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Bill Holland of CI Financial. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Bill Holland of CI Financial. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Bill Holland: A raw-meat kind of guy Add to ...

Bill Holland's eyes dart around the room as he settles into a chair at one of downtown Toronto's top dining spots.

"This place is great - just great," he says by way of greeting at Nota Bene, a restaurant noted for its service. But Mr. Holland's searching eyes are not just the eyes of a grateful customer - they are of a man trying to glean insights into how to run a business.

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Restaurants are more than just a place for Mr. Holland to grab a power lunch. Throughout his 21 years at CI Financial Corp., where he rose to the chief executive's job and built the firm into Canada's largest independent mutual fund company, Mr. Holland has looked to other businesses for new ideas and inspiration. He is in the restaurant game himself, as a co-owner of Centro, an uptown standby. He finds kitchens a crucible for innovation.

"These guys are all such entrepreneurs, it's unbelievable to be around them - you learn stuff," he says. "Sometimes we forget we have the benefit of operating this multibillion-dollar company. We have a budget to do everything. When you run Centro and you want to get something done, there's no budget. You don't say I'm just going to write a cheque and do this. The creativity that's spurred from that is amazing. Amazing."

Make no mistake: Mr. Holland is still in the thick of things at CI, a company that runs $75-billion of assets for investors under familiar mutual fund brands such as Harbour and Signature. He points out it's still his No. 1 job and the source of most of his net worth. His CI stake of 11.3 million shares is worth about $260-million. The dividends alone add up to $10-million a year.

But he has cut back from working 12 hours a day to just eight or nine. His title at CI is now executive chairman, having given up the CEO post last year. He's got a raft of side ventures. There's Centro. There's a medical devices company, a maritime communications company and an online gaming company.

It's half an hour before he pauses long enough to realize we haven't ordered. He hasn't given the menu so much as a glance, and it is still lying open before him. The servers at Nota Bene are too well trained to interrupt. Once summoned, the waitress outlines the specials and Mr. Holland orders a main of halibut and a starter of tuna tartare.

The appetizer is in keeping with the view of Mr. Holland as a raw-meat kind of executive, who launches (and sometimes loses) big takeover bids with regularity, and who is never afraid to speak out. He lays out his views, often unprompted, on issues ranging from CEO compensation (overpaid, the lot of 'em), to corporate tax policy (doesn't make sense) to the federal government's killing of income trusts, which hurt CI and his personal wealth (didn't like it, but it was the right thing to do).

The one thing he doesn't want to talk about, for a change, is his recent public spat with the Bank of Nova Scotia, CI's largest shareholder.

It began in late 2010 with a dispute about whether Scotia trumped a CI bid to buy rival mutual fund company DundeeWealth Inc. CI's position is that it had a deal to buy DundeeWealth, and even got a break fee when Scotia barged in with its own offer, using a contractual right to match to win.

Scotia and CI ended up at odds again this year when Scotia voted against CI's poison pill plan and withheld support for Mr. Holland's re-election as a director. Mr. Holland won anyway, then excoriated Scotia, calling the move "beyond idiotic."

Now, he's in a quieter mood. All Mr. Holland wants to say on the topic is that his shareholders support him. And why shouldn't they, given his record. CI, since its initial public offering in 1994, has paid out $3.8-billion to shareholders through share buybacks, dividends and income trust distributions, he notes. Oh, and the stock is up 20-fold.

"The results of the company are obviously ridiculously impressive," he says.

Then again, it's not like CI hasn't had rough times. In the 1990s, it focused on emerging markets. The CI originally stood for Canadian International. There were uncomfortable times when those markets plunged.

Then technology and telecom became the focus of many of CI's hottest funds. The company's biggest sales days ever were three days in March, 2000, before the Nasdaq made like Thelma and Louise launching into the abyss.

These days, the business is much more stable. CI has a huge portfolio of funds, and is a cash flow machine, thanks to the fees. The industry has consolidated, and is just not as dynamic as it was in the high-growth years.

That doesn't stop Mr. Holland from trying to stir it up. He spends most of his time at CI now hunting for acquisitions, something CI has always pushed.

If a couple of years go by without Mr. Holland trying a big deal, something very strange is afoot. In 2000, he lobbed in a $3.9-billion hostile bid for Mackenzie Financial Corp. He lost when Mackenzie fell into the arms of Investors Group. Then he spent a few years doing smaller deals before trying a hostile bid for DundeeWealth in 2007. That didn't work either.

In 2010, Mr. Holland thought he had DundeeWealth again, before Scotia showed up on the scene. Mr. Holland and his board spend a lot of time analyzing the failed deals, looking for the fatal flaw in the tactics.

"If you don't learn from the colossal number of failed deals that you get involved with, then you are really wasting your time," Mr. Holland says.

It's pretty clear though, that he views losing not only as a learning experience, but as just part of the game. When he allows that he loves to gamble, it all makes sense. Sports, cards, stocks, Mr. Holland just likes to lay a bet and see what happens.

While he's not averse to laying out billions on a deal, Mr. Holland has also garnered a reputation as a guy who runs a company on a shoestring. When I tell him that 11 years ago, when I first started covering CI during the Mackenzie battle and I asked people about him, many called him "cheap" and said he would never pay top dollar for the target.

He bristles a little. CI, he says, is not cheap. It pays the people it needs to pay well very well, but there are few extras. The top executives share an assistant, and there are no executive pension plans. But then he relents.

"We almost see it as a badge of honour. We have acquired all these companies. We see the absolute waste."

Plus, would a cheap guy give away so much money? He and his wife Susanne donated $20-million in 2005 to fund a joint-surgery centre that's part of Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital. They gave $20-million more in 2010 to a rehabilitation hospital for children. It's a cliché, but writing the cheques is way more fun than cashing them, he says.

"It's not even close. You could go buy a car or something and get satisfaction for a week," he says before dashing off an aside that he's not really a car guy. Then back to his theme: "If you do something that you think helps a bunch of disabled children, you feel pretty good. It's a great feeling. Really. Plus, the fact of the matter is, what are you going to do with it anyway?"

Then, after a cup of green tea, Mr. Holland is off. He has to get to Massachusetts for a board meeting at one of his other companies.

There's a chauffeured car waiting outside. It's a Lexus, but not one of the really expensive ones.

Follow on Twitter: @boyderman

 

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