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O'shane Howard/The Globe and Mail

Throughout her life, Rania Llewellyn has been put into boxes, most of which came with people’s preconceived ideas, implied limitations and patronizing questions. Woman. Immigrant. Middle Eastern. Young. The assumptions rankled but also fed her determination. Today, she wears her tenacity and ambition on her sleeve—or, more precisely, on her torso: She appears for a videoconference interview clad in a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.

Those who underestimated Llewellyn might find this article an uncomfortable read. She remembers. For years, she kept what she calls “F-off letters” in response to her futile job applications, convinced that “someday, I’m going to prove that you all missed out on a great opportunity,” she says.

Vindication is sweet. In October, Llewellyn was appointed CEO of Laurentian Bank of Canada, a Quebec-based institution that celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. She is the first woman to lead a major Canadian-owned bank, and the first Laurentian CEO to come from outside the organization in 25 years. After more than two decades moving up through the Bank of Nova Scotia, most recently as executive vice president of global business payments, Llewellyn’s experience spans commercial, corporate, retail and digital banking.

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She will need all those skills, and more. The institution she now leads faces significant challenges. In her first statement to investors and analysts, Llewellyn described Laurentian as being at a “critical juncture in its storied history.” For years, the Montreal-based bank has been an industry underperformer, plagued by fluctuating earnings and shrinking market share. An aggressive shift toward digital banking, launched in 2015, has only deepened its woes, gutting its share price at one point by more than 45%. The bank slashed its dividend last May, and its CEO left on two weeks’ notice. In a sector characterized by orderly leadership transitions, that’s almost equivalent to being marched out the door by security.

But taking over an underdog makes the potential upside all the more appealing. If Llewellyn can turn Laurentian around, that will likely be noticed by her larger competitors, including her former bosses at Scotiabank. She considers Canada’s third-largest bank “my family for the last 26 years,” where she grew up as a person and as a leader. She had frustrations with some individuals, but she notes: “There are people and then there are organizations. Those are different things.” In her new job, all of the experience she gained—in attracting talent and navigating corporate hierarchies while remaining unwaveringly candid—will be vital not just to fix existing problems but to find ways for Laurentian to grow. That challenge shouldn’t be underestimated either.

Rania (“like Tonya”) Llewellyn seems to take after her mom, a barely five-foot-tall force of nature whom her daughter concedes “can be a bit scary.” Llewellyn isn’t intimidating so much as commanding: She speaks quickly and crisply, with a steady gaze and a clear mental map of what she wants to convey. Her short-cropped black hair is peppered with grey, but when she smiles, she looks boyish and much younger than her 45 years.

She has become practised in telling her immigrant story. “Are you okay with me going into deep details?” she asks with a chuckle. Born in Kuwait to a Jordanian mom and an Egyptian dad, she moved with her family to Egypt at age 11. She was a precocious youngster, skipping grades in both countries and graduating from high school at 14. Initially, she wanted to go into medicine—in the Coptic Orthodox community she grew up in, “you’re a doctor, a pharmacist, or an engineer,” says Llewellyn. But when time came to apply to university, she opted for business because it was one of the two hardest programs to get into.

When the Gulf War broke out, the family sought security and opportunity abroad. They landed in Halifax in 1992 and Llewellyn’s first impression of Canada was how cold it was (it was mid-August). Another shock to the teenage immigrant was racial bias. “I never saw colour until I came to Canada,” she says. “I came from a place where people were discriminated against based on religion. But here, I saw [racial bias] clearly articulated: All the Blacks live on this side of town, the whites live here, the Chinese run the Chinese restaurants.”

Although she looked Caucasian and spoke English fluently (she also speaks Arabic), when she graduated from Saint Mary’s University (she recalls being the youngest graduate in her class, at 18) and applied for jobs, the only position she could get was minding a Tim Hortons counter. The problem, she concluded, was her name: Rania Zakaria Guindi (when she married, she took her husband’s last name to “stop people asking me what my background was”). Through her dad’s business account manager at Scotiabank, she eventually scored a part-time teller position while she pursued her MBA. But even with that degree in hand, she couldn’t get so much as an interview.

Her first break happened at the family’s citizenship swearing-in ceremony, where Scotiabank’s lead executive for the Atlantic region was a guest. Her mom pushed her to “go ask him for a job.” So at a gathering that followed, Llewellyn marched up to the executive and said, “Scotiabank is Canada’s most international bank. I am international. I was born in Kuwait and I lived in Egypt. This is the only bank I want to work for.” He asked her if she spoke Spanish. She retorted, “I’ll speak whatever language you want me to speak, as long as you pay for it.” She had been a shy kid, but frustration gave her chutzpah. “This is what life does to you,” she says on reflection. “You realize that if you don’t speak up, you won’t be heard.” She made enough of an impression to secure a 10-minute meeting. The executive asked her where she wanted to be in 10 years, and she responded, “I want your job.” He laughed and sent her to HR. “I’ve never forgotten that moment,” says Llewellyn. “This is why I give everybody 10 minutes of my time.”

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She joined the bank’s commercial development training program, but received no job offers afterwards. When she heard of an interesting position, she asked the hiring manager why she wasn’t being considered. He told her, “I’m looking for a man, and I’m looking for someone older.” She replied, “Well, you’ve got me.” He gave her the job, but when a client subsequently requested an older, male account executive, the manager took the account away from Llewellyn. As happens with many women, the pattern continued: being asked in internal interviews whether she planned to have kids, being passed over for a promotion in favour of a man with less experience. The feedback she got was that she was too outspoken and aggressive, but she says being direct is simply part of her culture. “The challenge I’ve had throughout my career is that, because I don’t have an accent and don’t look like a visible minority, people assume I fit a certain mould. But I think and approach things differently.”

Her hopes rose when she was accepted into an international program for associates, which involved training in the Maritimes before heading to a foreign posting. That year, while volunteering at the bank’s annual meeting in Halifax, she was invited to a dinner for executives. She hesitated, worried it would be inappropriate to attend an event for senior management, but her male colleagues didn’t hesitate, so she went. The next day, her boss, a woman who had not been invited to the dinner, called her into her office to express her displeasure. “It led to me getting an average performance review, with comments about my communication style being too pointed,” Llewellyn reports. Worse still, she was notified that she was deemed unready for her international posting and had 90 days to find another position within the bank.

Why, after all these setbacks, did she stay? “That’s a good question,” she says. “I’ve taken risks within the organization, but as an immigrant…,” she trails off, hesitates. “My dad always said banks are secure. I was the primary breadwinner and you feel that pressure of needing a stable income.” But the incident convinced her it was time to leave the East Coast. With her husband, who also worked at Scotiabank, she moved to Toronto and networked furiously, and in late 1999, secured an interview for a job in corporate banking. The experience with her previous manager affected her so much that she told the female executive who interviewed her, “I really don’t want to work for a woman. If possible, I would like to work for a man.” That executive was Marian Lawson and she told the young upstart, in polite terms, to deal with it. “I said, ‘I really like your energy and I’ll hire you, but I don’t want it to turn out to be a mistake,’” recalls Lawson. She became Llewellyn’s mentor. “She changed my perspective on how you can be a powerful, confident woman and support other women,” says Llewellyn.

Part of the difficulty confronted by women was there were so few of them, according to Lawson. “On one of my early teams in the early 1990s, we had three women, and that was unheard of,” she recalls. That has changed over time. “Corporate banking has more diversity than others, like investment banking.”

With the move to corporate banking, Llewellyn found her place. “I had been an average performer before,” she says. “I moved into corporate banking and I was a rock star. I could be entrepreneurial, aggressive, outspoken. I didn’t have to be something I wasn’t.” She stayed seven years, advancing rapidly and closing one of the division’s biggest deals, Fortis’s acquisition of Aquila Networks.

Llewellyn’s next step up the ladder was a program for high-potential employees that teamed them on projects reporting to senior executives. She opted to work on a multicultural banking program under the bank’s vice-chairman, Sarabjit Marwah (now a senator). Their first interaction could have ended badly. He asked her pointed questions about the financial products for immigrants she was helping develop, and she challenged him right back. But he was impressed. “Instead of saying, ‘I’ll look into it,’ she immediately offered thoughtful arguments,” Marwah says. “You don’t often see that kind of pushback to senior executives by a relatively junior employee.” When the project resulted in the creation of a multicultural banking division, Llewellyn got the chance to lead it, but, given she would be reporting to a woman, she interviewed everybody who worked for her potential boss. “I actually told her, ‘If you’re looking for a yes person, please don’t hire me,’” Llewellyn recalls. “‘But if you’re looking for someone who will shake things up, challenge the status quo, I think we can have some fun.’”

It was a pivotal career point, offering her an opportunity to build a business from scratch with a diverse team she selected. Now that she was moving in higher executive echelons, she became more aware of how she came across to others, with the help of a coach. “It was like she put a mirror up to me: ‘When you hear something that pushes your button, here’s what you think and this is what people see.’” Llewellyn was grateful for the insights. “At some point, when you get many consistent data points, it’s no longer about them, it’s about you. I’ve taken that into my coaching and mentoring of others.”

O'shane Howard/The Globe and Mail

Llewellyn performed well and when she was ready to move on, opportunities abounded. She took time to make a decision, leading a male executive to say, “Rania, it’s like we took you shopping for dresses and you don’t like anything you see.” This was just 10 years ago. She opted for a role at Roynat Capital, a low-profile subsidiary that provides alternative business financing. Within 18 months, she was the division’s president and CEO, and finally had the power to put her convictions about diversity and inclusion into practice. All new recruits had to be evenly split between males and females. The managers knew that if they nominated a man, Llewellyn would be calling to understand how they reached the decision. Identifying and grooming diverse talent is her special strength—her “superpower,” she calls it. “My brand [at Scotiabank] was that I was an amazing talent magnet. If I let someone leave, I would get calls asking, ‘Is there something wrong with that person?’”

Llewellyn’s own career-long experience has made her keen to avoid gender- or ethnic-based assumptions. “Putting men and women into boxes actually annoys me,” she says. “It starts at such a young age.” When her daughter came home one day excited because her gym teacher said a girl who scored a goal would get two points while a boy would get only one, Llewellyn was irked. This, after all, is a woman who plays competitive squash and notes she was the first woman to play for the men’s team at Toronto’s posh Granite Club. Llewellyn is a big believer in hashing out such issues. “To battle unconscious bias, we need to have open conversations,” she says. “People have started shying away from that because they’re so worried about hurting someone’s feelings, but I can’t challenge your way of thinking if I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

Back in 2007, when Llewellyn left corporate banking, Lawson jokingly extracted a promise that Llewellyn would come back to work with her again. That opportunity came in 2015 when Lawson took over global transaction banking, a unit that helps businesses manage payments. An area within the division needed a revamp and Lawson wanted someone she could trust. “Rania dug in,” Lawson recalls, reassessing the numbers, spending time with junior employees and customers, and travelling to branches to better understand the business. To winnow down the unit’s numerous initiatives, Llewellyn staged an internal Dragons’ Den–style session where each team had to give a pitch for their project. “If you’re going to transform a business, you need to be clear and crisp around prioritization,” says Adam Swinemar, who led digital banking and customer experience in the division and recently joined Llewellyn at Laurentian as senior VP of digital banking. “Four years later, I can still tell you the three things that a project can deliver that are important for the customers and for the bank.”

When Lawson retired in 2018, Llewellyn took over part of her role. A subsequent boss, James Neate, gave her something beyond mentorship and coaching: sponsorship. “It was amazing how someone who has credibility and influence in the organization can change people’s perspective of you,” says Llewellyn. As a senior male executive, he knew how the institution worked and could give her exposure and opportunities. “He was very direct with me, and I started to learn what I needed to do around that table with the big boys and what I needed to hold back on.”

By this point, her aspirations were unbounded, but each time she considered leaving for a position elsewhere, an interesting opportunity at Scotiabank came along. But when she got a call from a headhunter for Laurentian in August, she wondered if that might be a challenge too far.

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Founded in 1846 as the Montreal City and District Savings Bank by a group of prominent residents, Laurentian has long been a largely regional institution offering banking services to individuals and businesses. But as branch banking declined and Laurentian’s share of the consumer market dwindled, the bank found its profits fluctuating. The return on equity, a key metric for investors, had been stuck around 12% between 2011 and 2015, compared to 16%-plus for the Big Six.

François Desjardins, who like Llewellyn started as a part-time bank teller and worked his way up for 29 years, took the helm in 2015 and promptly announced an operational overhaul. “Laurentian has been saying it will do many things in the past and not necessarily coming to the Street with the results they promised,” Desjardins told investors, assuring them he would end that frustrating record. He set about expanding commercial banking and the B2B Bank, which provides retail banking products to financial professionals—the businesses responsible for the bulk of Laurentian’s profits. But the big job was fixing retail banking by moving away from teller services to digital platforms and simplifying the portfolio of consumer offerings. He shuttered roughly half the branches and transformed the others to advice-only “financial clinics.” Other banks are making similar shifts, but Laurentian’s transition was uncommonly rapid. “He set a really aggressive plan, but it’s not like a switch that you turn on and off,” says Lemar Persaud, an analyst at Cormark Securities. “That hurt them.” Laurentian lost market share in deposits and loans, including mortgages.

Not only has there been little progress on the financial promises Desjardins made, but the bank has been plagued by union troubles and controversy around the securitization of non-qualifying mortgages. With the costs of retail overhaul and rising provisions for credit losses (money set aside to cover loans that may go bad) due to the pandemic, profit was down almost 80% in the second quarter, which ended April 30. That led Laurentian to slash its dividend by 40% in May. The move drew gasps; it’s been almost three decades since a bank reduced payouts to investors. Laurentian certainly isn’t the only bank whose profits were initially hammered by the COVID-19 crisis, but the fact that none other followed its move only cemented Laurentian’s reputation as the laggard of the pack.

Four weeks later, to few observers’ surprise, Desjardins was out—“retired” at age 49. “When the ouster is that fast, the red flags have to wave,” says Benj Gallander, who co-edits the Contra the Heard investment newsletter and is a Laurentian shareholder. Investors like Gallander, who had hoped to profit from Desjardins’ transformation, were disappointed; during Desjardins’ tenure, Laurentian’s stock lost more than 45% of its value.

After pulling its last three CEOs from its executive ranks or board, this time Laurentian’s board decided to take a hard look at outside candidates. During video conversations with Llewellyn, Dave Mowat, who sits on Laurentian’s board and was part of the CEO search committee, was struck by her ability to listen. “Especially in interviews when people are anxious to impress, they tend to have answers loaded and ready,” says the former CEO of ATB Financial. “With Rania, I could tell she was listening and then thinking and compiling the answer.” He also felt that she wasn’t coming in with pre-set notions of what had to be done. “Many of us [in senior executive ranks] do what we’ve done in the past. You know, ‘I’m the CEO and I will implement my experience.’ If you’re a learner by nature, it releases the organization’s potential.”

But perhaps Llewellyn’s biggest asset was her sheer likeability, says Mowat. “I think that’s undervalued in business. Whether you’re recruiting people or building a culture or trying to engage with regulators and suppliers, being likeable helps an awful lot.” The fact Llewellyn doesn’t speak French was a drawback, Mowat admits. “If she was a unilingual, Canadian-born male, that would be very different, but she’s a female immigrant who is multilingual and someone who understands diversity.”

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Llewellyn originally had mixed feelings. “The CEO title was definitely an attraction,” she admits. The fact that Laurentian was an underperformer was another big draw. On top of that, there would be a number of vacancies at the leadership table—in the previous months, both the acting CEO and the CFO announced their retirements, which meant Llewellyn could set the tone culturally. Looking for advice, she met with Lawson in the latter’s backyard. “You don’t know if that opportunity will afford itself at Scotiabank,” Lawson told her, “and to get that growth opportunity at your age is excellent.”

Even though she leapt up two executive strata and is largely unknown outside Scotiabank, the Street greeted the October announcement of Llewellyn’s appointment with enthusiasm. “It’s positive that they’re bringing in someone from outside,” says one analyst who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It signals the intention for real change. But she’s in a difficult position.”

Llewellyn knows that all too well. “It’s a rebuild story of renewal and growth” is how she sums up her task. She is not ready to discuss strategic plans but has committed to reassessing existing transformation projects, tightening cost discipline and retooling the executive team and business organization, including splitting the bank’s personal and commercial banking segments into separate units. While Laurentian reduced expenses and grew loans in the last quarter of fiscal 2020, which ended on Oct. 31, personal deposits were down almost 5% year over year. “The bleed in retail deposits shows that the personal banking franchise has yet to stabilize,” Paul Holden, an analyst with CIBC World Markets, wrote in a note. “Stemming the outflow of deposits should be one of the first priorities for new management.”

Fixing the problems is one thing; reigniting growth is quite another. During the December analyst call, Llewellyn made clear there were many options. Commercial lending has been Laurentian’s strength and will likely remain a focus. Llewellyn wants to leverage the bank’s relatively small size to its advantage. “When you’re smaller, you should be faster and more nimble,” she says. The bank is likely to pursue niche strategies in business banking, equipment financing and other areas that are underserved by big banks, says Cormark’s Lemar Persaud. “That’s really the opportunity, because they can’t go toe to toe with the big banks.”

Llewellyn may have more room to take dramatic action than an internally promoted chief executive would have. “I like the underdog story where people don’t have a lot of high expectations,” she says. To the doubters out there: Remember that sweatshirt.

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