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Dave McKay, CEO of RBC, poses in front of Royal Bank Plaza on Bay Street in Toronto on Friday, July 25, 2014. (Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)
Dave McKay, CEO of RBC, poses in front of Royal Bank Plaza on Bay Street in Toronto on Friday, July 25, 2014. (Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)

How RBC's new CEO learned to be wary of complacency Add to ...

By almost any measure, Royal Bank of Canada holds a dominant position in the Canadian business landscape with annual profits topping $8-billion. But incoming chief executive Dave McKay hopes to set a new tone for a banking giant: humility.

Because RBC is so big – by far Canada’s most profitable company – it is easy for the bank’s employees and for investors to assume the status quo is guaranteed. Mr. McKay wants to stamp out any such thoughts.

“Complacency and ego are killers of shareholder value in organizations,” he said in an exclusive interview. “I’ve seen good organizations struggle with complacency. It can creep up on you really quickly, and if it gets hold of you, it can be tough to shake.”

The message comes from a man who has not had an easy time attaining everything he has achieved. Mr. McKay lost his father, who ran a small lighting and furniture business, before he graduated high school, and there were no silver spoons in his family – no assumptions that the next steps were guaranteed. He got his full-time start at RBC on the lowest rung of the ladder, in a branch in suburban Montreal, and slowly worked his way to the top. Now, as he begins his term as CEO on Friday, Mr. McKay plans to push the bank into a new mindset. “What big companies like RBC have to learn how to do better … is fail fast,” he said.

Under Gordon Nixon’s leadership, RBC cemented itself as banking giant and the dominant domestic lender. The bank now boasts a market value of more than $115-billion. Yet investors have an insatiable appetite for growth, and Mr. McKay has made it a priority to persuade them that he knows RBC can’t be content with its current riches.

Mr. McKay is also acutely aware that this is an era of disruption and the banking sector isn’t immune, leading him to become the most vocal Canadian bank executive on the need for change. The likes of Google and Apple are already encroaching on the payments business, with products that allow people to pay by swiping their smartphones at the checkout counter.

Mr. McKay, 50, has been on Facebook’s California campus during a “hack” – a 48-hour product development cram session – and the experience taught him just how nimble the new breed of rivals can be.

Under siege from a battalion of coding whiz kids, it helps that Mr. McKay is armed with a math and computer science degree from the University of Waterloo. He also has more than 25 years of experience in banking, a work history that started in 1987 at an RBC branch in the Montreal suburb of Dollard-des-Ormeaux near Pierrefonds, where he grew up.

Within RBC, his experiences have ranged from corporate banking – a division he joined after graduating with an MBA from Western University in 1992 – to risk management, and colleagues say that it was during his tenure in the latter that he started to shine. Putting his undergraduate degree to work, Mr. McKay helped to develop a new system to better assess a client’s riskiness.

Mr. McKay’s journey to the top also included leading the bank’s payments business – hence his obsession with this space – and he ultimately became head of personal and commercial banking, where he thrived and won Mr. Nixon’s trust.

In many ways, Mr. McKay is a consummate retail banker. Talking to him conjures memories of children’s television presenter Mr. Rogers – albeit a well-tailored version who also happens to love Pearl Jam. Because he is so well-regarded by Bay Street for his retail banking prowess, his CEO appointment led to speculation that RBC was bound to buy another bricks-and-mortar U.S. retail bank. Shareholders asked Mr. McKay the question so often that he felt the need to rule it out during the bank’s previous quarterly conference call.

Still, the RBC Mr. McKay leads is bound to grow beyond its home borders. “I think you’ll see over time a greater share of our profits and growth come from outside of Canada,” he said, repeating a message he and Mr. Nixon have been spreading for some time. The bank generated 36 per cent of revenues abroad in 2013.

The trouble, though, is that no one quite understands what an international expansion will look like. “The biggest question with this company continues to be what exactly they want their presence outside of Canada to be,” Scotia Capital analyst Sumit Malhotra said.

Mr. McKay acknowledged that the messages have been vague so far. Trying to elaborate, he said capital markets and wealth management are the key segments for international growth. “Where the U.S. was in 2006 and ’07, we feel our capabilities are [at the same point] in Europe in the capital markets group,” he said, referring to the massive U.S. growth RBC experienced over the past eight years that came both from lending to more corporate clients and hiring veteran New York deal makers to help the bank underwrite major transactions.

The future for wealth management isn’t as clear, but Mr. McKay said the bank must add equity funds and alternative asset products – which traditionally include infrastructure and real estate – to expand its global asset management presence. RBC also wants to leverage its U.S. wealth management clients, possibly relying on the banking licence it kept from its U.S. retail banking days. By using it, the bank could offer more traditional banking services to its wealth management clients, helping to build a retail presence without physical bank branches.

At home, both Mr. McKay and his family are still getting used to all the change. His wife, a human resources executive at a pharmaceutical company, has her own schedule to take care of, and their two children, both of whom are in high school, are still getting used to the promotion because they didn’t find out until the very morning it was announced in December. “They were shocked,” Mr. McKay said. “They had asked me over the years if I could be CEO. I said, ‘There’s a chance I could. I’d like to be.’ But I never dwelled on it. I really enjoyed being the head of the retail bank. I just loved that job.”

To maintain some sense of normalcy Mr. McKay plans to keep coaching basketball and hockey. (The third sport in his household is volleyball.) But even with teenagers it’s hard to avoid the extra respect the CEO position generates. “People are nicer to me on the bench at the basketball games that I coach,” he joked. “They call me ‘Mr. McKay’ more.”

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