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Beyond parody

Dear defeated Members of Parliament (of all political parties):

It’s called getting fired.  It will happen to virtually all Canadians at some point in their personal and professional development.  Most of your fellow citizens will deal with it on their own, without the benefit of any outreach program.

“It’s as sudden as death,” said one defeated Liberal MP. “The only thing you don’t go through is that you don’t have to walk into a funeral home and peek into the box and say, ‘Well, he was a nice guy.’ ”

When Canadian researchers interviewed 45 former members of Canada’s federal and provincial parliaments within five years of their defeat at the polls and asked how they coped with their “involuntary disengagement”, one in three invoked images of death.

… For a number of defeated candidates, the prospects of finding gainful employment after an election defeat becomes remote, said McMaster’s Shaffir. “Some of them have sacrificed a lot. It’s not as if they can take a 10-year absence from a law firm and then just parade back, saying, ‘I’m back.’ The whole legal world changes, or the technology has shifted.”

Joe Jordan developed a kit for defeated MPs called “Your Life After Politics”. He provides volunteer counselling to assist in the transition from public to private life. “I’m not Dr. Phil,” he said. “It’s just that someone who has been through it can answer their questions. I lived this.”

— Kirkey, Sharon.  “The death of a thousand votes: defeated MPs coping with grief, rejection.”  Postmedia News via the Montréal Gazette, 9 May 2011.

Suggestion: get over yourselves.

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Deus Indicat. Deo Ducente Nil Nocet

God is our leader. When God leads, nothing can harm

One hundred and thirty-six years after it was dissolved, the East India Company is being relaunched—this time with an Indian at the helm.  The EIC’s present business plan is a little less grandiose than its former mandate, but at least its present impresario has a certain respect for the brand and its history.

Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta is opening a luxury food shop this month in Mayfair, London, under the historic name – as he takes his first step towards restoring the company to its former glory.

With a nod to the past, the 2,000 sq ft premises will sell a range of teas and coffees, as well as other goods including chutneys, marmalades, mustards and chocolates.

Mr Mehta has been granted permission by the Treasury to use the name and original trademarks of the East India Company.

…The 48 year old, who has lived in London for 20 years, says the reasoning behind it all is that he could never hope to create such a recognisable brand from scratch.

‘I have not created this brand, history has created it,’ he said.

‘I am just the curator of it, a custodian.’

Mr Mehta added that he has suffered no criticism from compatriots for buying the company, saying: ‘People are rejoicing because an Indian has bought the EIC – it is a symbol of redemption.’

— Wilkes, David.  “The East India Company to resume trading – but this time under Indian control.” Daily Mail, 2 August 2010.

In Canada, the 340-year-old Hudson’s Bay Company occupies a similar iconic place in our commercial and historical landscape, but its myopic executives have been busy trying to bury that heritage, not capitalise on it.  Within my lifetime they have reduced the branding to merely “The Bay”, and now just “HBC”.  There is little connection between its rugged, pioneering past and its current bland retail housewares existence.

If (for example), HBC had maintained a significant hunting/camping/outdoor equipment line, would you be inclined to go down the street to Europe Bound or Mountain Equipment Co-Op?  Or would you rather buy the gear from the company that built its entire business around dotting the wild Canadian landscape with remote trading posts, keeping fur trappers and natives supplied with the necessities of life and commerce?

One cannot help but applaud the simple clarity and initiative of Mr. Mehta in resurrecting a well-known brand and wielding its 400-year history to keep moving the same sort of product it did so many years ago.  If only Canadian businessmen would take note.

X-Dominion locomotives, 1943

Workmen constructing an X-Dominion locomotive bound for India. Kingston, Ontario, November 1943. (Harry Rowed / National Film Board of Canada—Still Photography Division / Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN # 3197892)

View of workmen assembling X-Dominion locomotives for shipment to India. Montréal, Quebec, November 1943. (Ronny Jaques / National Film Board of Canada—Still Photography Division / Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN # 3197058)

The Honourable K.C. Mahindra, head of the India Supply Mission at Washington, DC, christens the first of 145 "X-Dominion" locomotives built in Canada for India under the Mutual Aid Board Agreement before its test run. Montréal, Quebec, November 1943. (Ronny Jaques / National Film Board of Canada—Still Photography Division / Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN # 3197874)

The Honourable K.C. Mahindra, head of the India Supply Mission at Washington, DC (left) and Mr. H.J. Carmichael, Co-ordinator of Production, Department of Munitions and Supply (right), on a test run of the first X-Dominion locomotive built for India under the Mutual Aid Plan. Montréal, Quebec, November 1943. (Ronny Jaques / National Film Board of Canada—Still Photography Division / Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN # 3197090)

Test run of first "X-Dominion" locomotive built at Montreal, Quebec plant and destined for India under the Mutual Aid Board Agreement, November 1943. (Ronny Jaques / National Film Board of Canada—Still Photography Division / Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN # 3194193)

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Not quite getting it

I enjoyed this Toronto Star opinion piece on Porter Airlines’ upcoming IPO because it sheds some light on how certain industry analysts think, and that in turn colours how certain journalists think.

“People aren’t as afraid of taking risk,” says Basili Alukos, an equity analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, who adds that there’s “appetite” for airline stocks, appetite being one of Mr. Porter’s favourite words.

Alukos notes the recent loft in the share prices of even some debt-laden U.S. legacy air carriers.

The story Deluce, a pilot and past-president of Canada 3000, will take to the street is the story of the still upstart airline stealing a march on the competition while keeping a lock on what is now called Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

Well, nothing lasts forever, and Bob Deluce knows that. There will surely be other carriers on the island, and Deluce is a practical man. “Airline flying is a commodity,” sighs Alukos. “It’s driven by price. If there’s a new air carrier offering cheaper fares, people will be chomping at the bit.

If Alukos is right – and I do believe he is – brand loyalty will be weakened, eventually, by price war. Mr. Porter’s adorableness will only take him so far.

— Wells, Jennifer.  “Porter Airlines takes a flyer.” Toronto Star, 17 April 2010. [Emphasis mine]

That one sentence tells you right away that the analyst does not comprehend Porter’s business model.  Every airline is expensive to operate and generates relatively meagre profits, but almost all of them have refused to adapt their core processes to better reflect new realities of air travel.  Low-cost carriers (LCCs) are frequently cited as factor in driving down fares, and that is a valid point.  But LCCs alone do not explain air travel’s woes.  The bottom line is that air travel has become inconvenient, unpleasant and inappropriately priced relative to the true cost of operating an aircraft.

For example, a typical full-service airline will operate its aircraft to and from major hub airports, say from Pearson to LaGuardia, for example.  These are both busy, expensive and frequently congested airports.  The landing fees are expensive relative to smaller airports in the same metropolitan areas.  Many airlines fly into these large hubs, and with greater numbers of aircraft comes greater complexity and opportunities for delays.  A smaller airline such as Porter can avoid these potential hassles by choosing to fly into a less-congested airport (Newark, for example) near to the large hub.  This allows the smaller carrier the possibility of cheaper landing fees, better on-time performance, fewer delays, quicker embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, and so on.

Any airline could, in theory, switch hubs provided it negotiated appropriately with the relevant airport authority.  But most of the large airlines are locked into large, expensive airfields because that is where their partner airlines and connecting flights meet, or their maintenance facilities are located, and so on.  The genius of Porter lies in choosing airports which are close to the major cities they serve, but not as congested as the main international hubs.  Having to wait in the Customs line behind 1200 people that just got off a trio of arriving 747s can put a bit of a damper in your day.  There’s little chance of that happening when you fly into the airfields that Porter serves, and that’s a deliberate choice because they want better a better customer experience.

Which leads me to the next point: Porter’s animating philosophy is business class for everyone.  Or to be blunt, a more pleasant flying experience for everyone.  Even if the airline’s competitors slash their fares, they will have to match Porter’s convenience and superior customer experience.  The average Bay Street exec flying from Toronto to New York is not going to be wooed by a cheaper fare.  Let us say that Air Canada Jazz begins operating its Dash 8-100s from CYTZ as they did in former days.  The temptation for Jazz’s route structure will be to fly into a major international hub in New York where it can connect with Air Canada proper.  Even if Jazz slashed its fare to just above TTC bus fare, it would not destroy Porter’s market share.  Sure, a lot of people would give Jazz a shot, but they will soon realise that 1) the equipment is older and noisier, and 2) departure from YTZ might be faster, but extricating oneself from LaGuardia is still slow and painful due to large passenger volume.  Students and cheapskates will be wooed by cheap fares; the suits on Bay Street and downtown dwellers in general—arguably Porter’s primary audience—will not.  They will opt for a more pleasant and convenient experience even at a greater cost.

Any airline that hopes to eat Porter’s lunch will have to provide a similar level of service and convenience, and that won’t be easy unless they adopt a similar business model (which will, in turn, mitigate against their price being significantly lower).  Cheap fares are not the airline-killer; the real killer is cheap fares married to lousy product and great inconvenience.  That, unfortunately, describes the bulk of air carriers today.

RELATED: A Canadian Press report in the Star‘s business section gets it right.

Analyst Robert Kokonis of travel consultancy Air Trav Inc. said considering Porter’s stellar reputation, that figure is not out of the question.

He said the offering will generate a lot of excitement among investors because Porter offers a unique business model that focuses on customer service.

“It’s going to ignite a lot of passion and a lot of people to hop on board, so I wouldn’t doubt if this issue becomes oversubscribed,” he said.

“It’s a smart move to put your money into an airline that realizes you’ve got to pay attention not just to the cost line (by cutting costs), but realizes you’ve got to pay attention top line as well, by offering a great product, a great service.”

— “Porter plans IPO.” Canadian Press/Toronto Star, 16 April 2010.

Sort of sad that a “focus on customer service” is considered a unique selling point among airlines.  But maybe that’s all you need to know about why Porter’s successful, and other island airport carriers (such as Air Canada Jazz) were not.

A tale of three ships

House flag, Canadian Pacific Steamships. Manufactured by Porter Bros Ltd, c. 1955. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Pope Collection, Item #AAA0189)

A fascinating look into the lives of three vessels of the former Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (and its Atlantic subsidiary, Canadian Pacific Ocean Services) suggests that perhaps the CPR was the world’s greatest travel system, after all.

RMS Empress of Australia

Type: Ocean liner
Launched: 20 December 1913
Owner: 1913-19 Hamburg-Amerika Line (1913-19), P&O Line (1920-21), Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. (1921-52)
Tonnage: 21,861 gross register tonnage
Length: 615 feet
Beam: 42 feet
Speed: 19 knots
Capacity: First class, 400; Tourist class, 150; Third class, 635
Crew: 520 officers and crew

Originally built as SS Tirpitz for Hamburg-Amerika line, but outfitting was interrupted by the Great War.  Claimed as war prize by the United Kingdom, operated by P&O Line for a year, then bought and refitted by CPR.

Claim to fame #1: Docked at Yokohama, Japan, on September 1st, 1923.  At 11:55am, while the ship was preparing to get underway, the city was rocked by an earthquake (now known as the Great Kanto earthquake) measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale.  The temblor continued for a duration of four to ten minutes and caused many buildings to collapse instantly; noontime cooking fires also set off up to 88 separate blazes across the city.  Tokyo was similarly devastated by the quake and its own series of fires.  All told, the quake was thought to have killed approximately 105,000 souls. Sections of Empress‘ pier collapsed, dumping families and well-wishers into the harbour; the ship lowers boats to recover them.

While attempting to move away from land (and fire), the ship’s screws got fouled by the lines of another vessel.  Empress sends an SOS and received a tow out of the danger area—where an oil-slick fire was spreading across the water.  After her navigation was restored, Empress remained in the vicinity and acted as a hospital ship and marshalling point for refugees, dispatching her boats to take in the afflicted.  She was able to remain on station for twelve days due to resupply from the Empress of Canada, another CP ocean liner which arrived just three days after the quake.  Most of the refugees were taken to Kobe, where the Japanese government had set up a relief station.

Ultimately, Empress of Australia and her crew were responsible for evacuating and caring for over 2,000 refugees in the wake of the disaster.  Captain Samuel Robinson (see photograph) was awarded seven honours from the United Kingdom, Japan, Siam and Spain, for both saving his ship and assisting the relief effort.

(Compare and contrast with Empressmodern-day counterparts following Haiti’s devastating earthquake.)

Claim to fame #2: When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth embarked on their 1939 Royal Tour of Canada and the United States, Buckingham Palace selected RMS Empress of Australia as the royal yacht.

Claim to fame #3: As a commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, Samuel Robinson (her first captain) was entitled to fly the blue ensign rather than the red ensign usually flown by civilian merchant and passenger craft.

Claime to fame #4: The ship was painted grey and pressed into service as a troop transport for the Second World War (and Korea).  Despite criss-crossing the world, she fortuitously avoided major combat damage, but never returned to glamorous passenger service.  Empress of Australia remained a grey-clad troop transport until finally heading to the breakers in 1952.

RMS Empress of Britain

Type: Ocean liner
Launched: 11 June 1930
Owner: Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. (1930-40)
Tonnage: 42,348 gross register tonnage
Length: 760.6 feet
Beam: 97 feet, 6 inches feet
Speed: 24 knots
Capacity: First class, 465; Tourist class, 260; Third class, 470.  Or 700 first-class suites for world cruising
Crew: 520 officers and crew

Claim to fame #1: She was the largest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liner to travel between Britain and Canada.  Christened by Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) on June 11th, 1930.The pride of CP’s passenger liner fleet, Empress of Britain was conceived from the outset with dual roles.  In the summer she would operate from Britain to Quebec with over a thousand cabins in three classes; every winter (when the Saint Lawrence River froze), her accommodations were converted into an all-first-class arrangement with 700 suites, and she cruised the world’s tourist hotspots at a more leisurely pace.  Equipped with four screws, she could make over 24 knots in transatlantic service, where speed was important.  But for world cruising, two of her screws were removed—dropping her top speed from 24 knots to 22 knots, but also increasing her fuel efficiency; on transatlantic runs Empress of Britain consumed roughly 356 tons of oil a day, but on her 1932 world cruise consumption was a mere 179 tons per day.

Claim to fame: #2: Her captain from 1934 to 1937 was Ronald Niel Stuart, a Great War veteran and Victoria Cross winner.  As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he was also entitled to fly the blue ensign rather than the merchant marine’s common red ensign.  Commanding the Empress of Britain was Stuart’s final and most prestigious sea command.  He remained with CP in senior management for a further 13 years, and was a part-time naval aide-de-camp to King George VI during the Second World War.

Claim to fame #3: In June of 1939, Empress of Britain conveyed King George VI and Queen Elizabeth back to the United Kingdom at the conclusion of their Royal Tour.  The passenger manifest for this trip was the smallest she ever carried—just 40 people, including the King and Queen, 13 lords- and ladies-in-waiting, 22 household staff, two journalists and a photographer.  She was escorted back to England by three Royal Navy warships and two from the Royal Canadian Navy.  Following her loss in October 1940, the Royal Couple sent a message to Sir Edward Beatty and the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, expressing their sympathies at her loss and fond memories of their 1939 return journey.

Claim to fame #4: Requisitioned for wartime troop transport in November of 1939 and painted low-visibility grey.  An 9:20am on October 26th, 1940, Empress of Britain was spotted by a German Fw 200 Condor maritime bomber, which hit her with two 250kg bombs and strafed her three times.  With the ship ablaze and flooding, and her firefighting equipment knocked out, Captain Charles H. Sapsworth gave the order to abandon ship.  Of the 643 people aboard, 45 were unaccounted for; 32 of them were crew members.

Remarkably, Empress of Britain refused to sink, so an effort was made to salvage the ship.  Two oceangoing tugs arrived and took the hulk in tow, while destroyer escorts and Sunderland flying boats patrolled for enemy activity.  Late in the day, German sub U-32 managed to slip through the screen and put two torpedoes into the Empress‘ side, bringing her seagoing days to an end.  U-32 was itself destroyed by HMS Harvester and HMS Highlander two days later; some of the sub’s crew were rescued by these same destroyers.  They were subsequently transferred to POW camps in Canada aboard another Canadian Pacific liner, the Duchess of York—commanded by Charles H. Sapsworth.

SS Beaverford

Type: Merchantman
Launched: 28 October 1927
Owner: Canadian Pacific Steamship Co. (1927-40)
Tonnage: 10,042 gross register tonnage
Length: 512 feet
Beam: 61.5 feet
Speed: 15 knots
Crew: 77 officers and crew

Second of five general-purpose merchantmen in the Beaver class (BeaverburnBeaverfordBeaverdaleBeaverhill and Beaverbrae), initially built for CPR but eventually impressed into the war effort.

Claim to fame #1: Beaverford witnessed probably the most hopeless engagement ever embarked upon by a naval escort.  The merchantman departed Halifax, Nova Scotia on October 28th, 1940 along with the other ships in convoy HX-84.  On November 5th, 1940, the convoy was intercepted by German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.  The convoy’s only dedicated escort—armed merchant cruiser HMS Jervis Bay—engaged the battleship but was easily outranged by the Scheer‘s larger guns.  Jervis Bay lasted somewhere between twenty-four and sixty minutes, losing 190 of her 256 crew.  (Captain Edward Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his valiant but futile defence of the convoy.Admiral Scheer eventually overhauled the trailing elements of the convoy and started taking apart the helpless merchantmen, sinking six.  Beaverford was one of the casualties, as were all 77 of her officers and crew.  Her wireless officer transmitted a final message before the ship’s destruction:  “It’s our turn now. So long. The Captain and crew of S. S. Beaverford.”

Claim to fame #2: None of Beaverford‘s four sister ships survived the Second World War, either.  Beaverburn (first of the class) became CPR’s first war loss when torpedoed by U-41 in the North Atlantic on February 5th, 1940.  Beaverdale was torpedoed by U-48 April 1st, 1941, although she achieved minor fame before that as two of her boats were used in the evacuation at Dunkirk.  Beaverhill was the only ship of the class not lost to enemy action—she went aground near Saint John, New Brunswick on November 24th, 1944.  Beaverbrae was sunk by enemy aircraft in the north Atlantic on March 25th, 1941.

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Steve Jobs says Google’s “don’t be evil” ethos is bullshit

I love it when nerd icons start sticking pins in the competition.

At a town hall event following the iPad announcement, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the time to kick Adobe and Google in the shins.  I get a chuckle out of his calling Google’s do-no-evil mantra “bullshit”.

I happen to think he’s correct, if only because Google has already demonstrated that it’s willing to compromise its first principles in pursuit of more moolah.  This is no surprise; individuals and companies make that tradeoff all the time.  But most are smart enough not to publicly pretend otherwise.

Jobs trying to unmask Google is particularly entertaining, though, since it’s coming from a guy whose outfit gets perverse pleasure out of locking in users with long term contracts, non-open interfaces, and overpriced peripherals using proprietary connectors.  Pot, kettle and all that.

One of those conflicts where you’d like to see both parties lose.

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Google contemplates being slightly less evil

"Imperialism and all reactionaries are paper tigers." c. 1965 (Source: Stefan Landsberger)

After four years of materially aiding the PRC government in its quest to divert Chinese web surfers away from dissident online content, Google has belatedly executed an about-face.

The change in attitude comes after the company’s Gmail service was subject to cyber attacks which targeted the accounts of human-rights activists around the globe.  In retaliation, Google has said it will relax its censorship regime and contemplate closing its Chinese subsidiary.

These are, in the main, good things—although even the not-very-bright could have foreseen no small amount of inevitable unpleasantness when dealing with the autocrats of Communist China.  But despite all the hoopla I do not expect Google to exit the Chinese market, even though Google is a mere bit-player in China (an also-ran next to homegrown services like Baidu and Sina).  The company’s revenues in China are estimated to be on the order of $400 million; by leaving now they would effectively cede the field—and long-term growth potential—to competitors.  As Google has already demonstrated an inconsistency with its corporate ethics while setting up its Chinese operations, I do not expect its late discovery of a spine to make much difference.

I rather expect the Chinese government will find an appropriate scapegoat; some general or senior bureaucrat who was “overzealous” in pursuit of public security.  That official and some of his underlings will be cashiered and disgraced.  The PRC will agree to a minor lessening of the censorship regime, which it will disingenuously revoke later when the furor has died down; Google gets to look like a champion of human rights, the PRC gets to look like it is making some progress on liberalising itself.  Google and the PRC will pronounce themselves satisfied—if not amicable—and business will go on as usual.

But it was intoxicating to think for a few brief hours that they might actually do the right thing, and refuse to play ball with the tyrants in Peking.

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This is how the market works

G-EUXM, originally uploaded by

Unite, the British Airways cabin crew union, has decided to launch what may be the most ill-timed job action in the history of aviation.  The union plans to go on strike for twelve days, from December 22nd through January 3rd, effectively halting BA’s operations during the busy Christmas season.  The airline is fighting a rearguard action, trying to have a court halt the strike due to alleged balloting irregularities.

Meanwhile, BA’s competitors smile as they twist the shiv.  British Midland Airways and Virgin Atlantic have both boosted seat capacity on major routes, to offer the stranded another way to hearth and home.  BMI has also granted the use of their own lounges to BA silver and gold cardholders.

Some of British Airways’ saner cabin attendants are now contemplating the scope of the PR disaster engineered by their union, realising that kicking the travelling public in the nads during the holiday season might indicate a certain lack of civility and graciousness.  Not to mention fatally crippling their erstwhile employer.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

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