Friday, January 13, 2006

BMO's Comper Setting the Stage for an Orderly CEO Change

The Globe and Mail, Andrew Willis, 13 January 2006

When the big banks choose a new leader, the succession can be anything from a winner-take-all cliffhanger to a boring, well-telegraphed passing of the crown. Bank of Montreal, which has seen its share of corner-office drama in the past, seems bent on turning in a low-key affair when incumbent chief executive officer Tony Comper steps down.

Mr. Comper is expected to lay out succession plans at the bank's annual meeting this spring in Calgary. Although there are at least four strong candidates for the top job, veteran corporate banker William Downe is expected to emerge as heir apparent.

Mr. Comper, the quintessential organization man, turned 60 last April. The milestone added emphasis to normal CEO chats with the board about the next generation of leaders. Mr. Comper, approaching his seventh anniversary as CEO, is said to be planning an orderly transition that plays out over as much as two years, with Mr. Downe and other executives steadily picking up new responsibilities.

By telegraphing what's playing out both internally and externally, Mr. Comper will avoid the cage match that was fought a few years back at CIBC, when one candidate won the top job and his rival promptly quit.

When the baton was passed in recent years, at TD Bank, Scotiabank and CIBC, each bank anointed a leading candidate. This individual moved into a president's or chief operating officer's job for seasoning and to give the board a chance to watch him work.

Mr. Comper was BMO's president for nine years while the colourful Matthew Barrett was CEO, but didn't fill the president's role when he took the top job following Mr. Barrett's surprise resignation in 1999, and subsequent re-emergence in British banking.

Peers of Mr. Comper's, such as Royal Bank's John Cleghorn and CIBC's John Hunkin, have chosen to exit the stage gracefully at the age of 60, leaving plenty of time for new adventures in life.

Mr. Comper and his wife Elizabeth have a range of philanthropic interests. He has donated countless hours as head fundraiser for the University of Toronto and chairman of the university's governing council. She recently founded a group committed to stopping anti-Semitism. Mr. Comper is also fond of the feel of a well-struck 5-iron.

The focus on long-term leadership reflects the confidence among the board and senior ranks that the bank will remain independent. No one is counting on the government to change its opposition to in-country mergers. BMO has been twice to the altar, with no ring.

With the arrival of a new CEO still a year or two away, here's the talent the board, and the bank's internal odds makers, view as contenders.

William Downe: The clear front-runner, this 53-year-old Montreal native has been with the bank for 23 years, with much of his career spent in the U.S. market that BMO is targeting for future expansion. After stints in Houston, Denver and Chicago, he moved to head office in 1998, where he has turned in strong results running the investment dealer, treasury and wealth management arms of the bank.

Karen Maidment: Universally respected as the bank's chief financial officer, the knock on her is that she hasn't been around the bank long enough, or worked in enough areas, to step up as Canada's first female bank CEO. Ms. Maidment, an accountant by training, joined the bank in 2000 from the CFO's spot at Clarica Life Insurance Co., which was taken over by Sun Life Financial. She still lives in Cambridge, Ont., near the Clarica head office, and commutes to Toronto.

Robert Pearce: Part of the next generation of leaders, the fortysomething runs one of the most profitable parts, the bank's retail branch network. He's won kudos for the way he's handled cutting-edge (occasionally bleeding-edge) initiatives, such as telephone and Internet banking and North American electronic banking group.

Frank Techar: A Minnesota native, he is president and CEO at Harris Bankcorp, one of the largest banks in the Chicago area and a focus on BMO's growth plans. He joined in 1984 as a corporate banker and headed up a small-business banking push before taking the top job at Harris. Mr. Techar has done a series of successful small acquisitions in the Chicago area and the BMO board has signed off on future takeovers of up to $2-billion.

Banking on a successor

Tony Comper has turned 60 and is looking ahead to life after Bank of Montreal. To make the changeover smooth, BMO looks set to telegraph the heir apparent and avoid destructive infighting. So far, attention has centred on four candidates, with one given the clear nod as most likely.

William Downe

The leading contender because he's got a wealth of U.S. experience, and that's where the bank wants to expand, and because he's run every major part of the bank save its retail branches.

Odds: The front runner

Karen Maidment

While Tony Comper would love his legacy to include Canada's first female bank CEO, a career spend mostly in insurance means BMO's chief financial officer doesn't have the breadth of experience.

Odds: An outside chance

Robert Pearce

He's built, or pruned, net-generation bank systems on the Internet and phone, and now runs the retail branches.

Odds: A strong contender in the next race

Frank Techar

Running Chicago-based Harris Bankcorp is great training for the top job in Canada, but it's also too soon for this pony to contend in the leadership race.

Odds: Also on track for the next CEO sweepstakes.