about that.”
His education took him on a decidedly zigzag itinerary through an assortment of Roman Catholic and public schools. And by the time it was his turn to join Labatt’s, his father had died, the firm was on its way to being sold and he had taken a detour from his studies at McGill University, becoming a chartered accountant under the auspices of Clarkson, Gordon & Company.
Things began to make more sense to him after a period of career moves at Clarkson’s and then investment dealer McLeod Young Weir (MYW). After four years in Paris selling Canadian securities to institutional investors in Europe for MYW, he joined with portfolio manager Bob Krembil and mutual fund salesman Michael Axford to launch Trimark Investment Management Inc., a mutual fund company they eventually sold to U.K.-based AMVESCAP (now called Invesco).
He speaks with great love for, if not great detail on, his Trimark days. Not wanting to leave anyone out, Labatt avoided dropping too many names, and even pushed back at his editor’s suggestion to add an index to the book.
Overall, the book – three and a half years in the creation – is a reflection on a life well-lived, one free of regrets, save one.
“The one regret I do have is that I never got a university degree,” he said. “That’s one big failure that has bothered me forever. I just didn’t pay enough attention to scholarly growth; it always came too easily.”
Editor’s note: Background on this book was provided by the book’s publisher, BPS Book.
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