Skip to main content

Report On Business Dominic Barton's global challenge / Why McKinsey's new chief believes this could be Canada's moment

It was Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin who first detected the restless curiosity that would carry Dominic Barton to the top of the global management consulting industry.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Barton, the future leader of McKinsey & Co., was a boy living in Africa with his Canadian parents - an Anglican missionary and a nurse. Young Dominic loved Land Rovers and one day hid in the back of one. It drove off with him aboard.

He was soon discovered by one of the passengers - the future dictator Mr. Amin, then a charismatic army officer with, Mr. Barton recalls, very large teeth.

Story continues below advertisement

"He picked me up by the belt and told my dad, 'You should really keep track of your son,' " Mr. Barton says.

It's been a challenge ever since to keep track of the peripatetic Mr. Barton, who on July 1 became managing director of legendary, powerful McKinsey, having been elected by the firm's 400 senior partners to lead the world's largest strategy shop.

The career arc of Mr. Barton, a Canadian citizen who has spent 22 years with McKinsey, reflects the dramatic globalization of the firm, which was founded 83 years ago in Chicago but now has 9,000 employees in 52 countries.

After birth and boyhood in Uganda, Mr. Barton moved to Canada with his parents, attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and for the past decade was a key leader in McKinsey's Asian practice, based in South Korea and China.

Now 46, he has residences in Shanghai, London and Singapore, and comes home every summer with his wife and two children to their cottage in Ontario's Muskoka area.

He takes on his new role as the world economy is buffeted by financial crisis. But in Mr. Barton's view, it creates opportunities in a more multilateral world where the United States does not call all the shots, and where increasing clout shifts to China and India and to emerging players like Brazil, Indonesia and even Africa.

He subscribes to the view of Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott, author of The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation-that the United States can no longer act in isolation, and must listen to other voices on issues like climate change and finance.

Story continues below advertisement

And what of Canada? It may sound old-fashioned, he concedes, but this could be Canada's moment.

With this emerging global governance, Canada has the advantage of a diverse population and geographic positioning between Asia, Europe and the U.S.

When he tells strangers he is Canadian, "they think I don't have my teeth from playing hockey, but there also is a sense of our being 'good people.' " Still, that's not enough, he says, when Canadians do not always punch to their weight in the international arena.

Our financial system is revered now, he says, but we are strangely reticent on other hot-button issues where we should be leading. One of these is the future of water. Canada has close to 6 per cent of the world's renewable water, but he fears it does not play a heavyweight role in international discussion of water's geopolitical future.

So much is at stake, he says, as demand is likely to double the global supply of water by 2030-"and that's why wars happen." He sees, for example, unrest over Chinese control of Tibet as partly a water issue, with Tibet at the roof of Asia and the source of several major river systems.

Mr. Barton is clearly fascinated by the tension between the rising wealth in modern Asia and the pressure that puts on the world's resources. He foresees a billion new Asian consumers entering the middle-class market over the next seven to 10 years.

Story continues below advertisement

This represents a long-term historical rebalancing, he says. China and India together constituted 50 to 60 per cent of global gross domestic product for 1,500 years, but lost their primacy in the Industrial Revolution. Now, "in my opinion, it is coming back," he says, adding that "the crisis has accelerated some of that."

Still, "I would never discount the dynamism of the U.S. economy. I don't think we are going to throw out securitization, and it is still a more consumption-driven society."

Because of the still crucial role of U.S. consumers, he does not see recession ending until at least next year, and he wonders about the longer-term impact of the economic crisis on buying psychology. "How many times will you need to change your mobile phone a year? How often do you have to change your car?"

Meanwhile, he foresees the emergence of old trading patterns in new configurations - a new Silk Road, for example, that extends from the Middle East through China to Malaysia and Indonesia, an underappreciated giant of a Muslim nation. To gauge economic activity, he has traced the staggering rise of air route density - air traffic - between Brazil and China, for example.

Then there is Africa, which he left many years ago but has never really forgotten. He still remembers the vivid colours of that un-dark continent, and now he feels Africa will finally blossom.

"Africa was always the lost continent, but I am very bullish," he says. That's partly because commodities will boom again and Africa has the resources, including farmland that will gain value as the global food shortage reasserts itself.

Story continues below advertisement

In addition, there are an estimated 100 million African consumers about to join the middle class, creating opportunities for homegrown and foreign companies in areas like telemedicine, food services and agriculture. Leading African economies will include South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, as well as a northern belt from Morocco to Egypt.

Because of such shifts, Mr. Barton believes there are opportunities for McKinsey to challenge orthodoxies, both internally and externally, and thus continue to expand its presence in the world. "The crisis allows it," he says, adding that "I believe very much in creative destruction."



Age 46

Born Uganda, son of a nurse and Anglican missionary.

Education Oxford University; he studied as a Rhodes Scholar with an M.Phil in economics

Divides time between Shanghai, London, Singapore and Ontario's Muskoka region

Writings China Vignettes: An Inside Look at China, published by Talisman in 2007; Dangerous Markets: Managing in Financial Crises, co-authored with Roberto Newell and Greg Wilson and published by Wiley & Sons in 2002; more than 80 articles on Asia and the issues and opportunities facing global and Asian markets.

Awards Magnolia Silver Prize, given by Shanghai government for outstanding contribution to the city's development

Memberships Brookings Institution foreign policy leadership committee; International advisory committee to the President of South Korea on national future and vision; Asian Development Bank advisory group on human resources management

Source: McKinsey & Company

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to
Cannabis pro newsletter