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Howard Levitt: What I Learned Working for the Shaws, One of Canada's Great Business Families

posted 2 years ago

Beset by profound and unshakeable melancholy (albeit infused with warm memories), I thought, for the first time in 24 years, that I simply could not find it in myself to produce a column for today. But then I reflected: Why not write about the subject of those raging emotions?

I spent last weekend at the Château Lake Louise, at a 50th anniversary celebration for Shaw Communications being held just before it joins Rogers. I have worked with Shaw — indeed it has represented about a third of my work time — for 27 years. I have bonded with, and even love, many of its people and family members.

I was introduced to Shaw by Ted Rogers when Shaw purchased the cable systems in Scarborough and north of Toronto. JR Shaw had asked Ted who Rogers was using for its labour and employment work and who he recommended. Jim Shaw and Peter Bissonnette (then Shaw’s president) promptly flew into town to size me up. We became fast friends  — they were both present on my first date with my wife some years later and Jim served as my wedding groomsman — and I have done Shaw‘s work ever since, developing close, indeed intense, relationships with many of its people. After all, big lawsuits and union fights/decertifications tend to be bonding experiences with your team.

That weekend was followed by JR Shaw’s Celebration of Life at Stampede Stadium in Calgary.

Ted and JR were two of Canada’s most extraordinary leaders, both leaving indelible marks on our cultural and business landscape. On the back of JR‘s business card were Shaw’s values, which formed that company’s DNA. Ted’s business card, characteristically cheeky, had on its back, “Chief Salesman.”

Shaw had seven values: integrity, loyalty, customer focus, can-do attitude, team player, accountability and balance. He lived them. One of his lessons was that you never should ask someone to do anything that you would not do yourself.

JR cared about his employees and worked assiduously to ensure that they felt valued at all levels. Mark Porter, now head of human resources at Westjet, recounted to me that, when he congratulated JR on winning Canwest Global, rather than revelling in his massive victory or pausing for a moment of gratification, his response was only, “It is important that we treat their people right.”

JR was driven and strived for perfection. One of his sayings was, “Give it 100% till you get the job done.“  He taught his people and modelled many lessons for success. At the celebration of his life, his wife of over 60 years, Carol, told the story of how they would drive down the streets of Edmonton when they were getting started. JR would look at a house remarking “there are three lines there“ and quickly add, “but they are only paying for two!” Nothing passed him by.

JR wanted to “win” but not at the expense of anyone else. He made a point, as one of the speakers said, to “never leave a table that you are not welcome back to.“

Shaw became so large (Rogers and Shaw were always neck and neck when it came to having the most cable subscribers) by acquiring other cable systems over the years. Those system owners became his friends, advisers and board members. I remember speaking to Owen Boris of Mountain Cablevision a few years back when he chose to sell his system to Shaw rather than to Rogers. Owen told me that he might have sold to Rogers if Ted was still there but, without Ted, JR‘s charm won him over. in fact, he told me that he took less money to sell to JR.

At his son’s (and my close friend) Jim‘s funeral, many of the cable technicians lined up in front of Stampede Stadium as people arrived with their Shaw caps to their hearts, paying their respects, in the dead of a cold, cold Calgary winter. JR got out of his car when he saw this and went to thank every single one of them for what must been more than 30 minutes.

He was a man who brought tomatoes to the office from his home on Vancouver Island and pineapples from his place in Maui and walked office to office handing them out while finding out what was on his employees’ minds. When you asked anyone about JR, the universal comment was that, when he was talking to you, you were the only person in the world who existed to him. How many leaders do that and what loyalty does that imbue?

Why am I recounting this in an employment law column? Because of the hundreds of cases I handled for Shaw over the last 27 years, its employees, to a person, personalized his legacy and were intent on defending their company‘s reputation.

The other thing is this: Many companies have mission statements and values which might as well have been copied from the internet, posted to virtue signal and then quickly forgotten. At Shaw, its values are ubiquitous. They are posted on board rooms, coffee mugs, email signatures, letterhead and formed the basis of all performance evaluations and team meetings. Employees have to agree to them in every letter of offer and they were evaluated or disciplined based on their incorporation of those values.

And it worked. I cannot count the number of times I have won cases based on judges and arbitrators agreeing that those values formed a contract of employment such that employees‘ violation of them was cause for discharge. Another aspect of that was the Shaw “We”. There was no “I”, no “ego” at Shaw, to the point that the word “I” was prohibited. It created difficulty in some lawsuits where witnesses, in referring to themselves as “we” were questioned as to who the other person was being referred to. Or, as Brad Shaw said in his eulogy, an employee saying “We are going to the bathroom” can create some quizzical moments.

So what should employers and HR managers learn from the legacy of JR Shaw? The importance of consistency, caring, transparency, putting yourself out for your employees and consistent values through the workplace. It earns loyalty and even wins lawsuits.

I am privileged to have known him and Canada is better off by his having devoted himself to this country. It is impoverished by his absence.


Howard Levitt is Senior Partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practises employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books, including the Law of Dismissal in Canada.

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED HERE: https://financialpost.com/fp-work/howard-levitt-what-i-learned-working-for-the-shaws-one-of-canadas-great-business-families


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