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Terence Corcoran: Calling on CEO ‘silent majority’ to speak up


Just before Christmas, Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota Motors, told reporters that he doubts automakers should be attempting to shift all their production away from fossil-fuel power to focus exclusively on electric vehicles (EVs). General Motors, for example, is publicly committed to an “all-electric future” within a few years. The CEO of Toyota, however, says such objectives may not be grounded in business and economic realities.

The top executive of one of the world’s leading automakers implied that the industry is sliding into an EV mess based on uncertain assumptions and too much politics. “People involved in the auto industry are largely a silent majority,” Toyoda told reporters. “That silent majority is wondering whether EVs are really OK to have as a single option. But they think it’s the trend so they can’t speak out loudly.”

That there might be a silent majority of auto industry execs who are reluctant to take a public stand against a populist policy trend struck me as highly probable. The road to an all-EV future is paved with the words of politicians promising to ban gas-powered vehicles within a decade and provide car makers and their suppliers with massive subsidies and regulations to make the great transition seem desirable. As Toyoda says, auto executives — not to mention the CEOs of mining companies, battery makers, charging-station builders and electric utilities — are understandably silent on their doubts and too scared to speak publicly.

But another industry CEO has broken his silence. Paul Philpott, head of the British subsidiary of South Korean automaker Kia, said the other day that, “The electrification of the small car is really difficult, economically speaking.” In Philpott’s view, the high cost of producing batteries and other aspects of EV manufacturing and operation mean that cheap EVs are not viable, at least under the tight political deadlines set by regulators.

The Canadian target is that all new cars sold in Canada must be zero-emission by 2035. The date in the United Kingdom is 2030. In reality, EVs seem destined to become luxury rather than mass-market vehicles; a new $80,000 Kia EV is described as being “quicker than a Lamborghini.” But $80,000 EVs will not create an all-electric highway.

It’s an open question as to how many auto executives are part of the “silent majority” who doubt the viability of the EV as a total replacement for the massive global fossil-fuel powered auto market. But an even larger question needs to be asked: How big is the silent cadre of corporate executives — in banking, mining, grocery chains, real estate, investment firms — who harbour doubts about the push to reshape the corporate world and the global economic system?

Another example: Mark Bristow, CEO of Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp., told the Financial Post’s Naimul Karim in an interview that government policies fashioned at climate conferences and at Davos in the Swiss Alps are “myopic” and nonsensical. Deglobalization of the world “makes no sense to me,” said Bristow. “The global outlook is developed by people that live in sophisticated homes that are super-efficient that can afford to not worry about power.”

Even in the circle of corporations looking to cash in on subsidies and policies, there must be scores of executives and consultants who agree with Bristow. “What we are witnessing here is deglobalization, which is tragic,” he said.

The world needs more CEOs like Bristow, Philpott and Toyoda, who may well represent a silent majority who are — as Toyoda implied — hiding in the shadows for fear of speaking out loudly on trends based on approaches they know to be uncertain, wrong and even tragic. It is improbable, for example,  that the whole community of Canadian bankers, board members and officers all share the views of the few CEOs who are constantly parading their thought leadership on sustainable development, climate change, ESG and woke corporate theory.

It is time for corporate Canada to rise from its silence and take on the politicians, corporate activists and media elite who aim to impose governance models — from ESG to sustainable development, price controls and climate measures — that undermine the fundamentals of the market economy.

Is there a silent majority? My guess is yes.

Another example: Michael Medline, the CEO of the Empire Foods grocery chains (Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Foodland), blasted critics and politicians who have been attacking the grocery industry over rising food prices. “I refuse to apologize for our success,” he said last year. “We did not get here by accident.”

Based on Medline’s comments in an interview with the Financial Post’s Jake Edmiston, there may well be a silent majority cowering within corporate offices: “I felt that something had to be said, and I said it. From business leaders and from friends, I’ve never had a better reception to anything I’ve ever said.”

Medline captured the theme of this column: “Business leaders have to stand up for what they believe in, and not just take unfair, unjust attacks. If we do something wrong, I’ll be the first to acknowledge it or call it out. But I thought that this anti-company, anti-success narrative was not right.”

I call on the majority of CEOs to join Medline and break their silence.