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Lou who? The private man atop Canada’s public markets

Lou Eccleston, the CEO of TMX Group photographed at the Toronto stock exchange in 2015, is not the kind of boss that would ask about your weekend.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Few people on Bay Street know much about Lou Eccleston. And he seems to like it that way.

As the head of TMX Group Ltd., the operator of the country's busiest stock exchanges, he sits in the middle of Canada's clubby capital markets. But Mr. Eccleston – a 59-year-old American who took the TMX reins more than two years ago and splits his time between Toronto and Princeton Junction, N.J. – isn't really a member of the club.

In a setting where many key characters are known for being seen, Mr. Eccleston is not. So much so that some working on the sell-side in Toronto have dubbed him "Waldo," as in "Where's Waldo?"

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In many ways, his private nature is by design. "A leader's job is to enable success," Mr. Eccleston says. "It's not about you when you become a leader. It's about the people you work with."

The youngest of three siblings and a father of four, he is most at ease talking about his business rather than the path he took to get to the top; never mind what he likes to do in his spare time, which – after some prodding – he says includes cooking and being with his family. Put simply, he's not the kind of boss who will ask about your weekend.

Ask the people who work closest to him – such as John McKenzie, the chief financial officer at TMX – about the difference between Lou the man and Lou the chief executive and you'll receive a clear answer: They are one and the same.

Whether Mr. Eccleston likes it or not, his is the face of TMX, which sits at the epicentre of Canadian business. He's managing a suite of assets that was deemed to be so vital to the country that a group of 13 Canadian financial institutions formed Maple Group and took control of TMX five years ago in a $3.8-billion takeover, thwarting a proposed merger with London Stock Exchange Group PLC.

TMX isn't the hot-button issue it was then. Few noticed in 2016 when TMX reduced the number of people, projects and assets in its war chest in an effort to become more lean, focused and efficient, and generate better returns for investors. It has paid off, with TMX shares surging from sub-$35 in December, 2015, to almost $80 in May before retreating to $70.06 on Friday.

"We unlocked the value in the portfolio," Mr. Eccleston says. "What we did was the whole reason I came here."

And yet, from the outside looking in, it's hard to see exactly how TMX has evolved or how the exchange operator will look in five years. Mr. Eccleston says TMX has a story to tell, but he is the first to admit that, so far, it hasn't done a good job telling it. Now, both the company and its leader are starting to come out of their shells.

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The ink on his permit to work in Canada was not yet dry when Mr. Eccleston embarked on a revamp of TMX after becoming CEO in November, 2014.

He hired Boston Consulting Group and spearheaded a six-month review of the business. He found that the operator of stock, derivative and energy exchanges, the clearinghouses for each of them and market data services, was being run like a group of companies instead of just one. Sales were stalling, costs were out of whack and staff were losing track of the bigger picture.

Changing that became the top priority – a seemingly tall order for a man who had never run an exchange before. But Mr. Eccleston – described as a "vision guy" who had built his career reorganizing cluttered financial companies at McGraw-Hill Financial Inc., Thomson Financial Inc. and Bloomberg LP – was in his wheelhouse.

"I didn't come in thinking of it as an exchange," Mr. Eccleston says. "The real challenge here was not running the exchange. It was about where does TMX go. What is life after Maple?"

For employees and leaders within the company, the new focus combined with the CEO's no-nonsense approach came as a culture shock.

Before Lou got here, "we would miss quarterly results, quarter after quarter, and there were no consequences and people weren't internalizing that they had to do better," says Mr. McKenzie, who has been at the company since 2000. "Lou holds people to account."

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And, in another break from the past, according to Mr. McKenzie, Mr. Eccleston makes choices – and he follows through.

Mr. Eccleston reshuffled the company into five product groups. He assembled a new leadership team, hiring 14 senior-level employees from outside the firm and promoting 20 from within. He sold off assets that didn't fit in the portfolio, such as the investor-relations business or microwave-tower network. He slashed layers of management from eight to five in a bid to make the company more nimble. He shelved projects that were too costly or not aligned with the strategy. And through either asset sales or layoffs, TMX parted ways with nearly 280 people since the start of 2015, or 20 per cent of its work force.

At the same time, Mr. Eccleston has attempted to foster an atmosphere that encourages change.

"I think, before, people feared failure," says Luc Fortin, who heads up the Montreal Exchange. "If you failed, you ran the risk of potentially losing your job." Now, he says, there's a sense that not every project will be a home run on the first pitch; before you get it right, you might fail a few times. "That's the culture we're trying to breed, and a lot of that comes from Lou."

The next chapter in Mr. Eccleston's TMX story might be more difficult to write.

It's a complicated company. First, there's a regional divide – primarily split between Toronto and Montreal and their respective histories as financial capitals for equities and derivatives, respectively. There are rules in place to ensure Montreal will stay that way.

Even early on, Mr. Eccleston showed he knew the importance of toeing the line. At a town hall in Montreal, employees presented him with a Montreal Canadiens jersey, sporting his name on the back. "I didn't wear it," he says. "I had to stay neutral."

Then there's the tricky relationship with clients. When TMX – or any other venue for that matter – thrives, it's widely seen to be at the expense of their clients.

The finance industry is undergoing major change. Falling are the number of brokerages in Canada, subscriptions for market data and even corporate issuers. With fewer customers to sell to at home, TMX has two choices: charge its current clients more or find new customers by going abroad.

After years of focusing on what's happening inside TMX, it's time to shift attention to the outside world. How Mr. Eccleston handles this transition could come to define his tenure.

The plan: Come up with products people want and then try to sell them and keep expanding the business into global markets.

In June, 2015, Mr. Eccleston cooked up a new strategy to switch from basically selling access to infrastructure to being "a technology-driven solutions provider." One tenet of the plan was to do more to monetize the troves of market data being created every day by offering new products and services that could be sold to clients looking to make better decisions.

If his plan works, current investors would likely be rewarded – and maybe more will jump in.

The company expects that interest in its stock will keep growing, as certain holding requirements from the Maple deal expire during this year and next – and should the Maple investors sell shares into the market.

"When I talk to institutional investors, the reason they don't pay much attention to it is it's very hard to trade," says Paul Holden, an analyst at CIBC World Markets. "The interesting thing is, people cared after [the stock] doubled," but by then, it was too late.

Mr. McKenzie agrees. "People were interested in the stock, but they couldn't buy a block that was meaningful to them," he says. "It's a liquidity challenge."

But that's opening up. When three pension funds each sold 1.8 million shares last year, he said interest in the stock spiked. Ditto when TMX hiked its dividend late last year for the first time since 2010. There's a sales effort under way on this front, as well.

"We're trying to improve the level of disclosure with the analysts," Mr. McKenzie says. "We want to get more information out there so people understand what we're doing."

More than ever, it's time for Mr. Eccleston to be seen.

Louis Vachon, the CEO of National Bank of Canada, a member of Maple Group, says he is pleased with Mr. Eccleston's visibility in Montreal. "We arrange a number of events for customers and every time we invite him, Lou has been present."

Present – like Waldo in the books – but not always easy to find.

"My job isn't to be here. I'm not an operator. I'm not an operations person," Mr. Eccleston says. "If you're going to run a global business, you don't sit in the office in one city, especially if your main job is in communications."

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