The tragic fact is that, despite the regal sponsorship that gave it a running start, the HBC missed just about every business opportunity that came its way. Whenever an intuitive leap was required to advance the company into fresh and lucrative jurisdictions, its decision-makers opted for safety and survival. Despite its historical significance, the company turned out to be the most stunningly unsuccessful monopoly in Canadian history.
Although it owned one of history's most valuable land holding -- one-third of the still-to-be-explored northern part of the continent -- it allowed others to profit from that magnificent hunk of real estate.
Here was a company that dominated the world's fur trade for three centuries, yet never made a fur coat. Here was a company that pioneered the nation's transportation arteries (much of the Trans-Canada Highway runs along its canoe routes) and exercised a transportation monopoly over western Canada, yet when it came time to build the CPR across its territory, the HBC demurred.
Here was a company that had the only functioning infrastructure on the Canadian plains and owned seven million acres of prime land along the new railway route, yet did little to capitalize on that invaluable asset. Here was a company that established a worldwide market for its "Best Procurable" scotch, high-quality gin and rye, but instead of continuing to distill its popular house brands turned the business over to Seagrams.
The most obvious dereliction of opportunity was the failure to capitalize on the company's potential oil and gas reserves. In the mid-1920s, it still held mineral rights on 4.5 million acres checkered across the Prairies. Rather than exploit that invaluable asset, described by Fortune magazine as "an oilman's dream," the HBC leased the entire package to Marland Oil of Ponca City, Okla. (and its successor, Continental), retaining only a 21-per-cent interest.
By the late 1960s, the joint venture ranked as Canada's third-largest oil and gas producer, with 1,606 wells in production; its earnings were twice as high as those of the HBC itself, and its equity was worth four times as much, with the company receiving less than a quarter of the royalties.
If this series of spectacular missed opportunities doesn't qualify the Company of Misadventurers as a typical Canadian story, I don't know what does. But there is a lesson here: Survival is a lousy ethic because it kills risk, and thus the future. It was this reticent creed that paralyzed the HBC's corporate planners: They took occasional flyers, but never bet the firm.
Any lessons there for your library?