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Tom O’Neill, former board Chair of the Bank of Nova Scotia is photographed during an interview in Toronto, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

As a commerce student in 1975, Kathleen O’Neill was among the first wave of Canadian women hired to become chartered accountants. Through the recruiting process at Price Waterhouse, she met someone who would help shape the rest of her career.

Tom O’Neill was a rising star at the firm, which would later be renamed PricewaterhouseCoopers after a merger in 1998. And though the two had no relation, he seemed legitimately interested in her potential. Trusting her gut, she chose PW, and over the next four decades, his support proved immeasurable.

When Ms. O’Neill was struggling to manage work while raising four kids in the 1980s, he helped reduce her professional commitments to 80 per cent – a rarity at the time. When she was ready to join corporate boards, he was both an adviser and her advocate.

These are recurring stories for Mr. O’Neill. He has counselled and mentored a small army of women, many of whom have risen to the highest echelons of Canadian business. Over the years, his mentees have included Maryann Turcke, the chief operating officer of the National Football League and a former executive at Bell Media; Sarah Davis, the president of Loblaw Cos. Ltd.; and Colleen Johnston, the former chief financial officer of Toronto-Dominion Bank, who is now on the boards of Shopify Inc. and WestJet Airlines Ltd.

“He was mentoring us and sponsoring us long before it became the thing to do,” Ms. O’Neill said in an interview. “He’s had a quiet, but major, influence on corporate Canada.”

For all his support, Mr. O’Neill has rarely received recognition. To fix that, 36 of Canada’s most senior female executives and board members came together this month to show their appreciation. Days after Mr. O’Neill retired as Bank of Nova Scotia’s board chair, they hosted a private dinner at the tony Toronto Club where, fittingly, he was the only male attendee.

In speeches and in personal notes compiled in a book titled Celebrating Tom, the women praised a man they felt was their quiet warrior – someone who was always there for advice, or a pick-me-up, or to put in a good word. Their appreciation showed that grandiose diversity programs aren’t always necessary; often, the small stuff does wonders.

“Having somebody so influential speak really highly of you, and really talk about the impact you can have, is huge,” Ms. Johnston said in an interview. She first met Mr. O’Neill as a new hire at PW in the early eighties. “He gave you a little bit of his halo.”

Mr. O’Neill went on to be chief operating officer of the global accounting firm, and later became a board member at Scotiabank, Loblaw Companies Ltd. and BCE Inc., among others. In many ways he was a member of the old boys’ club, yet he used that clout to help women rise as well.

As far back as the eighties, Mr. O’Neill ruled that private clubs that banned women members would not be reimbursed for partner membership dues.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“A lot of people talk about advocating for women,” said Nora Aufreiter, a former McKinsey & Co. managing partner who now sits on Scotiabank’s board, “but we don’t need more advocates. We need people who do things."

In 2018, only 15.8 per cent of executive-officer positions in Canada were held by women, according to regulatory filings. At the board level, almost one-third of companies still do not have a single female director.

Mr. O’Neill’s career is full of action. As far back as the eighties, he updated PW’s policy for reimbursing partner membership dues at private clubs, ruling that clubs that banned women members would not be covered. He also helped update the firm’s expense rules so that women could be reimbursed for the likes of babysitting fees. That way, they wouldn’t have to miss something work-related while their husbands were travelling. “We’ll throw a lavish party for a client,” he said. "Why wouldn’t we settle the babysitting overnight fee?”

More recently, he used his influence to add women to Scotiabank’s board to boost the number of female directors to six. In 2018, only 3 per cent of TSX-listed companies had five or more female directors.

Asked why he’s always advocated for women. Mr. O’Neill almost bristles at the suggestion he did anything special. “In a way, it was self-interest,” he said in an interview. At PW, the firm tended to lose female staff as they got older, so the policies needed to be updated. “You were losing someone that was important to the business, or to you on a job.”

He also stressed that he never saw the need to give women special benefits. “I treated them equally," he said.

His mentees agree. “It never occurred to me that he was supporting me because I was a woman,” said Sarah Davis, who joined Loblaw as controller in 2007 when Mr. O’Neill led the board’s audit committee, and was recently named president. Mr. O’Neill could be tough, she said, but he was always there with support.

One example sticks out in her mind: At a board offsite a number of years ago, Ms. Davis expressed some doubts about her progression. Right away, Mr. O’Neill asked her to join him on a walk in the park at 7:30 the next morning.

“It’s not that other board members wouldn’t,” she said. But she’d have to ask, and that could be awkward. “He always offered.”

Support such as this has given her confidence, she said, because she knew she had someone in her corner. “As a woman, you don’t have a lot of people who do that for you.”

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