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John A. MacNaughton came from a political family, but spent his life in business so he was able to have his hand in all his interests. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
John A. MacNaughton came from a political family, but spent his life in business so he was able to have his hand in all his interests. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

As an executive, John MacNaughton was straight shooting, but not straitlaced Add to ...

But in that instance, however, he was unsure what he would do next.

Mr. MacNaughton turned for advice to family friend and Ontario finance minister Leslie Rowntree, a Conservative cabinet colleague of his father’s, who peppered him with questions about what he was interested in, what types of books he enjoyed reading and what sections he liked to read in the newspapers. The answers were consistent: Everything.

So Mr. Rowntree recommended the investment business, saying it touched on every possible industry area.

In his long career at Fry & Co – which underwent five mergers during his tenure – Mr. MacNaughton saw the company through growth and crisis. When the entire mergers and acquisitions department quit at once to form a competing boutique firm, for example, Mr. MacNaughton took charge as the head of the department.

“It was a bit of a crisis for the firm at the time, but John stepped in as head of M&A and rebuilt the team,” says Don Johnson, who was president of Burns Fry in the 1980s.

By the late 1980s, the three senior partners at Burns Fry turned their minds to succession planning, and decided to name a president of the firm from the younger generation. To their surprise, a group of senior staffers took the rare step of petitioning for Mr. MacNaughton to get the job.

“They basically got together and they came to us and said they wanted John,” Mr. Eby says. “They actually advocated for him, even though any one of them could have been a legitimate candidate.”

Former Burns Fry colleague Paul Allison, now CEO of brokerage firm Raymond James Ltd., said Mr. MacNaughton was a mentor to a generation of younger finance executives.

“In this business, there are times when things are pretty challenging – it’s a cyclical type of business,” Mr. Allison said. “And business leaders oftentimes, to deliver short-term results, end up compromising. It never entered John’s mind that he would switch his strategy to capitalize on something in the short term. That’s what makes enduring long-term great leaders and great companies.”

While building his brokerage career, Mr. MacNaughton kept up parallel interest in politics, working behind the scenes for the Ontario Conservative party and serving as national secretary of the party in the 1970s.

Former Ontario premier Bill Davis says he always hoped Mr. MacNaughton would step out from behind the curtain and stand as a candidate. But he could not be convinced to run, perhaps because he knew firsthand the intrusion it makes on privacy and personal life.

“I think he would have made a great contribution if he had,” Mr. Davis says. “But he made the decision not to, and he made a contribution in another form.”

In 1970, while working on Mr. Davis’s party leadership campaign, Mr. MacNaughton was introduced to Gail McKinnon. She was not involved in politics but was at the headquarters because she was helping work on a project.

The pair started to date, staying together even after Mr. MacNaughton was posted to New York in 1971. In 1972, while still working in New York, he received a shocking diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and began cancer treatment at age 27. They married a month after his last treatment in 1973.

Gail MacNaughton says cancer changed her husband’s outlook, making him appreciate what he had in life.

“For John and me, we lived with it,” she said. “We never liked the terminology of battling cancer. John lived with it, and with such grace. It is an extra dimension of one’s life.”

The couple had two children, Matthew and Adeline, and three grandchildren, Malakhai, 11, Nathaniel, 6, and Olivia, 3.

Ms. MacNaughton says their cottage in Muskoka was a major part of their lives away from work, where they read, visited with friends and John golfed.

“It was a traditional cottage with time with friends and board games and reading and quiet time,” she says. “It was a haven for us.”

In 1999, Mr. MacNaughton left BMO Nesbitt Burns and became the first CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, a new body set up in 1998 to manage the investments of the Canada Pension Plan.

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