Tuesday, December 13, 2005

ScotiaBank Pays $390 million for 80% of Banco Wiese Sudameris SAA

The Globe and Mail, Sinclair Stewart, 10 Dec 2005

Toronto — A large, bronzed water gun, fastened to a plinth and inscribed with a warm dedication, sits on the floor beside Robert Pitfield's desk. It's an odd decorative touch for a banker, but not quite incongruous, considering the other bizarre bric-a-brac in the room: a small stuffed Big Bird; a Caddyshack-style outsized golf bag; a cricket bat, and two cans of beans -- one waxed, the other baked -- sitting in a glass display case, both Christmas gifts from the assistant of his former boss.

It's the water gun, though, that is the sentimental favourite. Several years ago, before he was running Bank of Nova Scotia's international operations, Mr. Pitfield was tasked with weaving together a disparate group of cultures in the wealth management division. The solution, though it took a while to figure out, was simple: Shoot people. Everyone brought water guns to the office, and Friday afternoons became an exercise in team-building-through-dousing. When Mr. Pitfield left, his staff presented him with the bronzed gun, thanking him for his years of "distinguished service."

It's a bit of a joke, of course, but it has come to symbolize what Mr. Pitfield views as his most challenging task: knitting together employees and operations in more than 50 countries and finding a way to inculcate the Scotiabank culture without overriding regional differences.

"There's a tendency for international companies, when they start . . . to control things centrally. It's an impossible thing to do," he says. "From my perspective, we have to be great enablers. What can I do personally to help you in your local market, right down to a teller? How do you get people like [yourself] in those individual markets . . . so that the sum is greatly superior to the individual parts? We're still very much working through that."

Scotiabank did not become the most international of Canada's Big Six overnight. It has proceeded cautiously -- some would say painstakingly --and spent decades building a platform in the Caribbean before slowly branching out into Mexico and Latin America.

Its latest deal came earlier this week, when it shelled out $390-million to create Peru's No. 3 bank. Scotiabank is acquiring 80 per cent of Banco Wiese Sudameris SAA, or BWS, and at the same time seizing majority control of Banco Sudamericano, another Lima-based financial institution in which it currently owns 35 per cent. If both moves are approved, the two banks will be combined to form the third-largest player in the country.

In dollar terms, this is peanuts: It will barely dent the $5-billion worth of excess capital that Scotiabank is hoarding. And it's hardly the kind of transformative deal that Bay Street (at least some on Bay Street) seem impatient for the bank to make.

But for investors who fret about the political environment in Peru, or the economic stability of Mexico, little deals like this are a good thing. Part of the bank's risk-mitigation strategy is to make smaller investments in several countries, reducing the chances that a single blowup (as happened in Argentina a few years ago, costing the bank $540-million) will have a significant impact on its operations.

"If you do it incrementally, step by step, you can grow your franchise safely," Mr. Pitfield said. "You can chew what you bite off."

He readily acknowledges that Scotiabank couldn't have done the Peru deal 10 years ago: It lacked the right people and language skills, the technology and systems, and the understanding of different regulatory regimes. Bulking up in Mexico with its Inverlat unit, however, has given the bank its foundation, so it can begin rounding out its operations in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Chile, and Venezuela.

Scotiabank is also stepping up the pace of these smallish acquisitions, in part to help it learn more about integrating other companies. Becoming more active keeps the bank sharp, Mr. Pitfield says, both in terms of improving its integration skills and keeping in touch with the local markets. It's not that the bank is averse to doing big transactions: It just wants to nail the formula first.

Last year, international banking contributed $800-million in profit, roughly a quarter of the bank's overall bottom line. Mr. Pitfield predicts it could account for more than half within the next four to seven years.

His main challenge right now, however, is creating a base for expansion in Asia, much as the bank used its Caribbean beachhead to move into Mexico. Scotiabank is now in 11 Asian countries, including China and India. It recently attempted to buy the Bank of Punjab, but it failed because of regulatory issues. All of these operations are "chips in a poker game," Mr. Pitfield says, and the question now is figuring out where to place the bet.

Robert Pitfield, executive vice-president of international banking, Bank of Nova Scotia
Age: 50
Education: Political-science degree, University of Toronto; law degree, University of Ottawa
Family: Married, three daughters and a son
Hobbies: Reading, golf ("I love the game, but I'm not that good at it.")
What he's reading: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln is "absolutely inspiring"); Zen of Golf
Corporate bible: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't
Riskiest thing he's done: Skydiving. "You have one whole day of contemplating your death. It's terrifying."
Little-known nickname: "Icepick" (conferred upon him by fellow parachutists)
Where he relaxes: The family cottage in the Thousand Islands
Who he's voting for: His wife, Jane Pitfield. The Toronto city councillor announced plans last week to run for mayor in 2006.
Most unusual items in his office: A large, bronzed water-gun, mounted like a trophy
How much of the year he spends visiting the bank's international locations: One-third
Favourite operation to visit: Jamaica
Languages: Taking courses in Spanish, the predominant tongue of Scotiabank's international employees
Management influences: Former CEO Peter Godsoe; former president Bruce Birmingham
Connections: His grandfather, Ward Pitfield, founded brokerage house Pitfield Mackay Ross & Co.; his uncle, also named Ward, was chairman of brokerage firm Dominion Securities Pitfield; his other uncle, Michael Pitfield, is a senator, and was clerk of the Privy Council under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau
Worst mistake: Not appreciating the importance of talent and building the best team possible when he ran his first branch in 1987.