Journalists will miss Rick Waugh. In an age of CEO bland-speak, the irrepressible boss of Bank of Nova Scotia often provided refreshing candour–and occasional verbal slip-ups. He also notched some very impressive accomplishments. Over his 10-year run, the bank pulled off 40 acquisitions, shrugged off the 2008-09 financial crisis and cemented its status as Canada’s most international bank. After stepping down as CEO last fall, the 43-year Scotiabank veteran left the bank’s board at the end of January, at age 66.
What do people mean when they say you have a great nose for credit?
It is what bankers do—we manage risk, and if we do it well, we succeed. I was lucky a few months after I joined the bank in 1970, when they yanked me out of Winnipeg—literally, because I didn’t want to go—and I got into risk and credit [at head office]. I took over managing the main branch in Toronto when I was 30. Even as CEO, I loved taking home the bank’s credits [corporate loans] and reading them when I was watching hockey or baseball.
So what will you do now?
I’m retiring, but not from life. I’ve been really fortunate, because ever since I was allowed to have a bonus, I’ve taken it in bank stock. As an executive officer for 30 years, my compensation package consists of 12 per cent salary, 10 per cent to 15 per cent cash bonus and the rest in deferred bonus, stock options or the like. I’ve built up an endowed family foundation from the proceeds. I’ve also set up a private investment firm to invest in small and medium-sized businesses, just in pure minority positions.
Are you going to save the world with your foundation?
It’s three things: education, health and community. I’m going to make sure the foundation runs efficiently. I don’t want to just write a cheque. We’ve consciously called it the Waugh Family Foundation. When my wife and I are long gone, our kids—we have three boys—will be able to carry on.
So how did it feel to hand the CEO reins to Brian Porter last November?
I’m still going to be one of the bank’s most significant shareholders. As I told the board and Brian, I’ll go to the annual meetings as an honorary director, and I will be very quiet–[laughing] unless they don’t handle the dividend properly.
Do you have regrets?
On lots of days, boy, I wish I hadn’t done something or said something. There are credits I wish we hadn’t made and acquisitions I wish we hadn’t paid so much for. But if you let one regret get you down, you can’t manage the sum of the parts.
Did you loosen up the bank’s culture?
Maybe it was my Winnipeg populist roots and my nature. The popular word now is collaboration. I believe teams that work together and communicate well will be superior–it happens in hockey and football.
Aren’t you also famous for shooting from the hip?
I once met a politician who said, “Rick, the only thing about being in the public is just never lie.” If I say something that doesn’t quite come out the right way, it’s based on fundamental truths and people generally understand what I’m trying to say. Yeah, sometimes I am an optimist, and the glass is usually half full.
Do you wish you had any comments back?
There are so many of them. At my retirement party, they are going to present the Top 10 Rick-isms. The one my wife likes is the time–before I was CEO–when I said, “This is what we’ve got to do, because everybody believes it from the chairman on up.” I definitely have an affliction for malapropisms.
How much impact does the CEO have?
It’s the team that does it, but you have to have a game plan. Most key decisions are not black and white; they are in this grey area. What I haven’t liked is the celebrity CEO. We should never make the front page of the newspaper. It’s okay to be in the business section, but if we are on the front page, it ain’t going to be good news. The CEO represents the bank, but it should be about the bank, not the individual.
This interview has been condensed and edited.