Why Shopify’s Tobias Lütke is No. 2 on the 2021 Maclean’s Power List

Union Eleven, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Shopify’s founder and CEO Tobias Lütke held the number two spot in Maclean’s annual Power List.

Soon after Vancouver’s landmark Dressew Supply went into lockdown mode in mid-March, David McKie, co-owner of the warehouse-style shop famous for its overflowing aisles of buttons, zippers and multicoloured fabrics, began to see surging demand for cloth and elastics by people wanting to make face masks. But there was a problem—McKie had never gotten around to building a website for the business, so a skeleton crew of three, down from Dressew’s usual 30 employees, was left frantically trying to fill orders by phone. Something had to change. So in April, McKie bought a laptop and a camera, and within two weeks the nearly 60-year-old family business had joined the COVID-19 e-commerce boom. “There’s so much more we can do with it that we haven’t done,” he says, noting Dressew only handles orders for curbside pickup for now.

The company behind the scenes of Dressew’s rapid pivot is one that has powered tens of thousands of similar transitions over the last year by desperate Main Street retailers across Canada and helped dramatically reshape the country’s retail landscape—Shopify, the 15-year-old Ottawa-based software company that lets merchants easily set up online stores with just a few clicks.

Maclean’s Charts to Watch for 2021

When it came time to compile this year’s collection of charts to watch, our seventh annual year-end chartstravaganza, it was obvious the elephant in the room would be 0.125 microns in size. COVID-19 has left its mark on every facet of our lives and by extension, the economy. The disruption to how we live, work and interact with each other caught the entire world off guard. As one economist remarked when approached for a chart this year, “perhaps an epidemiologist would have more insight into 2021 than an economist.”

Still, the struggle to make sense of this pandemic economy and its many contradictions continues. Against this backdrop we reached out to scores of economists, business leaders, investors and analysts and asked each to chose a chart that will be important to Canada’s economy in 2021 and beyond, and to explain why in their own words.

Maclean’s: How dormant websites could lead to a better understanding of the COVID-19 crisis

(Source: Flickr / descrier.co.uk)

From the moment the world went into pandemic lockdown officials have struggled to stay on top of the fast-moving crisis, both in terms of halting the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and lockdown measures, as well as understanding and mitigating the severe shock to the economy and peoples’ lives. With governments, businesses and health experts flying blind, timely data has never been more vital.

As it turns out, one surprising solution may come down to our fat fingers.

Maclean’s: Coronavirus plunges Canada’s economy into the abyss

(Source: Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium – Wikimedia)

In every economic crisis over the last century, people have ultimately turned to the world of medicine to help make sense of the fear and uncertainty around them. In the 1930s, political cartoons showed U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt as a doctor tending to an ailing Uncle Sam, whose bandages carried words like “banking” and “depression.” When the 1990s currency crisis in southeast Asia threatened to infect the rest of the world and trigger a global meltdown, economists and investors took to calling it the “Asian flu.” And in 2008, as America’s economy was felled by the financial crisis, then president Barack Obama urged lawmakers to “provide a blood infusion” to “make sure that the patient is stabilized.”

Never has the metaphor of an economy on life support been more appropriate than for the twin health and economic crises the entire world now faces. Canada, like nearly every other nation on the planet, has put its economy into an induced coma as it attempts to fight off the invading COVID-19 virus. Offices, factories, stores and restaurants are closed and workers have been ordered to stay home, many without paycheques, some unsure whether their jobs will still exist when the crisis abates.

Maclean’s: Canada’s stock market collapse is like nothing we’ve ever seen before

It can be difficult to comprehend the scale of the wealth destruction seen over the past month on global stock markets. Each plunge has come with a comparable statistic — “Worst one-day decline since [insert date here]” — but to understand what’s happened it helps to step back and see how the Covid-19 crash compares to past market collapses.

Simply put, we’ve never seen anything like this before.

Maclean’s: The Dow fell below where it was when President Trump first tweeted about the stock market in 2017

No president in history has hitched the fate of his presidency so closely on the stock market going up. Even amid the rout of the past two weeks, when stock prices briefly rebounded, he couldn’t resist a tweet. “BIGGEST STOCK MARKET RISE IN HISTORY YESTERDAY!,” he wrote in all caps.

That was Friday. On Monday markets erased that meagre rebound, and closed at their lowest level in years. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average index ended Monday below where it stood that morning on Feb. 16, 2017, not including dividends.

Maclean’s: Why the Bombardier dream died

From the 1969-1970 Bombardier annual report showing the board of directors, including Laurent Beaudoin, centre.

When Bombardier launched its first Ski-Doo snowmobile in 1959, it was initially targeted at trappers, prospectors and anyone else isolated by snow and ice. But the bright-yellow machines soon became a hot toy for affluent sports enthusiasts across North America and Europe, and by the time the company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange a decade later, Ski-Doo sales were exploding. Bombardier’s revenues in 1970 came in at nearly $1 billion, when measured in today’s dollars, up a whopping 60 per cent in just one year.

So you can forgive Bombardier’s president, Laurent Beaudoin, for his swagger in the company’s first annual report that year. Bombardier “has proved itself to be one of the most important industrial and commercial organizations in Canada,” he crowed, while the report said the snowmobile industry was “riding the crest of the leisure market [and] the wave shows no sign of cresting . . . All forecasts point to a positive and continuing upsweep of the trend well into the 21st century.”

Instead, within three years Bombardier was in serious trouble, caught out by the 1970s oil crisis and a glut of snowmobiles on the market from more than 100 rival companies, which caused its revenues to plunge.

Maclean’s: The economics behind the toilet paper panic

(Photo illustration by Jason Kirby)

It’s become an all-too familiar image from the coronavirus scare of 2020—aisles of empty store shelves bereft of products like hand sanitizer, cans of soup and face masks. Oh yes, and toilet paper.

It’s that last item that has struck many as most puzzling. The symptoms of Covid-19, a respiratory illness, don’t suggest a need for vast quantities of toilet paper, while toilet paper manufacturers themselves say there have been no disruptions to their supply chains. So why has panicked buying and hoarding been so widespread, not just in Canada but in every country impacted by the virus?

Put simply, our human brains.

Maclean’s: Experts weigh in on what a coronavirus stimulus plan should look like

Most of the world’s central banks have responded by slashing interest rates. Last week the Bank of Canada joined them with a 50 basis point cut. But while more rate cuts are expected, the ability of central banks to tackle this particularly type of crisis — supply chains have been crippled and consumers are increasingly afraid of simply going out to spend — is seen as limited. “With interest rates already so low to begin with you’re just pushing on a string with rate cuts,” says Kevin Milligan, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia. “It takes months for investment patterns to change, and that doesn’t help when something is hitting you in the short run.”

Which is why a growing chorus of economists and investors are calling on Finance Minister Bill Morneau to roll out a fiscal stimulus plan, spending heavily to shore up Canada’s economy. Morneau was already set to release the Liberals’ first re-election budget, likely at the end of March. On Monday he acknowledged Canada was in a “very volatile position” and said the federal government has the “capacity to deal with challenges exactly like this” and will introduce measures this week.

But what should those stimulus efforts look like? Maclean’s spoke with four economy watchers about what a fiscal plan for Canada’s battered economy should entail.

Maclean’s: Welcome to the era of woke capitalism

(Photo by Agustin Polanco / Flickr)

In the fall of 2009, as green shoots emerged from the ashes of America’s economy and the panic wrought by the Great Recession turned to outrage over the taxpayer bailouts handed to the very Wall Street banks whose reckless lending and disastrous bets caused the crisis, filmmaker Michael Moore debuted his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. It was anything but an ode to America’s economy. Moore’s film took angry aim at a laundry list of recent ills he blamed on an “evil” capitalist system: inequality, corrupt politicians, Wall Street’s casino-like mentality and out-of-control corporations.

As with all of Moore’s earlier documentaries, an underlying theme in Capitalism was his criticism of the way corporations concern themselves primarily with turning a buck for shareholders, damn everything, and everyone, else.

Who would have thought that almost exactly one decade later, America’s biggest capitalists would be saying the same thing?