Stan Houston, who died recently, was a newspaperman who saw the light early – the light being the world of public relations and the money it could put in your pocket as distinct from the newspaper business that opened doors but didn’t pay enough so a guy could retire early.
A one-time sportswriter for the old Toronto Telegram, Houston initially joined PRSL (Public Relations Services Ltd.) before starting his own company, The Houston Group, with Armand Torchia, in the early 1970s.
Houston was the man who convinced Imperial Tobacco of Montreal to get involved in auto racing in the early 1960s. The incredible success of the initial Player’s 200 at Mosport in 1961 resulted in Imperial’s ongoing support of golf, tennis and the arts in Canada, right up until tobacco promotion was made illegal in the early 2000s.
He was the key man when it came to promoting the first Telegram Trophy Race for Indianapolis cars at Mosport in 1967. And it was Houston who got Imperial (Player’s) on board as title sponsor of the first Formula One Grand Prix of Canada, also in 1967 and also at Mosport.
My friend, Sid Priddle – another ink-stained wretch who made it out of the Montreal Star alive – knew Houston well, both as a friend and as an employee. "He was my boss for many years," said Priddle, "and he was an icon of Canadian PR."
Priddle tells the following story that illustrates Houston’s amazing ability to think fast and make his clients happy.
"In 1968, Stan was helping George Eaton (racing driver and Eaton’s department store heir) to find a sponsor and, if successful, we’d get the PR. At the same time, Stan was pitching Gulf Oil. Gulf had taken complete control of British-American Oil at the time and rebranding of all of the B/A service stations in Canada would start to happen as of Jan. 1, 1969.
"Gulf needed a quick national ad campaign that would tell consumers of the change but do it in such a positive way that B/A loyalists would make the switch without too much fuss.
"So Stan thought it would be a good fit for Gulf to sponsor George in the Formula A Canadian Road Racing Championship Series. It was automotive, it was national and George was a good-looking, articulate and dashing young Canadian. We had two or three meetings with the executive vice-president and it looked like it was a done deal.
"Right at the last second, though, almost as the fellow was to sign the contract, he looked at Stan and said, ‘There’s just one thing that’s bothering me: why does George Eaton need a sponsor?’
"At that very moment, Stan reached into his briefcase and took out a proposal for Gulf Oil to become title sponsor, not of George but of the whole Formula A series. The vice-president liked the idea so much that he just about signed on the spot. And that’s how the Gulf Canada Series came to be.
"Stan was amazing that way," added Priddle. "He was always thinking. He was always one step ahead."