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Eileen Mercier (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Eileen Mercier (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Eileen Mercier: 'It's all about multitasking' Add to ...

Any doubts about Eileen Mercier's ability to manage a life crammed with half a dozen boardroom posts, nine children and 20 grandchildren are dispelled shortly after she steps into her elegant Toronto condo.

Delayed by a faulty parking door at Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, the chairwoman of Canada's third-largest pension fund quickly makes up for lost time by getting down to business in her kitchen. Hands are washed and a battery-operated can opener is put to work beheading tins of tuna while she pulls mayonnaise, bread and lettuce from the fridge.

As Ms. Mercier gathers plates and assembles sandwiches, she rhymes off decades-old details about her upbringing and career. She pauses only to wag a finger when sharing some wisdom.

"My mother always said if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person," she said of the former operating room nurse. "It's all about multitasking."

The kitchen is Ms. Mercier's control room. It is where she cooks large family dinners for more than 20 on Sunday nights and keeps a small wooden desk to manage her work at Teachers and five other boards. She has opted for a lunch interview here for the practical reason that most of the city's restaurants are "too noisy, you can barely hear anything."

And Ms. Mercier likes to be heard. She has made her mark as a forthright financial executive who, behind the scenes, has stood up to some of Canada's most adventurous entrepreneurs, including Reichmanns and Aspers, pushing them to downsize, restructure or refinance their leveraged businesses. For the past 16 years, she has been a blunt and vocal conscience on more than two dozen boards, challenging executives and directors when she believes salaries are exorbitant, financial results opaque or corporate behaviour too risky. Since 2007 she has chaired Canada's most rambunctious pension fund, Teachers, which frequently signals its corporate displeasure by selling or preparing to sell such underperformers as BCE Inc. and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

In the clubby world of Canadian business it is rare to see a prominent director break ranks. It is particularly unique to hear the criticism emanate from the small and self-conscious ranks of female directors. To Ms. Mercier, however, it is her status as an outsider that frees her to challenge boardroom orthodoxy.

Although she rarely speaks to reporters, in the winter of her 41-year career, she is becoming more outspoken about failings in corporate governance. When she was honoured with a Corporate Directors Fellowship Award in 2009 at a Toronto dinner, she deflected the praise and startled hundreds of assembled directors and executives by chastising the boardroom community for failing to avert the global financial crisis.

"We have experienced a governance failure of unheard-of proportions … The public at large clearly wants answers from us and wonders why we didn't see what was coming and take steps to avoid it," she told the elite corporate gathering.

Nearly two years later, she curls her hands into tight fists when recalling the speech. "I was angry," she said. "I thought that given all that had happened in the crisis not enough blame or responsibility had been attributed to the boards. I felt it needed saying that some of the things were preventable and should have been prevented, and they weren't."

Ms. Mercier has never been a shrinking violet. She credits her late father, a flinty RCMP officer, and mother, a former nurse, "both of them very tough people," with teaching her inner fortitude. When things got tough she says her father quoted the line "this isn't cricket" from the Second World War prison camp film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him and the way he faced things," she says.

Initially Ms. Mercier applied her discipline to decoding such ancient languages as Old Norse as a graduate student at the University of Alberta. Turned off by the "politically charged" academic atmosphere, she parlayed her language skills into a job in 1970 as a writer for a monthly magazine published at the time by the Toronto Stock Exchange.

In 1972 she left the "dead end" writing post for a career as member of a new strategic team at Toronto-Dominion Bank. Then the runt of Canada's Big Five banks, TD was also the most adventurous, meaning it was willing to bet that a rare female professional with limited experience was a good fit in its new venture capital division. At the bank, she says "I was a bit of an oddball."

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