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John A. MacNaughton came from a political family, but spent his life in business so he was able to have his hand in all his interests. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
John A. MacNaughton came from a political family, but spent his life in business so he was able to have his hand in all his interests. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

As an executive, John MacNaughton was straight shooting, but not straitlaced Add to ...

Mr. McFadden said Mr. MacNaughton had made his fortune when the partners sold Burns Fry to Bank of Montreal in 1994, and he wanted to do something to give back to Canada. He saw the CPPIB job as a form of public service.

Gail Cook-Bennett, who was the first chair of the board of the CPPIB, said the new body needed a leader who could deliver instant credibility to skeptics in the investment community, and who could communicate openly with the public. Mr. MacNaughton filled both criteria ideally, she said.

His less-known contribution, she adds, was that he petitioned finance ministers across Canada to relax restrictions that required the CPPIB in its first three years to invest only in stocks that tracked major stock market indexes.

She said Mr. MacNaughton was alarmed in 1999 and 2000 by the huge run-up in the share price of Nortel Networks Corp. stock, and thought it was unwise to invest so much of the CPPIB’s assets in the company. His lobbying won him the right to “actively” invest half of the Canadian stock portfolio, allowing Mr. MacNaughton to sell much of its huge exposure before Nortel’s share price plummeted.

“Had that not happened, I think it would have been a severe blow to the organization, and nobody would have really understood why we lost so much,” Ms. Cook-Bennett says.

Among his many other roles on boards and committees, Mr. MacNaughton served as chairman of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation and was vice-chairman of the University Health Network, which oversees three major Toronto hospitals.

University Health Network CEO Robert Bell said Mr. MacNaughton championed methods to improve delivery of health care to patients, and was an enthusiastic head of the board’s quality committee.

“He was passionate about it,” Dr. Bell says. “He demonstrated how an intelligent layman with a real commitment to health quality could really improve performance at a a hospital. He was an expert governor, and just by applying great principles of governance, he was able to do that.”

Cancer was never far from Mr. MacNaughton’s life. There were recurrences of the lymphoma, which he fought, and several years ago he was diagnosed with melanoma, a malignant skin cancer. He had a tumour removed, but the cancer spread.

By late 2012, it was clear treatments would not work and he would not live long, says long-time friend and colleague Gordon Lackenbauer, who worked with him at BMO Nesbitt Burns.

“He knew it was coming,” says Mr. Lackenbauer, who spoke to Mr. MacNaughton regularly by phone.

“The grace with which he handled all of that had to be seen to be believed. I’m sure he had his moments to himself, but whenever he was dealing with anybody outside the family, it was something that was almost incredible. He dealt with it with such grace.”

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