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Roberta Wilton, President and Chief Executive Officer CSI, Canada's leading provider of financial services education, photographed at her office on Wellington St., for At the Top. Toronto January 13, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Roberta Wilton, President and Chief Executive Officer CSI, Canada's leading provider of financial services education, photographed at her office on Wellington St., for At the Top. Toronto January 13, 2011. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

At the Top

The unlikely path of a would-be academic Add to ...

Anyone who joins the ranks of the securities business in Canada encounters Roberta Wilton - or, at least, her organization. Ms. Wilton heads CSI Global Education Inc., which runs the Canadian Securities Course, the basic training for investment professionals taken by 15,000 would-be stockbrokers and other financial types (even journalists) a year. Ms. Wilton's influence goes far beyond this course - to an array of training and certificates on money management, insurance, compliance and financial education of all kinds. With a little help from John Donne, she has fashioned a rare kind of Canadian success - a knowledge company that sells our financial expertise to the world, including a growing Chinese clientele.

When I took the Canadian Securities Course, I had a new job, a new child and was working in a new city. Is that typical?

It is very unusual for our students to just be sitting around and reading the securities course. They are almost always employed, they're adult learners, generally in their early 30s, and busy. The first thing I did when I joined the Toronto Stock Exchange [in 1982]was to take a Canadian Securities Course because I knew diddly about the financial services industry.

How has the program changed since then?

Today, we focus much more on instructional design and presenting the content in a way that helps people to learn it, as opposed to just going away and reading a textbook. So now the default [approach]is to go online, go through a lot of the exercises and answer questions and do little applications. But they still read textbooks. You still go on the GO Train in Toronto and see somebody reading the securities course.

Didn't your career start with an English PhD?

Seventeenth-century English literature. John Donne. It's not the obvious career path, but I ended up in the financial services industry by serendipity. When I got my PhD in 1981, there were no more jobs that anyone would want to take in academia. So I found myself on the street looking for a good job.

I relied on my ability to write and convinced one forward-thinking president of an advertising agency that I really should be employed there. I went into a recruitment advertising agency. Business was a little slow at one point and I ended up doing recruitment of new clients, including the Toronto Stock Exchange. Next thing I knew, they'd offered me a job. I found it was a great industry - exciting, broad-reaching, thoughtful, ever-changing.

Is John Donne relevant to what you do now?

Not directly. A PhD program does very little to prepare you for any kind of career, but it does show you've got a reasonable brain. It shows you've got pretty good ability to organize, focus and meet a big objective, and it looks damn good on your résumé. In my industry, and certainly I've seen this internationally, having a PhD of any kind is important. In my early travels for the exchange, I didn't put PhD after my name on my business card. After the first international trip, I went back and had all my business cards changed immediately because it was quite clear I needed that. It was a little bit - although not entirely - because, as a woman, you need all the help you can get.

How much work does CSI do in China?

A goodly amount and it's growing very quickly. In the last couple of years, it's doubled every year. It's still not huge in proportion but it will be before too long. We started a long time ago to build a relationship that, in the last five years, has begun to pay off. Relationships are pivotal. You build it with somebody and then you shake your head and say 'Well, that person is gone now.' But the thing is, they've just gone somewhere important. They remember who you are and so you're introduced to the next echelon. Today, we are the primary partner with the Securities Association in China - a self-regulated body - in terms of educating the securities industry.

China has a reputation for being a Wild East. Do you see a will to change?

Absolutely. A few years ago, the definition of an average [stock]hold would have been 24 hours. That still goes on - they're transaction-oriented, no question about it. But we're seeing that the leading firms - such as Guangfa Securities, which we partner with - are very aware, first, of the risk associated with that attitude. And second, there is a limited return to come ultimately from a transaction-oriented business. So they're pushing their top-ranked stockbrokers into a more advisory role.

How much growth do you predict there?

Very strong upward growth. They're dealing with a lot of challenges in this day-trading environment which still lacks a strong compliance culture. The firms are driving this awareness but the regulators know it too. They understand they need a much more holistic approach to investor relations between customer and the broker.

But it's not easy. One of the challenges in China is that people don't necessarily trust their brokers. They don't know them really well yet. As long as they're not in a trusting relationship, they're not going to share.

I've been to a number of Guangfa branches and they showed us their new wealth management centre in their head office in Guangzhou. They had a number of small, quiet rooms where the broker can come with their wealthy clients and they have a huge amount of wealth in China. We tend to think they're not there yet - but they are there. The money is there.

Are Canadians doing enough in China?

No. Our Canadian banks are trying very hard and some of them have made very good headway, but overall we don't encounter enough Canadian companies there. We go with entrenched conceptions of how to do business that work very well in North America or Western Europe. But in China, you have to run really fast. You have to expect that what worked once is not going to work the second time, and you've got to get better every single time. And you have to change. They're growing with you but they're growing faster than you.

Recently, Moody's bought your company from Onex Corp. What does that mean?

It's all good things. Within the Moody's world, CSI is the only subsidiary that's going to be continuing on as a separate organization. We're part of Moody's Analytics, but we are a separately incorporated entity and I am continuing as CEO. That is a reflection on their appreciation of what we're doing and where we're going. And there are so many things they're bringing to us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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