Most times when I think of Ed McNally, I think of him warmly, although I did curse him last spring when the pandemic hit and all the bookstores closed and we had not even completed our first year of commercial operations at Sutherland House. Ed is a big reason why we exist.
One of the great things about a career in journalism is that it allows, even forces a wide acquaintance. You get to know the people you work with, the people you report on, and the people who populate the various scenes into which you stray in search of stories. Ed was one of the latter.
I met him while I was writing about the Reform Party in the mid-eighties. I showed up at every Reform meeting because it was my job. Ed showed up at every meeting because he was enthusiastic about the cause and helping to fund the party. He was friendly and funny and extremely sharp in an aw-shucks kind of way. I sat with him whenever I had the chance.
I learned that Ed, born in Lethbridge, had started life as a journalist before heading to law school. He’d done a lot of legal work in the oil-and-gas field. He’d also grown barley at his farm and imported exotic cattle from Scotland and taken over management of a business his wife started, importing Scandinavian furniture. Ed was interested in pretty much everything.
One day over lunch he started complaining about Molson, Labatt, and Carling O’Keefe, and how they operated an insidious oligopoly that dominated the Canadian beer business. It turned out Ed had just launched his own brewery and he couldn’t get his beer into Calgary bars because all of them had cut deals with the big breweries, trading exclusivity for breaks on price.
I was more interested in the fact that Ed had launched a brewery than his struggles with bar owners. Today, everyone owns a craft brewery or distillery. Back then, no one did. You bought beer from the Canadian giants, the US giants, or the European giants. Those were the options, period.
Odder still, Ed was about sixty years old, which seemed to me ancient (I was in my twenties). None of the retirement scenarios I’d seen in television commercials involved changing careers and, effectively, starting over at that point in one’s life.
“Why did you start a brewery?” I asked.
Ed explained that he’d recently quit the law — it bored him and he was glad to be out — and found himself with time on his hands.
“I wondered what I was going to do,” he said. “I don’t have to work. I’ve done okay over the years. But I don’t golf, and I like to be busy — I like to work. I just don’t want to work at anything that I don’t enjoy doing. I figure I’ve got another ten, twenty productive years ahead of me — who knows how long — so I’m gonna spend them doing something I really like. So I asked myself, ‘What do I really like?’ And the answer was, ‘I like beer.’ So I hired a brewmaster from Germany and we’re making beer. Good beer. Not the piss they sell at Molsons.”
The great thing about Ed was that he wasn’t a hobbyist. He was deadly serious about building a business out of good beer, as committed as he’d been to anything in his life.
The moment I heard Ed’s story, I knew that I wanted to somehow emulate him when the time came.
Not by making beer. I’m allergic to beer. By ending one career and immediately starting over in another. I think I enjoyed journalism more than Ed had enjoyed the law, but I was pretty sure, even in my twenties, that I’d need another career. I like to work, and I didn’t golf either.
Ed was mostly selling his beer out of the back of a truck back in those days. He kept at it. By his final retirement at age 87, Big Rock was Canada’s oldest and largest independent brewery. He liked that it got big and successful. But mostly he liked building the business and making good beer.
Sidebar: Taking on big guys is a bit of an Alberta thing. I also knew a Sherwood Park businessman named Herb Belcourt (below) who made his money planting telephone and power poles for public utilities. He was Metis and a huge anglophile, with an English wife and a tux rental shop called Lord Belcourt. In his fifties, he decided to open a movie theatre, the Sword & Shield, in an industrial part of Sherwood Park, an Edmonton suburb otherwise bereft of movie houses. Herb knew nothing about the movie business. He just knew he didn’t like driving into Edmonton to see a film. He owned a vacant building with a high ceiling. He bought some seats and a screen. That put him into competition with the big film exhibition chains. It took him years and a lot of beating down doors and legal threats to get first-run movies, but eventually he did, and he had a nice retirement business until the chains finally descended on Sherwood Park.
Some thirty years after I met Ed McNally, still with his retirement model in mind, I was talking to Margaret MacMillan about her career.
Margaret is a historian and author of the brilliant Paris, 1919. She had been a professor of history at Ryerson for twenty-seven years (1975-2002), including five as department chair. She published one book, Women of the Raj, an outgrowth of her thesis, and edited a couple of books on international relations. Hers had been a respectable but unspectacular academic career until she determined in her fifties to accomplish the big lift of Paris, 1919. It established her as a best-selling author and a leading public intellectual.
I asked Margaret how this late-career shift had come about. Her answer was identical to Ed McNally’s.
“I was coming up to the age at which most people retire and I didn’t want to retire,” said Margaret. “I don’t golf.” So she had redoubled her efforts on her book about the Paris peace talks, which she’d been working on forever, and published it. To great acclaim, as things transpired.
Margaret (above) has since written a half dozen more books, including this autumn’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us. She has served as provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and as warden of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. It has been a tremendous second act, and it’s still going strong.
Margaret’s story helped me build on Ed’s initial inspiration. I decided that books were going to be part of my own transition. But I knew I needed more than writing. There are limits to how much time I can spend alone in my own head. I needed something else. As a three-time university drop-out, it wasn’t going to be academics.
In the spring of 2017, I had lunch with Anna Porter, who had enjoyed a great success with Key Porter Books until her distributor went under and spoiled the party. I’d just left Rogers, my last employer, on favorable terms and was finally ready, in my mid-fifties, to do an Ed McNally.
It was an enjoyable but weird lunch. Anna, worried about the state of Canadian journalism, was interested in buying a magazine. I told her she wanted nothing to do with the magazine business and pumped her for information about book publishing. She told me I wanted nothing to do with book publishing and pumped me for information on magazines. We each saw green in the other’s muddy pasture.
The excitement I felt after that lunch confirmed to me that I felt about making books what Ed felt about making beer. I could easily see myself doing it for ten or twenty or however many good years I’d have left (Ed managed 27, which is now my goal).
Anna graciously gave me good advice on how someone without Ed’s means could wriggle into a corner of the book business. And here we are, most days loving it, and only occasionally wondering if it wouldn’t have been smarter to tee up.