The calm can be persuasive. “I’m still mad at him, because he basically stole my business,” jokes Waterous, the investment banking head. Waterous used to run his own M&A advisory firm, but Porter persuaded him to let Scotiabank buy it in 2005. “If it had been many other people, I would not have sold,” he says. Porter “gets people to do things they might not end up doing [otherwise] because it’s such a calm, reassuring voice.…He is so persuasive in his delivery that I felt kind of hoodwinked into selling.”
And not having an outsized personality does not hinder Porter’s ability to manage. “In the investment business, some people are great traders or great investment bankers, but are terrible managers,” says David Wilson, the former head of Scotia Capital. “Brian evolved to be a very good manager.” Recognizing this potential early on, Wilson got the blessing of Peter Godsoe, Waugh’s predecessor, to send Porter to Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. In the years since, Porter has honed a certain management style: being respectfully frank. Hart sat down with him when he took on the chief risk officer role this fall, and Porter offered an honest assessment of his work, to identify how to improve for the new senior executive position. “‘These are what I think your strengths are, these are what I think you’ve got to work on.’ After 35 years at the bank, that was kind of interesting,” Hart jokes. “What? I have weaknesses?”
To many people inside Scotiabank, Brian Porter was the front-runner to be named CEO, ahead of the likes of former CRO Rob Pitfield and current wealth management and insurance head Chris Hodgson. When Porter’s appointment was finally announced, former colleagues at Scotia Capital couldn’t help but see better days ahead. Under Rick Waugh, they’d been shunned—even publicly scolded for their pay structure—but here was Porter, one of their own.
Those hopes are now subdued, if not all but dead. Once the initial euphoria wore off, the investment bankers realized that Porter must now steer the whole ship. “I certainly have no illusions that he will give undue weight to this side of the business,” says an investment banker. “Shareholders and the board certainly don’t want to see the capital markets side of the business driving the bus. That’s not why people invest in the Bank of Nova Scotia.”
So what will change? Already there’s been a major refocusing on customers; there’s been a not-so-subtle shift to emphasize deepening relationships and winning business. Employees say edicts have filtered down the chain of command. For instance: “I don’t want to see you at a Leafs game with a fellow banker or a supplier; I want to see you there with a customer.”
Under Porter, division heads will have more freedom to run their own shows, but with added accountability. Major directives will be set with the CEO, but “he flies pretty high,” a manager says, which is a “fundamental shift” for the bank.
Porter made waves by leaving Scotia Capital, and a number of others have since crossed over from the capital markets arm. Expect more to follow. Porter has also made it a personal mission to have more managers with roots in the regions where Scotiabank operates; currently, the vast majority have come up through Toronto. “What’s the organization going to look like in five years or eight years or 10 years? We have to build the leadership talent to run the bank from that perspective,” he says. Internally, Anatol von Hahn, the current head of Canadian banking, is often touted as an example of what the bank needs more of: someone who can speak Spanish and has lived outside of Canada.
But there are some things that are so woven into Scotiabank’s cultural fabric that one man alone can’t change them. The bank will always be cost-conscious—or “efficient,” in management-speak. “Cheap Scots,” analyst Routledge calls them jokingly, adding that he himself is half-Scottish.
Scotiabank will also continue to be, first and foremost, a credit-driven institution. Roughly 80% of its capital is devoted to credit, and senior executives, including the CEO, are known for taking credit reports home at night.
The way these reports are read will change, though. The bank has a history of giving its CEO a certain colour of pencil so that when he—or one day, maybe she—makes suggestions on documents, the notes are sure to be read. Even in the digital age, Porter is keeping with tradition. “It’s part of the culture. If people see your initials on something, then they know it’s for real,” he says.
Twenty years ago, Peter Godsoe ushered in the green era. Rick Waugh was red. And now? “Brown for Brian.”