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Janice Fukakusa of RBC (left), Colleen Johnston of TD (centre), Sonia Baxendale of CIBC

"I'd say there's a very good chance that some time in the next round of successions there will be a female [bank]CEO," was the declaration made recently on BNN. And the man making it- Royal Bank CEO Gord Nixon-is in a position to know. But contenders at the Big Six banks still have time to pretty up their resumés. The current cohort of CEOs is expected to turn over only gradually, perhaps beginning with Toronto-Dominion Bank's Ed Clark, 62, who recently signalled that he is likely stepping down in 2013.

The CEO short lists at each bank will likely be rewritten between now and decision day: After all, the competition at the top is an unpredictable maelstrom of internal politics, personal burnout, shining moments and not-so-shining moments. Not long ago, a list of candidates for Canada's first female bank CEO would have included Jill Denham, who headed retail banking at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce-but she left the bank suddenly in 2005, during a set of management changes shortly before Gerry McCaughey got the top job. When Barbara Stymiest left her post as CEO of TSX Group to join RBC, she appeared headed for the top. She has since been eclipsed by Janice Fukakusa. (Meanwhile, of course, the list of male contenders continues to evolve as well.)

THE CONTENDER: Janice Fukakusa, 55, chief financial officer, RBC Fukakusa became a chartered accountant while working at PricewaterhouseCoopers. She jumped to RBC in 1985, getting her feet wet as an internal analyst. Determined to spend her whole career in Toronto, Fukakusa took on a variety of roles to stretch her talents. Much of her time has been spent in corporate finance, auditing and treasury, but she also has some retail banking experience, which is a virtual prerequisite for any Canadian bank CEO these days. And she is a director of a number of RBC subsidiaries, including RBC Dominion Securities, which means she has a good grasp of businesses such as wealth management.

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In her favour: Fukakusa's star ascended in 2009, when CEO Gord Nixon announced she would act as chief administrative officer as well as CFO. At the same time, the bank quietly cut out the role of chief operating officer, which had been held by Barbara Stymiest. While Stymiest was made group head of strategy, treasury and corporate services, Fukakusa became chair of a newly formed group operating committee that included members from RBC's Canadian banking, wealth management, capital markets and insurance businesses. Upshot: Fukakusa has more clout than Stymiest.

Working against her: Fukakusa lacks both international exposure and day-to-day experience in many areas of retail banking and capital markets. Her age might also be a drawback, since Nixon is expected to stay on for many years to come.

THE CONTENDER: Colleen Johnston, 52, CFO of Toronto-Dominion Bank Johnston got her start at Pricewaterhouse in 1982, becoming a chartered accountant two years later. She went on to spend 15 years at Bank of Nova Scotia in a variety of senior roles. TD scooped her up in 2004, to the chagrin of many Scotiabankers who even today see the departure as a major loss. She joined TD as executive vice-president of finance operations, and became CFO the following year.

In her favour: Johnston is widely respected and is comfortable answering tough questions in front of a crowd. A solid public image is a key qualification for a bank CEO-the job involves a good deal of speechmaking and networking with politicians and customers.

Working against her: Johnston has spent her career combing over numbers rather than dealing with the nitty-gritty of running a banking operation. That weakness gives the advantage to other candidates, such as Tim Hockey, head of Canadian banking.

THE CONTENDER: Sonia Baxendale, 47, president of CIBC Retail Markets

Baxendale joined CIBC in 1992 after stints at American Express Canada and Saatchi & Saatchi. She held a senior job in the bank's wealth management business, and has been running the core Canadian retail business since 2005. She is the only woman on the bank's executive team. The succession race at CIBC heated up in April when a number of executives were given added responsibilities. Oversight of communications and public affairs and, importantly, CIBC's FirstCaribbean operations were all heaped on Baxendale's plate. She is now responsible for CIBC's brand and reputation as well as the bank's major international retail businesses.

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In her favour: The beating that its investment banking arm took during the credit crisis has inspired CIBC to emphasize the retail side. That makes Baxendale an obvious choice as the next CEO. The businesses she runs account for no less than 28,000 employees in Canada and 4,000 at FirstCaribbean.

Working against her: Is Baxendale's glass half full or half empty? Some analysts suggest that CIBC needs a leader who knows the capital markets or investment banking inside and out, since that's the side of the bank that cost it more than $10 billion in charges during the financial crisis. Even though retail is the most important part of every Canadian bank, capital markets expertise garners much more respect from the analysts and institutional investors on Bay Street that banks also depend on.

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