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Ticketmaster faces expanded probe by Competition Bureau

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The federal Competition Bureau is expanding its investigation into Ticketmaster to include the company’s secret scalping program revealed last week in a Toronto Star/CBC undercover investigation — amid new calls for accountability from politicians, music and sports fans across the continent.

Meanwhile, a Toronto law firm has launched a $250-million class action suit against Ticketmaster Canada, alleging the company’s practices engaged in “false or misleading misrepresentations” that violate the Competition Act.

A spokesperson for Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, confirmed the investigation Wednesday after the minister called the bureau with concerns about the Star/CBC revelations.

“I did reach out to the Competition Bureau to really express my concerns I’ve heard from Canadians,” said Bains in an interview. “We want to see that consumers are treated with respect and with transparency.”

In a statement Wednesday, Competition Bureau spokesperson Marie-France Faucher said, “We are looking into the matter, and examining whether this type of conduct could fall within the Competition Act.”

The company has invested millions of dollars creating an online software tool called TradeDesk, designed to allow industrial-scale scalpers to manage their vast inventories of tickets for resale. While scalpers profit from markups, Ticketmaster also stands to gain additional commission fees for those resold seats.

“I have a gentleman who’s got over 200 Ticketmaster.com accounts,” a Ticketmaster sales executive told undercover reporters from the Star and CBC posing as scalpers at a recent convention in Las Vegas. “We don’t spend any time looking at your Ticketmaster.com account. I don’t care what you buy. It doesn’t matter to me.”

That mutually beneficial economic relationship appears to undermine a company policy limiting ticket purchases for each customer in the interests of giving fans a fair shot at seats for sporting events and concerts, and discouraging “unfair ticket buying practices.”

That limit, posted when tickets go on sale, is typically six or eight seats per buyer.

The Star/CBC investigation triggered the class action suit from Toronto-based Sotos Class Actions — the second class action firm in the country to pursue damages on behalf of Ticketmaster customers. On Sunday, the Star reported Regina-based Merchant Law Group LLP, which already has a class action filed against Ticketmaster alleging inflated ticket prices, plans to expand that claim to include revelations contained in the Star/CBC investigation.

“Ticketmaster effectively operates as an oligopoly over the live entertainment industry,” said Sotos lead counsel Louis Sokolov in an interview Wednesday. “These practices, if they’re true, cause great harm to consumers and many millions of dollars in damages.”

Richard Powers, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said Ticketmaster is now exposed to a potentially significant regulatory response from governments.

“The Competition Bureau or the government is likely to sanction and/or create more laws around the issues. And that has the potential of ending their monopolistic position in event ticketing. Something is going to happen,” Powers said.

The Star/CBC revelations sparked outraged responses across Canada before spreading into the U.S. media. On Friday, two senior U.S. senators — Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal — wrote a public letter to Ticketmaster’s parent company, Live Nation, including a list of questions for which they want answers by 5 p.m. on Oct. 5.

“Given our ongoing interest in protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive practices, we seek clarification on the use of (the TradeDesk) program,” the letter reads.

While Ticketmaster officials have repeatedly declined interviews with the Star and CBC over the past six months, the company’s president broke his silence this week in an interview with Billboard magazine in which he acknowledged shortcomings in the company’s oversight of its TradeDesk clients.

“There’s clearly some things that we’re not doing well enough,” said Jared Smith. “We’ll learn from it and we’ll make some changes.”

Bains said the new revelations aimed at Ticketmaster require close scrutiny.

“From a consumer point of view, you want to make sure there’s a level playing field,” he said. “From a consumer perspective, that there is transparency and fairness, that consumers understand the arrangements that they’re getting into and that they’re getting the best possible outcome in a very fair system. That’s what we want to see. We want fair competition and transparency.”

He stopped short of promising any legislative response to the concerns, saying the government will await the Competition Bureau’s findings.

“We want to see how this unfolds in the coming weeks and months …We will make our determination accordingly.”

With files from Alex Boutilier

Robert Cribb is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @thecribby

Marco Chown Oved is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @marcooved

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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