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Illustration of Mark Wiseman, chief executive officer, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Mark Wiseman, chief executive officer, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

CPPIB's Mark Wiseman: A creature of habit with a taste for the new Add to ...

Mark Wiseman is such a familiar sight to the staff of La Bettola Di Terroni that no one bats an eye as he leads me through a back corridor and a bustling kitchen on the way to our table for two.

So when he wrinkles his nose after I order and advises against the Nizzarda salad I’ve chosen – a medley of arugula, potatoes, egg, olives, anchovies and tuna – I assume it’s because he’s drawing on that same familiarity.

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But that’s not it. “Is it because tuna smells?” I ask. “Yeah,” he replies.

When it comes to his restaurants (he comes here several times a week), his order (always the Caprese salad and a San Giorgio pizza) and his shoes (he is on his seventh straight pair of plain black Magnannis), Mr. Wiseman is nothing if not a creature of habit.

If that unwillingness to stray from routine seems boring, consider that it is a trait shared by many top decision makers who feel they simply can’t be bothered to sweat the small stuff: U.S. President Barack Obama is said to wear only blue or grey suits to avoid having to waste precious minutes fretting over fashion. And billionaire Warren Buffett didn’t become one of the world’s most successful investors by taking chances on his menu choices or where to hang his hat at night: The man who once said he could happily eat a ham sandwich 50 days in a row still lives in the same house he moved into in 1958.

For Mr. Wiseman, that sense of routine allows him to focus on a job that needs his undivided attention more than ever. “It’s a great job, and you can be a nerd.”

His role as caretaker of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board’s $170-billion fund might not put him in the same rarified league as Mr. Obama or the Oracle of Omaha. But try telling that to the 18 million people across the country who are trusting him with the investment of their retirement funds.

At 42, Mr. Wiseman is a young leader for a relatively young institution. The CPPIB was created in 1997 by then-finance minister Paul Martin to manage the investments of the Canada Pension Plan, to which almost every working Canadian contributes. And compared with other public pension plans, it is just a baby – by current estimates, it still has nine years before any investment income will be needed to help pay pensions. For now, contributions are enough to cover that.

But that is not to say his challenges are made easier because of it: Mr. Wiseman, who took over the job last July from David Denison, must shape the investment strategy of a rapidly growing organization, while ensuring it earns solid returns without putting the retirement income of millions of Canadians at risk.

Some worry the organization might be growing too fast. As Jim Leech, head of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and a former boss of Mr. Wiseman puts it: “It is growing so quickly that the systems you put in place last year may not be adequate this year.”

Mr. Wiseman is aware of those concerns, but his vision of the CPPIB is an unwavering one: He wants the fund to be a global investment organization, not just a Canadian one that invests abroad. “We’re still a long way from getting to where we need to be; it will be incremental,” he says.

But a big vision requires even closer attention to detail: CPPIB just instituted a new rule that when a deal happens thanks to the people in one of its international offices – London or Hong Kong – the teleconferences the investment committee holds about that deal will be based on that office’s time zone. “Instead of making the folks in Hong Kong be at the office until midnight or 2 in the morning, we’re running our investment committee meetings at 9 p.m. Toronto time.”

Time can be an abstract concept, of course, to someone who spends a lot of his life in the air. Mr. Wiseman, who has a collection of Asian cufflinks, travels to the region frequently and is on very close terms with some of the most powerful investors from China to Singapore.

He finds himself a lot in these emerging markets, which account for only about 8 per cent of the CPPIB’s assets at the moment. But he wants to ensure he’s investing in the countries whose growth will be the strongest decades from now. Given the global strategy, and the output of the London and Hong Kong offices, the CPPIB is likely to open more global offices before long, at least one of which will undoubtedly be in an emerging market.

“It’s fairly clear that the weight of the global economy is shifting and, as an organization, if you think 25, 50, 75 years out, we can start preparing by building our capabilities in those regions,” he says.

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