A star was born 30 years ago, when a petite young U.S. economist moved to Toronto to join brokerage firm Burns Fry. Smart, stylish and tough, Sherry Cooper became the belle of Bay Street. Burns Fry was acquired by Bank of Montreal in 1994, and Cooper rose to become the bank’s chief economist in 2006. By then, she had already shattered the grey institutional stereotype of bank economists, and set herself a mission to prepare baby boomers for their futures. The woman who wrote the book The New Retirement retired herself at the end of January.
Why leave now at age 62?
There’s something about the start of a new year and the big 3-0 in years of service. I’ve also thought about this for a long time. We just had our first grandchild, who lives in New York City. My husband and I are spending four weeks at our Florida apartment and that is my decompression mode. In Toronto, we sold the big house and we’ll be moving into a condo in Yorkville. But like every other condo in the city, it’s been delayed for eight months, so we’ve been renting.
Will you work?
I’ve had a few calls. I will take the course for directors, and I have already been consulting to some boards. I want to continue to speak and there is the next book. I just don’t know what it is yet.
What is your secret of retirement?
Humans need a sense of purpose. The people who are healthiest and happiest keep active and have a lot of social interaction, and a sense of legacy and of giving back. They can also handle disappointment, because you start losing people.
How are you doing financially?
My goal is to live on dividends, and I am fine. I have a financial planner – everyone should have one. I calculated how much my family will need in retirement and I rounded up. We assumed 3 per cent inflation, which I feel is too high, and that my husband and I will live to 95. I also assumed just a 3 per cent rate of return on our investments. I’m heavily invested in different bank shares, and they are paying about 4 per cent and 5 per cent in dividends now, plus I’ll have employment income. I have no fixed-income, but about 20 per cent of the portfolio is cash now.
What’s the worst thing that could happen?
It would be if BMO collapses, along with the Canadian banking system. But I have not diversified away from Canadian financial institutions because I know the industry – there is a bit of Warren Buffett in that – and I know it is heavily regulated. If banks go down, there is no safety anywhere.
You have spoken of a locker-room mentality when you got into investment banking. What was that like?
It was unbelievable, and I’m no prude. They had pictures of naked girls taped up everywhere. People were swearing at each other across the room. There was the Burns Fry Christmas party, and nine months later babies were born. They rented hotel rooms upstairs for post-party. After the stock market crash in 1987, we were cutting costs, and I suggested we cancel the party that year because it was nothing but corporate debauchery. One of my colleagues said, “And that is exactly why we will have it.”
Are things better now?
It’s better and different. Now the bond traders all have MBAs and PhDs in mathematics. In the past, the old boys would take clients to lap dancing places and charge it to Burns Fry. They would take limos to Buffalo, because apparently Buffalo had better bars and strip joints, and they charged it to the firm.
What did people on the Street think of you?
I was a strange factor. There were women in senior roles, but not many, and they tended to wear dark suits, flat shoes and no makeup. Then I burst on the scene. People would comment on my nail polish and my clothes because it was just weird to see a woman who didn’t want to try to look like a man or disappear into the wallpaper. I was told to wear black, brown or navy, and here I am in leopard. I notice young women today wearing black suits and white shirts with their hair pulled back. It’s like a uniform, and I wonder why. I guess they want to be taken seriously.
I felt like my credentials – my being – was something to be taken seriously and I could wear a red suit if I wanted.