While working in the Toronto office of global consulting giant McKinsey & Co. in the 1990s, Dominic Barton found himself in a room with a number of executives from a client that had just reached a conclusion he didn't agree with.
Mr. Barton, named yesterday as the new head of McKinsey, pulled no punches in saying: "Well, to be perfectly honest with you, if that's the direction that you're taking, then I'm afraid that the last three months have been a terrific waste of your time," recalled Peter Simon, head of Spencer Stuart's Canadian financial services practice and a former partner at McKinsey.
"That was really one of those 'oh boy' moments with the client, and it really shaped some decisions," Mr. Simon said. "This guy has a backbone … He is personally courageous, he has stood up and said unpopular things when they needed to be said."
Yesterday, McKinsey announced that the firm's 400 directors, or senior partners, had elected Mr. Barton as the next managing director. At age 46, he becomes the 11th partner to lead McKinsey since it was founded in 1926. The consultancy has about 90 offices in 50 countries. Mr. Barton is currently heading McKinsey's Asian business out of Shanghai, and will begin a three-year term on July 1.
While he is a lifelong globetrotter, it is telling that Mr. Barton made a quick stop in Toronto last week to renew his Canadian passport.
"He's unbelievably bright, incredibly personable and a real Canadian," said Mark Wiseman, head of private equity at Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), who has known Mr. Barton for about seven years. "He's not one of those expats who's left and forgotten about Canada."
Mr. Barton was born in Kampala, Uganda, when his parents were teaching and nursing there, and once dreamed of following in their footsteps. His family went on to settle near Chilliwack, B.C.
"I'm particularly interested in economic development and I'd eventually like to work in the area of Third World development," he told a publication at the University of British Columbia in 1983 for an article about his winning a Rhodes Scholarship.
After obtaining an M. Phil. in economics from Oxford University, Mr. Barton went on to become a currency analyst for N.M. Rothschild's in London. He joined McKinsey in 1986 - a rarity at the time, because he didn't have an MBA - and worked in the Toronto office for 11 years before becoming managing partner of the office in Seoul.
In both Canada and Asia, Mr. Barton developed expertise working with financial services firms, and he has worked on financial sector restructuring in Asia and South America. That experience will be valuable for McKinsey during the current economic crisis, but former colleagues say that beyond his financial knowledge, the father of two has been widely admired as a humble intellectual with infectious enthusiasm.
He is a voracious reader, a consummate professional, and "a fundamentally generous and decent person at his core," Mr. Simon said.
"He's extraordinarily down to earth," said Kerry Stirton, now a New York-area investment manager who recalls Mr. Barton's early days in Toronto. "There was this big, tall guy who was very bright and extremely inclusive and had the ability to get teams to work very hard, in very creative ways, and not feel like they were working, because they just wanted to be with this guy.
"There's a principle within McKinsey of the flatness of the organization, or the absence of hierarchy, and I think that Dominic really exemplified that," Mr. Stirton said. "People would wander around the office saying, 'I just got on a Dominic Barton team project.' That was a real coup."
Parker Mitchell, the co-CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada, worked with Mr. Barton for three months in Seoul about a decade ago and credits the experience for helping to foster the idea for Engineers Without Borders.
Like many associates, Mr. Mitchell described Mr. Barton as a very warm individual with an intellectual curiosity that's almost unparalleled.
Mr. Barton would go out of his way to learn local customs and fit in, Mr. Mitchell said. In Seoul, he would have lunch in cheap local restaurants, squeezing his lanky frame into tiny chairs in front of hot cooking appliances, rather than eating in the restaurants that many foreign business people would frequent.
"He's got tremendous insight, particularly into Asia," said Mr. Wiseman, who worked with McKinsey and Mr. Barton as CPPIB honed its strategy in the region. "The one thing he really helped me to understand is, Asia is all about a market. China is about 1.3 billion people who want microwaves and iPods and laptop computers. If you think about Asia or China as being about low-cost manufacturing, you're about 15 or 20 years too late."