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Colleen Johnston

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Even after 33 years, Colleen Johnston, one of Bay Street's most senior ranking women, still cherishes the first time she made a serious impression on a male chief executive officer.

In the early nineties, while working for Bank of Nova Scotia's finance department, she was invited to speak at a board meeting for one of the lender's subsidiary companies. Despite being the only woman in the massive boardroom that she likened, lightheartedly, to the United Nations general assembly, Ms. Johnston spoke with authority.

Her poise offered a snapshot of her potential, and she was later told that Cedric Ritchie, then Scotiabank's chairman and CEO, leaned toward his neighbour when she finished and said: "Hey, what's her name?"

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It would become a recurring theme throughout Ms. Johnston's career. An analytical accountant by training, she has a knack for attracting the attention of Canada's most powerful business leaders. Her skill set is rare: She is compassionate, but also capable of tussling with the Bay Street boys. One banker likened her manner to wielding a steel knife in a velvet glove.

In 1998, Ed Clark took notice. By then Ms. Johnston was the chief financial officer of Scotiabank's capital markets arm, and Mr. Clark, the CEO of Canada Trust, tried to recruit her. She politely rebuffed him, but he wouldn't give up. Mr. Clark called again a few years later, and this time it was in his capacity as CEO of Toronto-Dominion Bank, which had merged with his former lender.

Mr. Clark gave Ms. Johnston a hard sell, offering her the chance to rise quickly to the role of CFO. It was a gut-wrenching decision – for bank executives, switching companies is like crossing the political aisle. But in retrospect, it was a smart move.

Since joining in 2004, Ms. Johnston has been part of the executive team that helped solidify the position of TD, which emphasizes customer service, as Canada's second-largest lender. She also helped the bank expand its territory into the U.S. Northeast, striking $18-billion worth of acquisitions in four years. When she started, TD made $2-billion a year; today it makes that much each quarter.

That Ms. Johnston, the eldest of six siblings, has accomplished so much still shocks her. But over a plate of cod and some greens mixed with oil and vinegar at Ki, one of her go-to restaurants in Toronto, she admits she long dreamed of being in business.

"From the time that I was a young kid, I always envisioned that I'd be a business woman," she says. "I'm not sure I knew what that was. I had this vision of going to my downtown office every day, wearing a very smart wardrobe ordered from a catalogue."

"My parents were on a very tight budget with a big family," she explains, "so to me, the idea of ordering out of a catalogue was a luxury."

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Her first job out of university was at Price Waterhouse, where she earned her chartered accountant designation, just like her dad. One of her first audits was for a Canadian lender, and she hated it.

"I thought it was a dreadful experience; I really did," she says, chuckling. "I went to my manager at PW and I said: 'I'd really appreciate if you wouldn't put me on any more bank audits.'"

That request fell on deaf ears – and that was a good thing. The next year she was assigned to Scotiabank, and this time she didn't find it so bad. A few years later, she even applied for a job there after seeing that the lender was recruiting MBAs and CAs for its finance department.

After 15 years with Scotiabank, the prospect of switching allegiances to TD was incredibly stressful. "It was a very, very tough decision," she says. Not only did she feel tremendous loyalty to the institution, switching banks would mean cutting ties with all the people who had sponsored her internally.

They don't begrudge her, though. "Colleen was a top-notch financial professional and a wonderful person as well – and we were sorry to see her leave the bank," says Sabi Marwah, who served as Scotiabank's CFO during her time there, and who is one of the most respected names in Canadian banking. "It has been great to watch as she continued to grow."

Because she appears so confident in her role, it's easy to believe Ms. Johnston was born to do it. But the seasoned CFO says she is a far cry from her younger self.

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Growing up, Ms. Johnston detested public speaking. One memory sticks out: She had to make a presentation on mining industry accounting standards during her fourth year of university, and it was a nerve-racking experience. "I can still literally feel that moment," she recalls. It wasn't until she took a presentation course early in her career that she started to feel more assured. Forced to watch herself on tape, she realized she wasn't so bad.

Today, her mission is to make sure women within TD see their own potential. Ms. Johnston, who rides the subway to work, has run the bank's Women in Leadership initiative for nearly a decade. Early on, the group focused on removing internal obstacles, such as boys' club politics, that prevented women from landing senior roles inside the bank. With much of that heavy lifting behind them, they're now focused on what she calls the missing ingredient: "Women believing in themselves."

What they've done so far is impressive. A decade ago, women comprised 22 per cent of all TD executives, meaning employees who are vice-presidents or higher. The equivalent figure today is 36 per cent.

At home, though, to her two daughters in their 20s, she's still just mom. "I've decided one of the reasons children were created was to keep all of us humble," Ms. Johnston says, laughing. "Your kids will always tell you the truth."

Take the time she asked for advice on a speech directed to Toronto high school students. "I find it hard to hit the right notes with teenagers; the things that I find absolutely fascinating are not things that they think about," Ms. Johnston explains. So she road-tested the speech on her two daughters, and was quickly told that teenagers won't care that TD is now the largest credit card provider in Canada. They would much rather learn about what the bank values.

The girls have also criticized their mom's wardrobe over the years. A few years back, they told Ms. Johnston that she wore pants that were too high at the waist. Taking their advice, she went out and bought some lower cut options. It wasn't until she realized her pants were falling down one day while golfing that she gave up. "I'm just going to have to take the slings and arrows from the kids," she decided.

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Through the years Ms. Johnston has worked tirelessly, even settling on a haircut that she says she can blow-dry in one minute while watching Bloomberg TV in the morning. Two summers ago, she broke her wrist bike riding near her family's second home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and when she was told that surgery would be needed to repair it, she endured weeks of pain so that she could schedule the operation right after TD reported its quarterly earnings.

Despite the personal sacrifices, Ms. Johnston prefers to talk about her team and the people who have supported her. It's why that meeting in the Scotiabank boardroom still stands out. She wasn't anyone special at the time; however, her boss insisted that Ms. Johnston not only attend the gathering, but also speak.

"I always think back to that moment," she says, sipping some decaf coffee for dessert. It taught her that managers should always showcase their people and stand up for them.

Once I settle the bill, Ms. Johnston asks if it's okay if she says a few words about one more supporter of hers – someone I haven't thought to ask about.

Her husband, Brian, she says, has been her rock. They met at Price Waterhouse when she was a summer student, and they have been married 30 years. "It's that kind of partnership that's been my backbone," she explains. When she was debating whether to jump to TD, for instance, "it was Brian who said: 'Go for the brass ring.'"

The relationship is mutually beneficial, too – so goes a running joke in their family. Years ago, when they were working as junior accountants together, Mr. Johnston explained what he was looking for in a partner. "I'll tell you something: I don't want a woman who can cook," he told his future wife. "I want a woman who can make money."

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He no doubt meant he would support his spouse's ambitions. However, Mr. Johnston ultimately got exactly what he wished for. In February, TD reported that its CFO earned nearly $10-million over the past three years. Call it close to a perfect marriage.

***

BIO

Age: 56

Born: Vancouver; moved to Toronto at 18 months.

Education: Bachelor of business administration, York University, 1982; chartered accountant designation.

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Family: Husband – Brian Johnston, COO at Mattamy Homes; 2015 marks their 30th anniversary. Two daughters – Emily, 25, and Katherine, 22, both of whom have moved home since graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University.

Pets: Charlotte, a pug, owned by one of her daughters; Louie, a cat.

On breaking into Bay Street as a woman in the eighties

"I thought the world was my oyster coming out of university; I didn't think: 'Oh gosh, I'm a woman, this is going to be tough.' I thought: 'I'm going to get noticed more.'"

What she watches

"I do consider myself a little bit of a Kardashian insider," she jokes, because she watches bits of their reality show to stay connected with her daughters – a trick she learned from former TD CEO Ed Clark, who used to watch Beverly Hills 90210 when his kids were growing up. The Johnston parents are also big fans of The Good Wife and House of Cards. She could never get into Suits, because she found it too snarky.

On getting rest

"I've always enjoyed sleeping," she says, laughing. "You hear about people who need five hours of sleep a night. … I like sleeping."

Near and dear to her heart:

Her eldest brother, Kevin, had a stroke in 2004 that paralyzed his right arm and partly immobilized his left leg. She joined the advisory board of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and now organizes a team of TD women to participate in Toronto's annual Ride for Heart event.

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