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RBC CEO Gordon Nixon. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
RBC CEO Gordon Nixon. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Derek DeCloet

Thanks, Gord Nixon, for ruining it for the rest of us Add to ...

They are the three wise men of Bay Street. Each has been around for so long that we’ve almost forgotten who came before. Each is now in the final stages of his career.

A decade ago, as they assumed control of three of Canada’s largest banks, all three were confronted with business problems. Each took different paths to solving them; each will leave behind an institution transformed. But you sure wouldn’t want to have to follow Gord Nixon, Ed Clark or Rick Waugh.

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Good fortune, good decisions and circumstance have placed them in the elite of global finance. Canada’s big banks mostly sidestepped the 2008-2009 financial crisis (save CIBC), a feat that earned the men who run them international acclaim. At one point, Nixon landed on Barron’s list of the top 30 CEOs in the world. Then he got knocked off — and was replaced by Clark. All three men have been appointed to the Order of Canada. Their banks were named among the 20 safest in the world last year by Global Finance, an industry publication. No U.S. bank was ranked higher than 29th.

It really can’t get any better than this — and for the chief executives who succeed this trio, it won’t.

Nixon’s story is the most compelling of the three. He was just 44 when he was given the keys to the Royal Bank of Canada in 2001, a career dealmaker who knew relatively little about the biggest part of the operation, branch banking.

His problem was that while RBC was dominant in Canada, it had no obvious strategy anywhere else. He was bequeathed a collection of U.S. assets that was about as useful as the jar of mismatched nuts and bolts in your garage. RBC owned a little retail bank in North Carolina, a little brokerage house based in Minnesota and a few other castoffs. None of it made sense.

Perhaps because of relative inexperience, Nixon took a while to figure it out. He heard the advice of senior executives who urged him to go all-out on U.S. expansion — to spend big and acquire a large regional bank. Eventually he determined that he had the wrong executives, and he ignored their advice. That single decision saved RBC from the worst of the crisis.

Instead, Nixon sold the rump North Carolina bank and built a growth plan around what he knew best—big deals, big loans, trading and money management. At press time, computer maker Dell Inc. appears on the verge of going private in a $24-billion (U.S.) buyout, one of the largest takeovers since the crisis. RBC is providing some of the money, a signal of its arrival as one of the world’s top dozen or so investment banks.

Clark inherited a different set of woes. Toronto-Dominion Bank had gone into the United States and blown itself up, mostly on loans to telecom and communications firms. In 2002, its pile of bad loans grew so huge that it took a massive writedown. Clark took over that December.

The bank retreated from a lot of big corporate lending, but what then? Clark’s answer was to go back into the American market, but seek out the more stable earnings of a retail bank. It wasn’t cheap, and his timing wasn’t always good. The $8.5-billion (U.S.) deal for a New Jersey bank, signed in 2007, the year before Lehman Brothers went under, looked particularly bad. Still, TD’s U.S. bank made $1.1 billion last year.

Unlike RBC and TD, Scotiabank has long avoided the U.S., preferring to go into faster-growing Latin American and Caribbean markets instead. Waugh’s dilemma on assuming the CEO role in 2003 was whether to push into emerging markets or focus on Canada, where the bank has some weak spots. He has done both. Scotiabank has written large cheques abroad (where it expanded in Chile and Colombia) and at home (where it bought DundeeWealth and ING Direct).

The odd thing is how smoothly things have gone for all three of these banks. Each one of these strategies has big risks attached to it. Investment banking and trading are notoriously volatile, and it’s easy to lose money at them (as CIBC proved). U.S. retail banking is a cutthroat business, far more competitive and difficult than in Canada. And emerging markets are prone to occasional explosions, as Scotiabank learned in 2002, when it was essentially chased out of Argentina at a cost of more than half a billion dollars.

Yet Nixon, Clark and Waugh have escaped these pitfalls, and then they got a huge lift from the great Canadian borrowing binge. As house prices climbed ever higher — doubling in 10 years — and people took on ever-larger debts to buy them, who profited from that? The banks did. Since 2003, profit per share at RBC, TD and Scotia has more than doubled, and their stocks have each returned 12% to 13% per year, including dividends. Now, as Nixon, Clark and Waugh prepare to hand off to successors, house prices are moderating, and in some markets falling, and Canadians are sobering up about their debts.

They were good. They also got lucky. Can it get even better for the people who follow them? Really, it can’t.

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