Even a more flamboyant man might consider it striking garb.
So, for the admittedly conservative Blake Goldring, the bright red military jacket and boots with spurs took a little getting used to. He's wearing the ensemble tonight at a gathering in Toronto of the Young Presidents' Organization, a group of local business leaders, and a casual glance around the room reveals this is no ordinary corporate evening. Scattered among the mostly young, mostly male, black-tie crowd is a small army of military personnel dressed in red and black formal "mess" attire adorned with rank insignia and medals of honour. In the next room, a 16-piece band is playing a rousing rendition of Peacemaker March. The venue-the Royal Canadian Military Institute-and the unusual guest list are courtesy of Goldring, who organized the event to bring together his two primary passions. As head of AGF, one of the country's largest non-bank mutual fund companies, he's very much of the business world. But he's also honorary colonel of the Royal Regiment of Canada, a unit of army reserve soldiers that traces its roots back to 1862.
The two communities may not seem like obvious stablemates, but talk for a while to Goldring-who moves easily around the lounge (think red velvet curtains, cigars and Hal Jackman's toy soldiers behind glass)-and you begin to understand how the two could pull together. His involvement with the regiment began in 1996, when he was invited to attend a formal Batoche dinner. (The name, which has become synonymous with outreach to the business community, comes from an unlikely source: the battle in 1885 in which the Royals fought Louis Riel's rebel forces.) Goldring's interest was piqued, but his involvement with the military remained arm's length until 2006, when the Royals' outgoing honorary colonel, General Reginald W. Lewis, asked him to take up the post. Goldring had acquainted himself with the regiment's history and knew that others who'd assumed the title previously were military men of rank and standing, so he balked. "I told him I'd never fired a gun or marched in battle," Goldring says, "but he responded that they have plenty of people who can do that-and not too many with connections to the business community." Since then, Goldring has taken his outreach responsibility a step further, and formed Canada Company, a group of top-ranked CEOs with a commitment to supporting Canada's military. The list of members is a colour guard of the corporate elite, including the likes of Jim Balsillie of Research In Motion, Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk and David Beatty, managing director of the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance. All contribute financially to the group's activities-events that not only expose the business crowd to the military, but also enable the military to tap into a deep well of business knowledge. "There can be no business continuity without security...it's not top of mind for a lot of business people, but the folks in Canada Company don't see any disconnect between shareholder returns and national security," says Goldring.
His feelings about the Royal regiment are best highlighted by one pristine memory: About a year ago, at a ceremonial event he was attending, a young captain offered to polish his boots. "He was heading to Afghanistan," Goldring says. "I was completely thrown by his offer, but I was told it was an act of supreme deference." That young man is attending tonight's event-his name is Adam West, and, like Batman's human alter ego, whose name he shares, he looks like a figure straight out of central casting: Tall, courteous and self-contained, he's back from active duty with a narrow miss or two to recount. (On West's red-garbed chest hangs a medal indicating active duty in a live theatre of war.) The businessman beams with avuncular pride when he spots the soldier, and keeps turning the conversation back to the diffident young man, who soon happily escapes to duties upstairs.
"This organization is steeped in tradition," Goldring says, "but we are talking about modern warfare." He notes that a significant number of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are reservists (more than 300), and that they have figured among the Forces' fatalities. So when one of them asks to polish his colonel's boots, it doesn't do to refuse. "Some of my proudest moments in life have been pinning the medals on returning regiment soldiers."
Although tonight's event isn't a fundraiser, Goldring admits he'd be happy if some of the attendees joined Canada Company. As the guests mingle and chatter and wolf down jumbo-sized hors d'oeuvres, he circles among them with a ready smile and gentlemanly manner, joking that his uniform makes him look like a waiter. Goldring is reserved in demeanour, and low-key, but this is one subject that clearly gets his pulse racing. He offers plenty of examples of Canada Company's accomplishments, including funding a seminar for Greater Toronto Area reservists in which seven Polish commandos lectured about their military experiences, some of them very recent. They've arranged to send hundreds of soccer balls to children in Afghanistan and, in a clear demonstration of their influence, speedily resolved an incident in which the widow of a dead soldier was denied life insurance. "These policies hadn't really been looked at since the Korean War," Goldring says. "We called the CEO and it was a no-brainer. Of course he didn't want to make life harder for the person who has already been hurt so much."
As the head of AGF, the firm his father founded 50 years ago, and which now manages $53 billion in assets, Goldring is familiar with the trappings of power. But he also knows about proving oneself, and finding the balance between tradition and modernity. Like his honorary position with the Royals, the AGF post was a job he didn't seek out-"I never intended to work at the company," he says. After doing graduate studies at INSEAD, the exclusive French business school (where students need a minimum of three languages, Goldring's being English, French and passable German), he almost took a job with Revlon. It was marketing work in Scandinavia "and I was 23," he says with a laugh. His father advised him against it, arguing that marketing could be learned any time, and that young Blake needed to learn finance. So Goldring joined Bank of Montreal, with no intention of working for the family business. But in 1987, at the age of 29, he was ready for a change and joined the family firm. It turns out he got in at the bottom of what would become a 25-year bull market. While many talk about the end of high-fee mutual funds, Goldring is not worried about the business. "There's a trillion dollars in assets coming to you and people your age," he tells me, "so there's a growing, not shrinking, need for investment management."
The honorary colonel also talks about another potential transfer of assets-the imparting of military values to Canadian youths. If his own daughters wanted to join the reserve, he'd back the decision wholeheartedly, he says. And as he welcomes the crowd to dinner, he reminds them of what formal mess dinners meant in times gone by: "The privileged of society gathered to underline their sense of duty and responsibility." It's an old-fashioned idea, and yet in this room, on a warm night in spring, it seems full of potential.
What was your first job? From the age of 7 and into my early teens, finding and reselling golf balls at a course behind my childhood home What famous person would you most like to dine with? Warren Buffett or, by seance, Winston Churchill What's the worst decision you ever made? Having a suit made in 48 hours in Hong Kong. It was delivered just as I boarded a plane. I later discovered that the zipper was sewn into the rear What makes you mad? Hypocrisy What quality do you most admire in others? Loyalty What were you afraid of when you were a kid? Not living up to the expectations of others French or Italian? Neither-I always go with blue cheese [dressing]br/> What's the last CD you bought-or song you listened to? Rita Lee: Bossa 'n Roll