Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Business & Economics Management

Building the Best

Lessons From Inside Canadas Best Managed Companies

by (author) Tony Grnak, John Hughes & Douglas Hunter

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Jan 2006
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2006
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2006
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


STRATEGY. CAPABILITY. COMMITMENT. These are the three vital building blocks to competitiveness. Each is illustrated in these engaging stories of ten exceptional businesses chosen from nearly five hundred past winners of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies program, one of this country’s most prestigious business awards.

Drawing on interviews with senior executives, owners, and founders of some of Canada’s most dynamic—and most interesting—enterprises, Building the Best: Lessons from Inside Canada’s Best Managed Companies delivers crisp and memorable lessons in how obstacles are overcome and success is achieved.

Step inside the boardrooms and the front lines of an array of fascinating companies—among them a winery, a restaurant chain, a toy maker, and a circus—to learn from real world experiences how the managers and entrepreneurs behind some of Canada’s most successful enterprises have overcome the challenges in their industries—and how their strategies can be applied to any business.

These rare glimpses of admired Canadian companies are compelling reading. And with perspective from the professionals at Deloitte and commentary by faculty members of Queen’s School of Business, this book is a must-read for anyone in business.

Companies featured in Building The Best :

Armour Transportation Systems (Moncton, N.B.): A small trucking company that leveraged its core competencies to become a leading transportation services business in Atlantic Canada, with continental reach.

Boston Pizza (Richmond, B.C.): A western Canadian restaurant phenomenon that has kept risk at bay in expanding across Canada and into the U.S.

Cirque du Soleil (Montreal, Q.C.): A global entertainment brand with a leadership vision that has produced a dazzling array of permanent and touring shows on which the sun never sets.

EllisDon (Toronto, ON): A building contractor that looked beyond shovels and cranes to take information technology by storm.

Harry Rosen (Toronto, ON): An upscale men's clothing retailer with a relentless focus on the customer experience.

Magnotta Winery (Vaughan, ON): An award-winning vintner (and brewer and distiller) whose unique strategy for growth has redefined its industry's retailing practices.

Mediagrif Interactive Technologies (Montreal, QC): An Internet start-up that made all the right financing moves in exploiting the potential of the business-to-business market.

National Leasing (Winnipeg, MN): A specialist in leasing small- to medium-size assets that has turned corporate culture into a cornerstone of profitability.

PCL Construction Group of Companies (Edmonton, AB): A diversified, multibillion-dollar construction company that has robust processes and a talent for spotting its own talent in its corporate foundations.

Spin Master (Toronto, ON): A children's products company that leverages strategic alliances in its agile pursuit of first-to-market innovation.

About the authors

Tony Grnak's profile page

John Hughes is the national leader for Canada's Best Managed Companies program and leader of the Greater Toronto Growth Enterprise practice for Deloitte.  Hughes has spent his career helping entrepreneurs and their management teams create value and grow their businesses.  He has developed a broad range of expertise in issues unique to entrepreneurs in privately held companies, particularly where corporate ownership and families intertwine.  He has extensive experience in strategic planning, corporate and personal taxation, mergers & acquisitions, and in transaction due diligence.  As national leader, Hughes has been involved with Canada's Best Managed Companies program since its inception and is the co-author of Building The Best: Lessons from Inside Canada's Best Managed Companies.



John Hughes' profile page

DOUGLAS HUNTER has written widely on business, history, the environment and sports. He was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Governor General’s Award for his book God’s Mercies. His previous books include The Race to the New World; Molson: The Birth of a Business Empire; Yzerman: The Making of a Champion; and The Bubble and the Bear: How Nortel Burst the Canadian Dream, which won the National Business Book Award. He is also a doctoral candidate in history at York University, a Vanier Scholar and Canada’s 2012 William E. Taylor Fellow. Born and raised in Hamilton, where Tim Hortons first became successful, Hunter now lives in Port McNicoll, Ontario.


Douglas Hunter's profile page

Excerpt: Building the Best: Lessons From Inside Canadas Best Managed Companies (by (author) Tony Grnak, John Hughes & Douglas Hunter)


When we set out to create a book based on the Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies program, we were embracing an exceptional opportunity to provide management lessons from a remarkably diverse group of Canadian corporate success stories. In telling the stories of individual companies (and their top executives), we wanted to illustrate with each chapter, in an engaging case-study style, one of the ten criteria for management excellence found within the program's assessments of strategy, capability, and commitment, and to invite commentary from professionals at Deloitte and Queen's School of Business, partners in the Best Managed program. Management theory, after all, is only theory until you see it in actual practice.

The goal was not to provide a shopping list of companies in any given program year, or to prioritize companies that had appeared the greatest number of times. We were striving for diversity in industries (new economy and old, manufacturing and service), regions (from coast to coast), stages of development (a few years old to many decades), ownership (partially public and private, employee-owned, family-controlled), and annual revenues (in the companies we chose, from the tens of millions to the billions).

The awards program, which has been recognizing exceptional Canadian companies since 1993, provided a rich base of enterprises from which to choose, so much so that the challenge proved to lie in deciding which company best exemplified which criterion. Successful companies need to do many things well, not just any one thing. It's impossible for a company to successfully meet challenges associated with growth, for example, if it cannot also manage its finances or service its customers. Companies that make the Best Managed rankings must measure up to a broad range of diagnostics, and it's almost impossible for one to slip through that has significant flaws in some aspect of its performance.

Which all goes to say that there is not a company profiled in a particular chapter that could not have been the focus of one of the other chapters. National Leasing of Winnipeg was a natural choice for Chapter 10 (attracting and retaining talent to build an exceptional culture), but it could as easily have served in Chapter 9 (creating the right leadership and communicating the vision). Conversely, our subject for Chapter 9, Cirque du Soleil, would also have served capably in Chapter 10. Armour Transportation Systems, a good fit for Chapter 6 (developing and leveraging core competencies) could also ably have appeared in Chapter 2 (pursuing and managing alliances, acquisitions, and other strategic relationships) or Chapter 5 (building and sustaining a customer-focused approach to sales and marketing). The possible switches and substitutions are endless.

Nevertheless, we are confident that the company chosen for each chapter best illustrates the principle being explored, without meaning to imply that it excels at a principle above and beyond any other profiled company, or that a particular principle is necessarily its greatest (or only) strength. And as the reader explores the various chapters, certain common themes and shared experiences indeed will emerge. These go beyond small coincidences-such as the fact that it takes about the same number of people (around sixty) to staff a Boston Pizza restaurant as it does to perform a Cirque du Soleil show.

These successful companies, regardless of which chapter they have been chosen to anchor, place a high priority on understanding their customer base and servicing it to the utmost. They also are agile, flexible, able to change directions and strategies in a way that remains true to their core competencies. They understand who they are and what they do, but they are not rigid or blind to change and opportunity.

Successful companies understand their product, which might be a surprising statement, as it implies that many companies do not. But it is true that many, many businesses do not have a solid, strategic definition of the business they are in, of exactly what it is they are producing or providing. The reader will hear in these chapters executives emphasize the precise nature of their business in ways that their own industries might not recognize. Sometimes these definitions of “what we do” have been in the blood of the enterprise since the beginning. But often, they have emerged in response to internal or external challenges. Ownership and management had to step back, assess their own operations, the preconceived notions of their corporate culture, and the needs of the marketplace, and come up with a fresh understanding of their purpose and goals so that they could move forward profitably and with a better understanding of where opportunities lie and how the customer could be best satisfied.

Geoff Smith of EllisDon speaks to the “huge cultural change” his general contracting business was being put through at the time it was developing the software tool that is at the heart of the Chapter 4 case study. “We were changing EllisDon from viewing itself as a construction company to being a service company,” Smith explains. “People got into the business because they like to build. But we're not builders. We're in a service industry that builds. We don't actually build a lot ourselves-the subcontractors do.”

Over at Harry Rosen, Chapter 5, Larry Rosen explains how his upmarket men's clothing chain is “in the business of assisting men in developing a confident personal image, in all aspects of their life, any time, place, or occasion.… We don't perceive ourselves as being in the clothing business. We don't just sell suits and sport jackets. It's a relationship-based business.”

And at Armour Transportation Systems, Chapter 6, Wesley Armour recalls his reaction to the jarring impact of deregulation on his trucking company: “When business became cutthroat, I said to my managers, 'What is our future here?' I decided that we had to be more than a trucker. We had to be a total supplier of transportation.” His company stopped thinking of itself in terms of vehicles and drivers but, instead, in terms of what the customer needed and how Armour had to change and grow in order to provide it better than any competitor.

These individual chapters also tell stories: engaging ones, in which company founders and senior executives address frankly the challenges they have faced. One cannot listen to Rossana Di Zio Magnotta tell the story in Chapter 1 of the traumatic beginnings of the winery she founded with her husband, Gabe, and not appreciate viscerally the hurdles entrepreneurs who risk all on a dream often encounter. And because most of the profiled companies are held privately, the views afforded of their operations in this book are often an unprecedented glimpse of business practices and experiences that never appear in the media. For most business managers, the peek this book provides inside the workings of a private company-including the accounts of a company's travails long before it went public-provide a perspective on business practices rarely attainable otherwise, and which also closely align with their own circumstances.

As it will become clear to the reader, the individual industries in which these companies operate provide their own fascinating insights. Boston Pizza takes you into the restaurant franchise game, Spin Master into the world of Air Hogs and Shrinky Dinks. And Cirque du Soleil makes every senior manager want to run away to join the circus. But the larger lessons always come through. Chapter 8, exploring the PCL Construction Group of Companies, is not required reading solely for business people hoping to build airports and major museums. The company delivers a textbook study of how companies of any type and size need to design the right organizations and processes to support growth. And Chapter 7, on Mediagrif Interactive Technologies, is not of sole interest to e-commerce aficionados. Its achievements in attracting capital and managing finances speak directly to all entrepreneurs, regardless of their particular industry, who aspire to turn a vision into a business that can steer safely through the universal challenges of a start-up.

The lessons imparted in these chapters would not have been possible without the cooperation of the many owners and executives interviewed exclusively for this book. They were generous with their observations and experiences (and sometimes with their private financial data), knowing that their lessons would benefit others. They responded with unvarnished frankness to questions posed about setbacks or challenges. Their achievements give them considerable reason to be proud, but what is consistently impressive is a lack of boastfulness. This is in large part because senior executives well understand that the Best Managed program does not celebrate executives alone, that it is not some personal award of merit. The program recognizes everyone in a company. CEOs in turn recognize that their company's success is predicated on the innovation, commitment, and capabilities of their employees and management teams.

These are also people still fully engaged in meeting the challenges of business. They are not resting on laurels, and they are well aware that adversity is always lying in wait. Many speak to the difficulties of the last recession in the early 1990s, and everyone understands that the economic cycle is not yet dead. There will be rough spots in the road ahead for everyone. But what these companies have demonstrated consistently is an ability to roll with the punches, to turn seeming setbacks into opportunities. It's our hope that readers will be able to draw from these chapters lessons that make their own enterprises more competitive, more adaptable, more agile. And-as seems to be the case in so many of them-a more fun place to work and prosper.

The Deloitte perspective

For each chapter, the authors provide a concluding overview of its theme from the Deloitte perspective. The lessons provided by the particular company profile are presented in a concise format with actionable observations of benefit to enterprises large and small in all businesses and stages of growth. Deloitte professionals provide subject-specific guidance to expand on the chapter content with personal observations while applying company-specific insights to challenges faced by businesses in general.

Growth Insights, a global website operated by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, offers a diverse selection of materials related to the ten chapter themes gathered under the imperatives of strategy, capability, and commitment. It provides a comprehensive, research-backed view of the challenges facing today's growth companies. Growth Insights identifies the business issues that matter most to growth organizations, and showcases practical perspectives from both company executives and Deloitte practitioners on how to address these business issues. Visit the website at

Other titles by John Hughes

Other titles by Douglas Hunter