Big Knight in a small town: Thatcher pal Sir Graham Day

By Deborah Jones
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, Canada. 1994

If they were trading punches instead of verbal jabs, the combatants would be reeling. Speaking for the far right in a debate on the federal deficit is Sir Graham Day, the Nova Scotia-born captain of British industry. On the far left is Nancy Riche, a scrappy union boss with the Canadian Labor Congress. Neither gives an inch as they try to win the ear of Finance Minister Paul Martin at a federal pre-budget conference in Halifax. Still, off stage later as Riche says goodbye, Day turns to her, takes her hand and bids her farewell in the manner of a knight of the realm. “He kissed my hand!” positively giggles Riche. “If he didn’t have the political philosophy that he has, I could see myself liking him!”

People who disagree with Day often like him. They liked him on the stage during his salad days at Dalhousie University, where he dabbled with professional singing–although he surprised them by launching himself instead into a business career. They liked him well enough to knight him in Britain, where he chaired major British corporations including British Leland during former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatization era–although he dumbfounded them by leaving for Canada. Now aged 60, after a high-profile career in the top echelons of the European business world and a life spent blithely flouting the unspoken conventions of class-conscious England and Halifax, Day has returned untarnished–by scandal, personal controversy or significant failure–to his native Nova Scotia. In the pink of health and far from his dotage, he’s in happy possession of enough of what he calls “Screw You Money” to say just that whenever he pleases.

Day has been settling into a new life since he became a Canadian taxpayer on July 27, 1993–“at 3:10 in the afternoon,” he says with chagrin at having to pay taxes at the 55% rate, up from Britain’s 40%. He insists he is happy to have moved from London to the picturesque Annapolis Valley village of Hantsport, population 1,200, where, he marvels, he recently stayed put for three whole days, never once put on a shirt and tie and dined on a bean supper at the local fire hall.

The move to Hantsport is the result of a pact between Day and his wife, Ann. They met after he finished a law degree at Dalhousie University and had set up a practice in the Annapolis Valley town of Windsor. Their three children were born there and their two daughters, Deborah and Donna, now live nearby (a son, Michael, is in Ottawa). Day was bored in Windsor and leaped at a job offer with Canadian Pacific in Montreal, little knowing that it would be the start of an international career. To compensate for the frequent moves and extensive travel, he promised his wife that when he turned 60 they would return home to the Valley. In return, Ann indulged his career. “She’s made everything possible,” says Day. “It’s been a sacrifice for her because she thought she married a small-town lawyer, and she ended up being carted around the world. But without her I could not have done the things I’ve done–I desperately needed the support system. A lot of the work I did required us to parade as a couple. I’m not talking about putting on finery, that’s not the kind of people we are. But we don’t eat our peas with a knife.” Ann, who is most content in the quiet village of Hantsport, performed beautifully in British society, secure in the knowledge that she would return home.

After 20 years in British industry, Day’s reward was to be knighted by the Queen. Then, Britain’s adopted dragon slayer left – for Canada.

For contributing for 20 years to British industry, including chairing British Shipbuilders and the Rover Group plc, Day’s reward was to be knighted in 1989 by the Queen. The honor was possible because of his British citizenship, and it made his English father particularly proud. After that, Day went on to chair British Aerospace plc, Cadbury Schweppes plc and PowerGen plc. He developed a reputation for fostering the careers of people he considered worthy, putting into practice his belief that “Leaders in business are judged by the people they leave behind them.”

Day’s service in Britain covered troubled times, especially during the painful rationalization of that country’s shipbuilding industry. While the CLC’s Riche is disturbed to see him now wielding his small-c conservative influence in Canada, Britain’s left is overjoyed to see the last of Day, who describes himself as an unreformed Thatcherite. “It has been a disaster,” says a spokesman for the Labor Party. “We’ve lost more industrial capacity under the Conservative government than Hitler managed to bomb out of their country in the 1940s, and people like Graham Day were at the centre of that.” Still, even the harshest critics of his work have nothing but respect personally for Day, who the Times of London once called, “The nicest man who ever axed an entire workforce.” 

The choice to leave was his, and Brits do not quite believe that their adopted dragon slayer has really gone to Canada, of all places. Last January Business Age magazine, which calls Day “the Ross Perot of Britain,” nominated him as its choice of the next British prime minister. Others simply don’t understand the move. “If you’ve been a man as powerful as Graham has been in his career, and as high- profile, it must be very, very difficult just to switch out the lights and go back to whatever Nova Scotia is like,” puzzles George Simpson, Day’s successor as chairman of Rover Group.

In fact, Day hasn’t turned off the lights, though his family wishes he’d dim them a bit. The notion that he has retired has become a family joke–with an undercurrent of alarm that his chief activity continues to be work. “We’d like to see him slow down,” says daughter Deborah Day, 35, an education professor. “With anyone so blessed by life, you start holding your breath.” Day’s closest British colleagues merely chuckle at the notion of Day in retirement. “None of us believe that he’s going to be sitting with his fishing rod somewhere,” says PowerGen board member Michael Reidy.

Day claims semiretirement status on the grounds that he no longer has executive responsibilities for anything. He says he does only things which he enjoys–which now means he travels constantly for meetings of the boards of several Canadian and foreign corporations of which he is a director, including, in Canada, the Bank of Nova Scotia, Crownx Inc., Empire Co. Ltd. and Nova Corp. of Alberta, and in Europe, Altnacraig Shipping plc, Jebsens Thun Shipping (Luxembourg) S.A., the Laird Group plc and Thorn EMI plc. This fall Day becomes chancellor of Dalhousie University, where he has also agreed to lecture business students. He is counsel to the Atlantic law firm Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales and an adviser to the Boston Consulting Group. He does it all, says Donald Sobey of Empire Co., with whom Day sits on several boards, by being “very well organized, very disciplined and a hard worker.”

With not a whit of interest in the social high life — Day drinks sparingly, prefers simple food and recently bought a camper van so he and Ann can tour historic sites from the U.S. Civil War — when he is not working he talks with his family and reads, everything from business books and military history to paperbacks he buys by the inch while traveling. “If he’s desperate, he reads the label on a sauce bottle,” chuckles his friend and colleague John Pullen, now corporate affairs director with Rover Group.

In Nova Scotia, Day commutes in his blue Town & Country van between the Halifax airport, his Hantsport home and a condominium in the Halifax area. He has hung his oil paintings of British ships and British characterizations of himself (parting gifts from the press and staff collected over the years) in a small room in the plush beige offices of Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales. There, his highrise window looks out on Halifax Harbor and the open Atlantic Ocean beyond, rather than inland towards the gritty north end where he was raised.

Day was born in the Dirty Thirties. Relatives in Halifax’s class- conscious society felt he was getting above himself by attending university. 

The only child of an immigrant father and a Nova Scotia mother, Day was born in the Dirty Thirties in a chronically depressed neighborhood where his father worked in a furniture store. The family lore includes a tale about how Day’s parents would depart from Sunday dinner at his grandparents’ house with baby Graham tucked into a sled surrounded by turnips and other vegetables placed surreptitiously by his grandmother under the blankets to avoid direct embarrassment to his needy parents.

To broaden his son’s horizons, Day’s father registered the baby’s birth with the British High Commission in Ottawa, and later ignored the disapproval of relatives who felt that by encouraging Graham to attend university (the boy paid his tuition by clerking at Simpson’s) he was getting above himself in Halifax’s class- conscious society. 

It is telling of Day’s character that during his unhappy education (“Things I was interested in — music, history, English and baseball — didn’t fall neatly into the school curriculum”), he set his cap on singing in a stage production and asked his high school music teacher for an audition. She turned him down. Angry and determined, Day enlisted the help of a voice teacher and went on to enjoy a successful singing career at Dalhousie University. His rich baritone was good enough, in fact, to win him a spot in a noted professional Gilbert and Sullivan company. Still, he never forgave his old music teacher. Forty years later, he smiles with satisfaction when he recalls meeting the woman during an opera he was producing at Dalhousie — “for which I earned the handsome sum of $600.”

“I had the pleasure of saying, `Miss McQuillan, get off my stage.’ “

If Day’s intolerance of being crossed developed early on, so did his lifelong motto, “I never lie and I never bluff.” He adopted it after a poker game at Dalhousie with three other students, none of whom have the foggiest recollection of it. Day’s loss of $5 because of a failed bluff has since guided his approach to business because, he explains, “to lie, you have to be able to bluff.”

One of those poker players was Roland Thornhill, a former deputy premier in the Conservative Nova Scotia government of John Buchanan. He’s long forgotten that game but distinctly remembers Day. “If you were going to choose some guy in the class who was going to be knighted by Maggie Thatcher as the arch Conservative economic czar, Graham Day probably would have been the last one you’d have chosen. When someone’s up on the stage in tights, you don’t visualize them as having that kind of a career.”

Back in Canada with a Sir before his name, Day says he has no agenda here. But while refuting any interest in public life, he has already made his acerbic views known, and he is in a position to wield influence without fear of financial or political repercussions. “Nobody can touch him,” says James McNiven, dean of management at Dalhousie University.

“Politicians will try to rope him in, but Graham is going to be able to point to some silliness and say, `That’s silly,’ and get away with it.”

Day has already started pointing. The state of education is such that Canada has created an underclass of unemployed, or underemployed, people without literacy or numeracy skills, he fumes. “There’s got to be a national crusade.” Day defines the deficit as Canada’s single most important public policy problem and he slams taxes which he says reduce Canada’s competitiveness. And Day has no patience for his peers, whom he blames for creating Canada’s mess. “My generation of politician in Canada has been incompetent at best, malevolent at worst. They’ve mortgaged my children and my grandchildren’s future.”

Yet Day holds out hope for the future, expressing confidence in the generation now in their twenties and thirties and predicting “a swing back to ethical business.” In Britain, Day served as a volunteer in helping to reform the National Health Service and education institutions. If he holds true to form, he will be equally active in Canada.

Copyright © 1994 Deborah Jones

Originally published by Financial Post Magazine, May 1, 1994 

Further reading: 
Sir Graham Day’s page at the Halifax law firm Stewart McKelvey
Interview with Sir Graham Day in Halifax Herald, December, 2012