CEO was the voice for his dealers

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By John Arnone

The allure of the auto industry has been as much about its personalities as the vehicles and technologies that have shaped it. In the modern era, from Lee Iacocca to Elon Musk, some drivers continue to make an association with what they drive to the people who brought their car to market.

In Canada, for dealers, employees and customers of Jaguar from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, that man was John Mackie.

On Oct. 10, 18 years after his retirement, Mackie passed away peacefully at Princess Alice Hospice in Esher, England. He leaves behind his wife Gloria, a sister, two daughters, a stepson and four grandchildren.

As former president and CEO of Jaguar Canada, he was possibly among the last Canadian links of the fabled British marque to its deep and historic pedigree.

When Mackie spoke of Stirling, Sir William, Donald or Tom – he was talking about the legends or families he knew, as in Moss, Lyons, Healey and Walkinshaw.  

Paternal Warmth
He listened intently when a University of Toronto biology student warned of the depleting number of jaguars in Central American rainforests, and rallied the global company to help stem the slaughter of its jungle namesake.

When a young receptionist at the company’s Brampton, Ont., head office became distraught over hearing his dog had passed, he consoled and openly embraced her – one in a string of moments that telegraphed his paternal warmth in full view of all that worked for him.

And when he observed a one-way migration of employees from new owner Ford Motor Company to Jaguar Cars, he tapped me, his public relations manager, to pass through the reverse turnstile and join Ford. I did, and remained his friend ever since.

Tall of stature, deep of intellect and gentle of soul, he brought a collective calm to Jaguar – a company that was at times both meteoric but also desperate.

He was the voice of its Canadian dealerships – often quipping he knew their names, those of their children and their pets – in Coventry. And this at a time when the company found itself under siege by its old-world ways and sometimes dubious quality, but also other automakers who circled in wait to buy the coveted brand.

His tailored shirts bore the monogram EJM for Ernest John Mackie. Born in India in 1932 to British parents, John attended school in both the Himalayas and in England at Lancing College.

He loved cars and at 19 joined the London-based auto company Rootes Group as a management trainee. He transferred to its New York office in 1960 and then to Toronto five years later as managing director of the company’s Canadian arm.  

A move to British Motor Corporation of Canada in 1967 put John on a path of senior positions within a string of new ownership and brands such as British Leyland Motors Canada, Saab, Jaguar Rover Triumph and finally Jaguar Canada.

In a meaningful and colourful career, he spent 45 years in the industry including 30 years in Canada.

For his leadership as one of Canada’s longest serving automotive CEOs, and promotion of trade between Canada and Britain, he was bestowed Commander of the British Empire by HRH The Prince of Wales in a November 1995 ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

Passion Soaked Every Syllable

Known for finding humour even in the most difficult situations, he trusted the work ethic and judgment of others and ranked among the most polite and cultured of CEOs in the industry. And the media loved him.  

Self-effacing and transparent, his passion for the Jaguar brand soaked every syllable he spoke. But he would not be scripted. When asked why a manual transmission version of the XJ-S Coupe met with a tepid market response, he said: “I can only surmise the dozen people who approached me at auto shows asking for it, bought them up.”  

Asked why the company hadn’t yet scrubbed the dated, V-12 Jaguar Vanden Plas sedan from showroom floors, he reached into his heart to describe the curvy, long-bonneted sedan as a classic from a bygone era of beautiful British cars stating: “We could not part with the old girl.”

He may well be the only CEO to whom the veteran auto writer Jim Kenzie would bow during a handshake.

John immersed himself in the brand and became the brand. He befriended Jaguar customers and would recall that, while cabins laden with woodwork and seats finished in opulent leathers were de rigueur, Jaguar customers also wanted to be part of something bigger, something brash and certainly something grand.

It can be said the company continues to occupy this lane all these years later.  

Mackie was an intense listener and problem solver of the highest calibre with an acute ability to cut to the chase of an issue. Talking to him was like having an audience with a military strategist looking to inflict as little residual damage as possible.

In conversation, he never interrupted but waited his turn before responding, often prefaced with “The way I see it, we have three options,” and then the chase: “Option one is to do nothing, although inaction doesn’t sort it out, so that leaves two courses of action.”

His strength was inclusion and his calculus was to offer two paths – choose one, fix the problem and move on.    

Formidable Business Team

By 1987, under his stewardship, Jaguar owned about a quarter of the luxury car market in Canada. He continued to run the company until his retirement.  

Through it all he took pains to give credit to his small team of loyal employees, but particularly his wife Gloria or Gee. He was fond of saying they were a formidable business team – when you asked for Mackie you got both of them.

They left their Cabbagetown home in 1997 for a well-planned retirement that would include summers in Sunbury-on-Thames on the outskirts of London, and a seafront apartment on Spain’s southeast coast during the winter.

At age 80, they drove nearly two hours to visit my daughter at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex where she was completing her Queen’s University bachelor’s degree.

Lonely and an ocean away from her family, Terra-Ann was summoned in her dorm one afternoon by the head mistress who announced two very nice. elderly people had come to take her to dinner.   

In Sunbury-on-Thames John and Gee belonged to St. Mary’s Anglican Church and were enthusiastic volunteers. They made regular visits to North America to see children and grandchildren and, in England, entertained a broad network of friends including the community of Jaguar and Ford retirees.

He enjoyed golf, motor racing, the Edinburgh Tattoo, red wine, Italian food and, perhaps because they represented the antithesis of his traditional upbringing, quirky, offbeat personalities.

Graceful to the End
He was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and was successfully treated. He kept out of the woods until earlier this year when illness returned and his health declined steadily.

Graceful to the end, he would describe undergoing highly invasive medical procedures with the zeal of a college freshman.  

In the whirl of hospitals and clinics, pokes and prods, joy and sadness, Gee steadfastly remained at his side.

Of his final moments she said: “I told him to think about his achievements in life, what we had done together, where we had been…”

My mentor, father figure and dear friend, John Mackie was 83.