Before he became a corporate man, Brian Porter was a cowboy. Or at least he worked among them. After graduating from Dalhousie University, he took a job with investment dealer McLeod Young Weir in 1981, working with aggressive traders, bankers and brokers who always look like loose cannons compared to the more staid personalities outside of capital markets.
As of 1985 Porter was, by his own description, a gofer. But by the time Scotiabank gobbled up the independent firm in 1988, he’d begun his ascent. He made a name for himself on the syndication desk, advising clients on the pricing and structure of equity offerings. One of his standout moves was advising the federal government when it sold the bulk of its Petro-Canada stake to the public. The way Porter priced the $1.7-billion deal—above the asking price in the market—was ballsy, but it produced a big payout. Collectively, Scotiabank and the other underwriters earned an estimated $66 million in fees.
Over time, Porter became responsible for institutional equities and then investment banking, including mergers and acquisitions. “I had the good fortune of being put in charge of a few businesses that weren’t working very well, that needed some fixing up,” he says. Porter was also ultimately given responsibility for corporate banking—the division of the bank that lends major money. Because of the step up, he started sitting on senior bank credit committees and the like.
But Porter’s hallmark move came in 2005 when he jumped ship to the bank proper to become the head of risk. Learning the nitty-gritty of mortgage adjudication wasn’t as sexy as advising clients on multibillion-dollar acquisitions, nor was it as high-paying. The pay cut Porter took has never been disclosed, but it is thought to have been millions a year. “Your career’s a long game, and you can’t look at compensation and focus on one year or two years,” he says. “Long term, broadening my career and doing something different meant more to me than any paycheque.” When he was offered the CRO position, “I leaped at it because I think I was ready for a change. I wanted to learn more about the bank, the industry.” It didn’t hurt that the switch put him on the CEO track. And now that he’s made it, there’s a decent chance that he’ll pull in something close to the $11.1 million that Waugh made last year.
Getting this far wasn’t easy. Serving as chief risk officer during the financial crisis was exhausting. “It was such a dynamic time. It was 24/7. Policy decisions were being made on the weekend,” he says. To round out his resumé, he headed the international unit from 2010 to 2012. The role sent him to Asia once a quarter, wreaking havoc on his internal clock. “Sometimes it felt like Toronto was just where I got my dry cleaning,” he says. The stamina he exhibited earned him respect across the ranks of the bank. “Brian sucked it up,” says a former colleague. “He deserves a lot of what he got because he paid the price.”
Porter is short on enemies, but he isn’t a social butterfly either. To many, he is a closed box. “I never got to know the man,” one former close colleague quipped to another. Even current allies joke about his stoic demeanour. “I would never want to play poker against him,” says Stephen Hart, the bank’s new chief risk officer.
Here’s what we know for sure: Porter is a family man. (Of the three children that he and his wife, Megan, have, two are in university, the other is in high school.) It’s hard these days to find time to pursue his passion for skiing, but recently Porter was able to get in a trip to Zermatt, Switzerland, while his son was studying at Neuchâtel Junior College.
Porter’s also got a thing for the East Coast. Though he was born in Calgary, he has deep roots Down East—his great-grandfather was even a Bank of Nova Scotia board member—and his family has a home in Chester, Nova Scotia, an upscale vacation spot an hour from Halifax.
Your best chance of seeing Porter emote is to bring up the subject of fly fishing for salmon in Labrador. “I love the vastness of Labrador. It’s unique, it’s beautiful, it’s serene. It’s spectacular,” he says. One of his occasional fishing buddies, octogenarian Newfoundland magnate Harry Steele, whom he met on a flight to Labrador, says he’s never seen anyone so passionate about the place in 40 years of angling. But even there, as far as you can get from Bay Street, Steele says Porter doesn’t really change. “Some people, when they go fishing or hunting or whatever, they become wild. I’ve never seen Brian excited or out of control.”
That doesn’t mean he’s aloof. Quite the opposite. Now Latin America head at Scotiabank, Wendy Hannam worked closely with Porter when he ran international banking. Porter, she says, was supportive when her husband was experiencing health problems. The way she sees it, his calm is the foundation of his strengths. “He’s very thoughtful. Very strategic. Very, very smart. Big-picture-focused. I haven’t seen him get frazzled or flustered.”