Even for some who know him personally, the news that Mark Wiseman is leaving Canada's largest pension plan – and one of the most prominent investors on the planet – was a shock.
The subsequent announcement that he's departing for BlackRock Inc., the biggest investor of them all, made it much easier to compute.
As one senior Bay Street investment banker who advises the pension fund put it: If the news was solely that the head of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board was leaving after only four years, there would be widespread confusion. "But if your second line is, 'He's joining BlackRock,' that's really interesting."
That Mr. Wiseman is moving on isn't all that surprising – it was really a matter of when, say many on Bay Street. Among friends and employees at CPPIB, there was always a sense he had future plans. Even good pals describe him as "ambitious." Some people pegged him to go into politics; others thought he could run the Bank of Canada. Moving to BlackRock, where he will chair the global investment committee, makes sense.
And Mr. Wiseman is only in his mid-40s, young among the ranks of major financial leaders. That means he has the potential to be a CEO successor at his new shop– a fact that could make the move all the more enticing. Leaving CPPIB and its global clout behind isn't something he, or anyone, would do without seeing the prospect for even bigger achievements.
But his departure after only four years also leaves unfinished business at the fund, including smoothing out the wrinkles that appeared after its explosive expansion phase.
Since 2006, when the pension plan's investment strategy adopted a much more aggressive approach, the size of its team has exploded – and so have its assets under management, which now sit at $280-billion. The exponential growth led to some stumbles, prompting a strategic review that started in 2013.
The hiccups largely emerged in the public-markets group. By 2013 the division, which is CPPIB's largest, had grown so unwieldy that one investment team's returns and strategy could be completely offset by another's. "The problem with the public-markets group," a former employee told The Globe and Mail in 2014, "is that they're in so many different strategies that it's very difficult for all the stars to align so that every group is making money."
A deep divide also emerged between the public-markets group's two dominant investing themes – quantitative versus fundamental analysis – a rift Mr. Wiseman acknowledged. "It's like getting [people] who speak two different languages and asking them to go write a novel," he told The Globe in 2014. "It just becomes really, really difficult."
To right the ship, CPPIB launched a strategic review that tackled everything from organizational structure to compensation – and which contributed to the departure of several key executives. On the compensation front, the fund had a history of paying salaries based on performance in four-year rolling windows, an approach that differs from most funds and firms on Bay Street. One of the fixes was to ensure newer employees didn't have as much of their pay tied to the fund's performance before their arrival.
The internal drama has since died down, according to people familiar with the review, but CPPIB is still rapidly growing, with assets under management projected to hit roughly $800-billion by 2040. Such growth is one of the main reasons it continues to expand globally – and likely why it has named Mark Machin, who runs the fund's international arm, as its new head. The fund is already overweight in its Canadian investments.
As for the private-investing arm, CPPIB deserves praise for being one of the first to spot the infrastructure boom and pile money into the sector before the entire market became an asset class of its own. Still, the push into private assets has had its own missteps. Pressed about the nature of this business in 2014, Mr. Wiseman said, "We've made bad investments; we've lost all our money," but added that it is just the nature of private equity. "If we're not doing that, we're not taking enough risk."
At the same time, CPPIB has also had some spectacular private-equity gains, including a 26-per-cent annual return on its co-investment in British-based engineering company Tomkins PLC. It will now be up to Mr. Machin to prove taking on the extra risk is worth it long-term.
Investing for the long run is one of the key factors that led Mr. Wiseman to BlackRock, which has more than $4.7-trillion in assets under management. CPPIB's head has been developing a personal relationship with BlackRock head Larry Fink; the two have been working together on a recently formed group called Focusing Capital on the Long Term, which preaches long-term thinking for major investors.
It's more than just a personal relationship: Starting a few years back, CPPIB committed roughly $1-billion to a new strategy known as thematic investing, which is based on very long-term trends or themes – something BlackRock also promotes.
Some people will argue Mr. Wiseman isn't sticking around to see the expanding long-term strategy through. Yet with Mr. Machin taking over, much of what the departing head put in place is likely to remain. He never really was an asset manager; he was a leader who hired others to manage money based on a broad strategy. That strategy is likely to live on.