Canada Infrastructure Bank chair Michael Sabia says the bank has identified candidates in its hunt for a new CEO as it prepares to play a key role when governments shift to stimulating the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trudeau government has said that moving up planned infrastructure spending will be a key part of its effort to boost the Canadian economy once restrictions have eased. Several provincial governments have already allowed construction projects to resume.
With provincial and municipal governments facing major budget pressures because of the pandemic, that could mean a greater role for the infrastructure bank and its effort to attract large outside investors.
The fledgling Crown corporation with a $35-billion budget has hired a search firm to help in the hunt for a chief executive.
“We’re trying to go as quickly as we can," Mr. Sabia said in an interview. "Because in the circumstance that the country finds itself in, I think the bank can and should play a constructive role in bringing forward projects that are both intrinsically good, but also can contribute to relaunching and stimulating the economy.”
Mr. Sabia said it was too soon to say when a final decision on a CEO will be made.
“I would say there are candidates and no one’s more than a candidate at this point," he said.
The government appointed Mr. Sabia chair of the bank’s board in early April. The former head of Quebec’s pension fund has a track record of linking investment dollars with large infrastructure projects such as Montreal’s $6-billion light-rail transit plan, currently under construction. Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna recently told The Globe and Mail that the infrastructure bank will be a big part of the government’s stimulus efforts and that she is also relying on Mr. Sabia for broader advice on the infrastructure file.
The CEO position is among the highest – if not the highest – paying jobs in the federal public service. Maximum compensation, including salary and bonuses, starts at $1.5-million a year and climbs to $2.8-million by the fifth year. (Unlike some provincial governments, the federal government does not publish a “sunshine list” of total compensation paid to top public servants.)
The Liberal government created the bank through legislation in 2017, based in part on the advice of a federally appointed economic advisory panel that issued several public reports to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Mr. Sabia was a member of that panel during his time as president and CEO of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. Mr. Sabia left the pension fund in January. He is now director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, in addition to his role with the bank.
The mandate of the bank is to operate “at arm’s-length from government” in a way that encourages large institutional investors such as pension funds to invest in Canadian infrastructure projects that are in the public interest. The premise is that the bank’s involvement could make the difference in whether large investors decide to support a project.
To date, the bank has announced its involvement in nine projects, but only five involved funding pledges. Less than $4-billion of the bank’s budget has been allocated to projects and the organization faced criticism for not acting quickly enough.
The Globe reported in February that the government was considering replacing the bank’s then-chair, Janice Fukakusa, and that Mr. Sabia was a leading candidate. The Globe also reported then that the shakeup could include replacing then-CEO Pierre Lavallée with current Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. CEO Evan Siddall.
On April 3, Ms. McKenna and Mr. Morneau announced that Ms. Fukakusa and Mr. Lavallée would be leaving their positions at the bank and that Mr. Sabia would take over as chair and lead a search to find a new CEO.
A senior government official, whom The Globe has agreed not to identify because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Mr. Siddall is viewed as a serious candidate for the CEO position.
Mr. Siddall has been described as a friend of Mr. Morneau’s and is well-regarded in Ottawa for his handling of the housing file at CMHC. He has also been called upon to assist the government on non-housing files. When the Finance Minister led the government’s multibillion-dollar purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project in 2018, Mr. Morneau recruited Mr. Siddall to join an informal team of advisers to assist him through the process.
Mr. Siddall joined the public service in 2011 as a special adviser to then-Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney. His name had been mentioned as a potential candidate for the bank’s next governor, which ultimately went to Tiff Macklem this month.
Prior to working in government, Mr. Siddall worked in private-sector finance with positions as a Goldman Sachs investment banker and as chief financial officer at Irving Oil.
Mr. Sabia declined to identify any of the potential candidates, citing the need to respect their privacy.
The bank did not release a public job notice for the CEO position.
Mr. Sabia did, however, outline what the bank is looking for.
He said there are three main categories that candidates will be assessed against. The first is leadership and organizational development, such as the ability to identify and recruit talented employees. The second is financial acumen, including experience with managing and structuring large business transactions, and the third is experience working with various levels of government.
“Infrastructure clearly ties in to the work of governments at various levels. So the capacity to work in that milieu, to work co-operatively to get things done, that would be a third broad category of capability that we would be looking for,” he said.
With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa
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