Rowe is a big political name in Newfoundland, boasting both Liberal and Conservative wings that are related, if distantly. “Gus” belonged to the latter persuasion. When he became health minister in the government of Frank Moores in 1972, the family, including 12-year-old Jane, made the classic Newfoundland transition from bayman to townie.
After high school, Memorial University beckoned. Studying commerce, Rowe had an inkling she’d found her calling. “My first Finance 101 course, they’re walking me through the concept of net present value, and I kind of went [here she launches into an impression of her younger self] ‘Cool. That is so interesting. And, oh my god, like, you can just sit here and look at these different flows of money and decide which one actually has more value today or 10 years from now—that’s so cool,’ ” she says. “I was hooked.”
Still, it took the sage advice of a friend’s father to steer her toward a career in business. “My friend’s father said, Do you want to ask for the cheque or do you want to write the cheque? If you want to ask for the cheque, be a lawyer. If you want to write the cheque, be a businessperson.’ ” She packed her bags for Toronto and did an MBA at York University.
Post-graduation, and after stints at CIBC and Guarantee Trust, Rowe landed at Bank of Nova Scotia. It felt like home.
“I thought, ‘Here’s a bank that has an East Coast culture that works with my East Coast upbringing,’” she says. To outsiders, that may sound like a stretch—the bank founded in Halifax in 1832 does not give off much of a salt-sea air today—but to Rowe, Scotia was welcoming and inclusive, and offered the kind of environment where smarts and hard work get you further than family credentials.
In what would become a 23-year career at the bank, the young account manager rose rapidly to assistant general manager of workouts—the close-quarters business of remediating welching clients. Eventually Rowe became the co-head of a private equity fund at the bank. “I loved it, I loved it,” she says—in particular, the thrill of hunting for gems to back in the hope of a big return.
But, as had happened before, her bosses pulled her to the next level somewhat against her will. In the aftermath of the tech bubble’s burst, her skills were in demand, and Scotia asked her to become a senior vice-president and help sort out the bank’s risks. She accepted the hot seat. “At that time, you met with the CEO every morning to review various exposures and credit risks,” she says. With that experience behind her, “There’s no room that I’m afraid to walk into any more. Because when you’re being queried and challenged and have to articulate your thoughts on a daily basis to a CEO, a vice-chairman, a head of risk, you’ve got to bring your game to the table and you’ve got to deliver.”
She did deliver, and was named CEO of Roynat Capital, a merchant bank within Scotia, and then to a key role in Scotiabank’s bread-and-butter domestic personal lending business—as well as CEO of Scotia Mortgage Corp. “That put me into the executive management team, and that was pretty cool,” she says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Rowe shrugs off the idea that Canada’s Big Five banks, which among them have yet to name a female CEO, have a bias against female executives. Yes, men and women network differently and might have different styles, she acknowledges. And, “you know, maybe once in a while you’d come across a jerk. But you can come across them anywhere,” she says. “At Scotia, it was very much about your aptitude for the work. And if you clearly had the intellectual capital to contribute to the conversation, it didn’t matter if you were an animal, mineral or vegetable.”
Scotiabank CEO Rick Waugh acknowledges an industry inclination to relegate women to areas such as human resources and public relations. Rowe, he says, was a groundbreaker. “She, and several other women that we had in the executive management team, were instrumental in breaking a stereotype that they couldn’t do things like credit.”
But just as Rowe became one of the most senior people at Scotia, a series of tragedies shifted her focus to her personal life. In 2007, when she was a couple years shy of her 50th birthday, a number of her associates died suddenly—each of them also younger than 50. “It was freaky and it all culminated in about six months,” she says. “And all of them from different things, from a brain aneurysm, to a small plane crash, to a freak fall. It was just odd. And I kind of went, ‘Wow, life is short.’”