The waiter arrives to jot down Louis Vachon's order at 357c, a tony private club located in the old Port of Montreal building on the shores of the St. Lawrence, and the head of National Bank of Canada knows exactly what he wants. "Mozzarella di Bufala," he says confidently, and without hesitation.
The quick response is almost visceral, a throwback to his days on the trading desk where he cut his teeth in banking during the 1980s. The biggest skill he learned during those formative years was to act swiftly - and to never second guess yourself.
But then he does.
"You know what?" Mr. Vachon tells the waiter in French, pausing momentarily to ponder the rest of the appetizers. "Saumon." Smoked salmon it is. A fine choice, the waiter scribbles dutifully. And for the main course? Also salmon, but grilled.
This is the other side of Mr. Vachon showing through: the bank CEO. Having ascended to the top job at Canada's sixth-largest bank, he has learned over the years the importance of taking a moment to consider all the options.
"I'm still quite quick, but less quick as I used to be," he says. "I tend to ask more questions before pulling the trigger. It's one of the things you learn in life."
It's a fitting way into a discussion about all the headlines National Bank has been making these days, as one of the key players behind the Maple Group - a collection of 13 Canadian financial institutions trying to thwart the merger between TMX Group and the London Stock Exchange Group, the holding companies of the Toronto Stock Exchange and London Stock Exchange.
Normally found in the background of the banking sector, somewhere behind the Big Five Toronto-based banks who usually command the spotlight, Mr. Vachon's little Montreal outfit has found itself front and centre in the debate over the future of Canada's largest bourse. National's vice-chairman, a former Montreal Stock Exchange executive, is the face of the Maple group, and National is a driving force behind it.
Back when the LSE Group first announced its "merger of equals" with the TMX Group in Toronto, the deal might have seemed palatable for all the reasons the two sides were touting - a global exchange and broader access to capital throughout the world for Canadian companies. But for Mr. Vachon, and the heads of the other members of the Maple Group, it didn't take long before they figured there might be a better option on the menu. So the group decided to try to buy it themselves.
"I think the offer is underwhelming," Mr. Vachon says of the LSE bid, which, at about $44.69 a share, is less than the cash-and-share offer of $48 the Maple Group has put forward. His bigger concern, however, is Canada losing its control over the exchange should the LSE continue buying up bourses - leaving the TSX merely a small cog in a larger machine. "The strategy of London is one of consolidation. So the TSX is one of many [mergers]to come. You don't know who the other partners will be. They certainly don't want to give guarantees as to jobs or whatever else for Toronto or Montreal."
Unlike Mr. Vachon's smoked salmon, which arrives unadorned and fleshy pink a few moments later, the Maple Group proposal comes glazed in a thick patriotic syrup. Critics at the TMX and LSE say the banks, pension funds and insurance companies behind the Maple Group are wrapping themselves in a protectionist flag with the ultimate goal of creating a monopoly in exchanges, combining the banks' Alpha exchange with the TSX.
Indeed, the group is having an impact. Mr. Vachon is pleased by the morning headlines in the Montreal newspapers. A day earlier, Quebec financial giant Desjardins announced it was joining the Maple Group to fight the takeover, wanting to keep TMX Canadian-owned. A local newspaper proclaimed: "Desjardins joins the resistance!" He likes the language.
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