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John Graham started his career after earning a doctorate in chemistry at Western University in 1999.

CNW/Canada Pension Plan Investment B

John Graham, the money manager who is suddenly responsible for at least some of your retirement savings, is something of an accidental chief executive.

The newly named CEO at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board – at $476-billion, one of the world’s largest funds – was only handed the top job on Friday after predecessor Mark Machin was forced to resign after receiving the COVID-19 vaccination while traveling in the United Arab Emirates.

And the 49-year-old Mr. Graham only entered the world of finance after a successful first career in science, as a chemist in the Xerox labs where everything from touchscreen technology to the computer mouse were invented.

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Mr. Graham started his career after earning a doctorate in chemistry at Western University in 1999. The Ottawa native then spent nine years at Xerox doing research focused on photovoltaics, the technology of solar cells. In his time at Xerox, Mr. Graham’s work was the basis for 36 U.S. patents, which must be some sort of record for a Bay Street executive.

Head of Canada’s largest pension fund received COVID-19 vaccine in United Arab Emirates

CPPIB chief executive Mark Machin steps down in the wake of COVID-19 vaccination controversy

‘Corporate world is shifting’: Machin’s swift departure from CPPIB underscores public intolerance for bad behaviour in the C-suite

While working at Xerox, Mr. Graham went back to school part-time, earning an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. CPPIB recruited him away from the labs in 2008, offering a data-crunching job doing portfolio design. Colleagues say he climbed in the ranks by leading forays into new fields, such as reinsurance and private debt markets.

Former CPPIB chief financial officer Benita Warmbold, who worked with Mr. Graham for nine years prior to retiring in 2017, said the new CEO showed “a consistent knack for building the business.” In 2015, CPPIB paid US$12-billion to buy Chicago-based lender Antares Capital from General Electric, one of the fund manager’s largest foreign forays. Mr. Graham was one of the executives charged with overseeing the investment, as an Antares board member.

“Colleagues at all levels enjoyed working with John, including me,” said Ms. Warmbold. “His humility certainly fits the purpose of CPPIB.” One of Mr. Graham’s first leadership roles was running a 35-person credit investment group. Today, that team has 125 employees, and 42 per cent of the work force is female, a sign of a commitment to inclusion that colleagues say is critical to advancing in a public-sector fund.

In 2018, Mr. Graham took global responsibility for all of CPPIB’s credit-based investments, running a $57-billion portfolio and taking a seat with the 14 senior executives who run the fund manager. In a press release on Friday, CPPIB chair Heather Munroe-Blum said: ”By consistently demonstrating deep knowledge of our operations, embracing a global mindset during his time in Asia, while delivering value as a founder and leader of a key investment department, John earned the Board’s unequivocal confidence.”

The new role will mean a significant raise for Mr. Graham, who is married and has two teenaged children. His predecessor earned $5.9-million last year, while the incoming CEO didn’t crack the fund manager’s list of its five highest paid executives.

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