Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Darryl White — New BMO CEO

  
The Globe and Mail, James Bradshaw, 1 November 2017

Darryl White is not sure what is ailing his beloved but slumping Montreal Canadiens. "It's confidence, right? It's got to be confidence," he ventures.

Mr. White officially starts as Bank of Montreal's new chief executive officer on Wednesday, and also happens to serve as a director of the storied hockey club. At 46, with close-cropped brown hair, he is youthful, trim and small in stature. But he radiates confidence.

Striding past the polished marble columns and century-old teller windows in BMO's historic Montreal main branch to sit for an interview days before taking over as CEO, Mr. White seems to embody a new generation of bankers tasked with leading Canada's oldest bank into its third century in business – and determined to push ahead at a faster pace.

His ambition at the outset is not to change the bank's fundamental course. Board chairman Robert Prichard said Mr. White's priority will be keeping "continuity of strategy and continuing acceleration of performance." That means driving faster growth – particularly in BMO's U.S. operations – by boosting spending on technology and "actually thinking like a customer," Mr. White said.

"I think we've been doing a pretty good job of it," he said. "I think we can do a better job as we go forward."

Yet, squeezing more performance out of an established bank that ranks as Canada's fourth-largest will be no simple task. BMO's share price has hovered around the $100 mark of late, but has gained only 2.3 per cent year-to-date – which trails all of its Canadian peers. The bank's return on equity, watched closely by shareholders, stood at a healthy but unspectacular 13.4 per cent at the end of its most recent fiscal quarter.

And red flags are on the horizon.

Uncertainty about the fraught renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) could spell particular trouble for BMO, which calls itself Canada's largest trade bank. At the same time, there are continuing concerns about Canadians' high consumer-debt load and soaring urban-housing prices, as interest rates begin to rise from historical lows. And new technologies are threatening to upend banking conventions, forcing financial institutions everywhere to adapt quickly.

Unlike departing CEO Bill Downe, who stepped into the job in early 2007 and quickly faced a global financial meltdown, Mr. White inherits BMO on a stronger footing, with a more optimistic economic outlook. On Mr. Downe's watch, total assets roughly doubled to $709-billion, while its U.S. footprint through the BMO Harris Bank subsidiary, which will be crucial to its growth prospects, expanded to serve more than two million personal and commercial customers with 600 branches across the U.S. Midwest.

BMO has similarly lofty expectations for Mr. White, a father of three who has worked at the bank for half his life. For the lion's share of that tenure, he was an investment banker in its capital-markets arms, known for giving sharp strategic advice to blue-chip companies and for his deep devotion to his roster of clients.

But last year, as his name rose to the top of the bank's succession chart, Mr. White took on much broader duties as chief operating officer. That gave him global responsibilities spanning retail and commercial banking, wealth management, marketing and even technology. As he delved deeper into corridors of BMO that were less familiar to him, he discovered a willingness to adapt embedded in the bank's culture that fuels his confidence in its prospects.

"I don't want the culture to change," he said. "And if there's a change, it's perhaps at a pace that's taking advantage of the foundation that we've built – so a pivot from foundational investments to acceleration."

Made in Montreal

As he prepared to lead BMO into the future, Mr. White took a step back into the bank's past on Sunday, revisiting the city that raised him.

More than 100 current and former executives, board members and their families assembled in Montreal. It was a rare gathering of multiple generations of the bank's most senior leaders: Mr. White and Mr. Downe, as well as previous CEOs Tony Comper and Matthew Barrett; Mr. Prichard, the current chairman; and past chairman David Galloway; plus an array of financial-sector heavy hitters, including Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz.

They came together for a ceremony unveiling a stone tablet in the foyer of the bank's historic and opulent Montreal main branch, first built in 1847 and expanded in the early 1900s. The setting and timing were carefully chosen for their symbolism, as a culmination of a year-long celebration of the bank's 200th anniversary, which arrives on Friday.

Under the branch's ceilings adorned with gold leaf, the tablet now bears brass lettering spelling out 66 names – Mr. White's among them – of the bank's foremost leaders through its most recent century, steps from a similar memorial erected in 1917. "Our chief financial officer is quite happy to know we don't build [branches] this way any more," Mr. Downe joked in a speech at the ceremony, before guests decamped upstairs to toast the retiring CEO's career over a dinner of mustard-crusted rack of lamb and caramelized black cod.

Mr. White's own roots in Montreal are more modest. He grew up in a middle class, West Island home five minutes from the city's largest airport, before studying business at the University of Western Ontario and Harvard Business School.

Beginning at the bank with a gruelling apprenticeship with Nesbitt Thomson (now BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc.), he charged through BMO's ranks. And eventually, in 2006, he returned to Montreal for a five-year homecoming that proved an important testing ground, where he caught the attention of senior executives.

Jacques Ménard, the current president of BMO in Quebec, was one of Mr. White's mentors during his time in Montreal. "He made me look good every day," Mr. Ménard said, but he eventually advised BMO's leadership "to get him out of here" and see what he was capable of.

Mr. White moved to Toronto in 2011, but has kept close ties in Montreal. He keeps a summer home in Quebec, and pledged to maintain a regular presence in Montreal, which "will continue to be the heartbeat of the company."

Day one and beyond

Mr. White's first day as CEO, Nov. 1, will begin with client meetings and end with parent-teacher interviews at his children's school.

In the intervening hours, he will fit in visits to two Toronto branches, to the bank's computing centre in Scarborough to see its chief technology officer and to an off-site gathering on inclusion and diversity at the BMO Institute for Learning – which he calls "BMO University."

The day marks a milestone for the bank, but Mr. White's agenda is fairly typical of his own education over the past year. As COO, he has spent much of his time getting an immersion course in BMO's diverse business lines, making countless branch visits, joining the phone lines at call centres and meeting an array of customers.

"For me, that's been an extraordinarily valuable experience to cut across all of our businesses," he said, and it has also made him more attuned to what's happening outside the bank.

One of Mr. White's early plans to hedge against uncertainty is to boost BMO's spending on technology. He declined to attach dollar figures to the existing budget or the increase he has in mind, but pledged that the bank will stay disciplined about digital investments. "A strategy whereby one splashes capital at technology because it's a trendy thing to talk about falls short," he said.
In the United States, Mr. White expects to quicken the rise of BMO Harris as a share of the bank's overall earnings. Like many of its Canadian peers, BMO has looked to the hard-fought U.S. banking market for an opportunity to grow faster than the mature Canadian market will allow.

Over the past six years, the bank's U.S. arm has grown at a compound annual rate of 24 per cent and now contributes about a quarter of the bank's income, with 70 per cent of that coming from personal and commercial banking, nearly 25 per cent from capital markets and the remainder from wealth management.

"That's the earnings growth story in the U.S., and that'll continue to be the case," he said.

He is bullish on the prospects for U.S. tax reform, and sees room to grab market share. Within five years, he predicts the U.S. arm's overall contribution to earnings may be "approaching a third" on the strength of its existing assets. "In order for it to be much greater than that, you'd have to look at growing by acquisition," he said.

But Mr. White concedes that the prospect of a breakdown in NAFTA talks as Canada, the United States and Mexico struggle to make headway in negotiations could put the brakes on trade flows that are vital to BMO's cross-border business.

"NAFTA's important. If NAFTA goes away, would we see a slowdown in economic trade? Yes. How much? I don't know," he says, noting that 32 U.S. states count Canada as their biggest export market. "Is it an impact that we're going to worry about unduly from the perspective of our delivery to our customers and our shareholders? No. We're going to continue to serve those customers in the markets that we have under the regimes that will exist."

The bank has also been adapting to a new reality for credit in Canada, as federal measures have been rolled out to tax foreign home buyers and require tougher stress testing on mortgages, just as interest rates have begun to climb. Mr. White reiterated that "we've been supportive of those" new regulations.

But he also believes "credit, writ large, is well managed," and that the banking system, both in Canada and globally, is more sturdy than it was a decade ago.

"There's always going to be risk in a system," he said. "We've taken that risk throughout history, we have it today. But I think it's in a reasonable place on the curve."
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