The Bay Street Boys
Tales from the corner office
They might have started out as autobiographies, but somewhere along the line both Donald K. Johnson’s Lessons Learned on Bay Street and Tony Comper’s Personal Account morphed into a kind of hybrid genre influenced by Peter Drucker–style management thinkers and self-help messiahs like Tony Robbins. Johnson and Comper have lived long, peripatetic lives, often with the inside track on dramatic moments in Canadian business — moments that have had repercussions for all of us. But with these books, they spend almost no time on the scandals and revelations of their fascinating careers, instead suggesting how any of us can turn around our lives or our businesses with the help of a couple hundred pages of their wisdom.
It may also be the ubiquitous case-study approach to business education that’s shaped Johnson’s and Comper’s content. In today’s typical MBA program, wannabe masters of the universe learn by analyzing stories of real-life challenges. Johnson’s title makes its instructional intent obvious, as does his introduction, “A Lifetime of Lessons,” and his penultimate chapter, “Lessons Learned.” Comper’s Personal Account likewise emphasizes “learning” with its subtitle. He begins each of his twenty-five chapters with a teachable quote from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and concludes most with a “Tony’s Takeaway,” a summation of the edifying lecture he’s just delivered. “I begin this book,” Comper writes in his opening chapter, “like Chaucer’s pilgrim on the road to Canterbury, telling a few well-worn stories in hopes of praising the past, warning for the present and charting a path for those who follow me in the future.”
To be sure, both these men — with their high profiles and notable philanthropy — have plenty of well-rehearsed stories to share. Johnson, eighty-five, has been a successful investment banker, president of Burns Fry, and vice-chair of BMO Nesbitt Burns. Tony Comper, seventy-six, was a Bank of Montreal lifer, ultimately retiring as president of BMO Financial Group in 2007. Both their careers flourished in the days when Canadian finance was a smaller world, less global than it is now, and most everybody who was anybody knew each other. But although Comper spent forty-three years with BMO, which acquired Johnson’s firm in 1994, neither of them mentions the other. You have to assume their paths crossed on Bay Street from time to time, if not at the Toronto Club or Rosedale Golf Club or wherever big shots hung out back then.
These books carefully avoid eulogy prep, apologia, or setting-the-record-straight territory; neither Johnson nor Comper is demanding attention after the parade has moved on. With the lessons-to-be-learned approach, each can broaden his book’s sales potential and discuss his non-business life when it’s convenient — or when it helps illustrate a lesson. Yet didactic vignettes that sidestep straightforward chronology, where key biographical gaps are obvious, can feel evasive. For instance, Johnson’s first wife is never named, and their divorce is chalked up to the simple fact that he worked around the clock. That he never spent time with his kids is regrettable, but all is fine now. Similarly, there’s a fleeting mention of Comper’s year as a seminarian, but how that instinct for piety played out in an institution whose purpose is making money — he prefers the euphemistic “increasing shareholder value”— never surfaces again.
It’s likely that many readers who seek the advertised lessons in these volumes won’t know all the players — the heavy financial-sector hitters of their day. So in that sense, some of the intended instruction is lost. Johnson shares stories about Warren Buffett, yes, but many of the others are less well known. If you don’t recognize the name Latham Burns, then the significance of his being the best man at Johnson’s wedding, alongside thirteen other groomsmen and ushers, will pass you by. Or if you’re not aware of the extraordinary tabloid charisma of Matt Barrett, then it’s difficult to appreciate why Comper remains an acolyte and devotes many glowing pages to him.
Both Johnson and Comper live in a privileged world, and Comper, especially, is aware of how being a straight white man didn’t hurt his chances of success. But their turf was, relatively speaking, a meritocracy where you could start, as Johnson did, as the child of poor Icelandic immigrants who scraped by north of Winnipeg, or as Comper did, with middle-class but hardly affluent beginnings, and work your way to the top. These two were the golden boys of their families, and it’s reassuring that neither lost connections with their roots. Johnson, in particular, talks of his many visits to his hometown and to Iceland. Staying grounded isn’t one of his lessons for nascent high fliers, at least not explicitly, but it should be.
Born in June 1935, Donald K. Johnson grew up in a small two-bedroom bungalow in Lundar, Manitoba, with his parents, a sister, and two brothers, with no electricity or running water. “Although we didn’t have much money,” he writes, “my mother was generous and would often welcome people in need into our home for a meal.” He describes her as a well-respected and industrious woman, who balanced the running of the household with the tending of the cows. “She earned some extra cash by making socks and mitts on a little knitting machine and selling them to townspeople and to the fishermen who worked on Lake Manitoba.”
When Donald was a young teenager, his father developed Alzheimer’s and had to be hospitalized 130 kilometres away in Selkirk (where he died in 1953). Around the same time, Donald’s two oldest siblings moved to Winnipeg to pursue careers. Donald stayed with his mother and younger brother until he finished junior secondary school, and then the three made the move to Winnipeg so he could get his “senior certificate,” without which he couldn’t apply to university (his mother was adamant that he continue his education).
Johnson graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1957, with a degree in electrical engineering. His first job was a one-year training program at Canadian General Electric, in Toronto. After this came a lucrative assignment working on the DEW Line, about 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, in what later became Nunavut. This position, Johnson says, helped pay off his student loans. But he knew engineering wasn’t going to be his path, so he went to the University of Western Ontario, in London, and completed an MBA in 1963.
A classmate from Western had a connection at the brokerage firm Burns Bros. and Denton, and he helped arrange an interview. “The die was cast,” Johnson writes. “Investment banking sounded right up my alley, and I was champing at the bit to get started.” It was a prescient choice:
The fifty-seven years that followed have certainly been an extraordinary blessing. I rose through the ranks of Burns Bros. as it morphed into Burns Fry, then Nesbitt Burns, and — now — BMO Capital Markets. I have had the opportunity to travel the world and meet the CEOs and senior executives of some major North American, European, African, and Asian companies. Along the way, I have had the good fortune of being involved in some of Canada’s most exciting and challenging deals, and the privilege of working with many wonderful colleagues.
Johnson has also made considerable philanthropic commitments over the years. He has lent support to high-profile cultural institutions, such as the National Ballet of Canada; to his alma mater in London; to the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation; to his hometown library; and to a scholarship fund for students from Lundar. (He has also supported this magazine.) Perhaps his greatest gift, one that hundreds of Canadian charities are very grateful for, was his successful twelve-year campaign, from 1994 to 2006, to eliminate capital gains tax on gifts of stock to registered charities, including cultural institutions.
In his final two chapters, Johnson literally spells out his lessons with subheads like “What Warren Buffett Taught Me,” “Build a Sturdy Foundation,” “Focus on Opportunities,” “Learn from Your Mistakes,” and “Be an Agent for Change.” It’s a vast quantity of sensible advice but rarely compelling. One surprise is Johnson’s views on transcendental meditation: “I’ve been practising it faithfully twice a day for more than fifty years now. The investment of time has been well worthwhile.” Another is the importance of sleep —“ ‘Horizontal by Nine’ is my motto”— which sets Johnson apart from all those high achievers who claim they need only four hours a night and that the rest of us waste too much time in bed.
In drawing on a life filled with adversity, nasty people, and messy challenges, including the current pandemic, Johnson hints at other lessons, but he doesn’t always tease them out. Holding on to fear and anger is “destructive,” for example. And there are important things to consider when doing business with a family member — in a word, don’t.
F. Anthony Comper was born in April 1945, but he begins Personal Account in February 1999, when he became chief executive officer of the Bank of Montreal. The federal government had just rejected a merger of his storied institution with the Royal Bank of Canada, and “people wanted answers from me on where we would go next.” The new CEO turned to his mantra: Festina lente, or make haste slowly. “Whatever moves I made, they would not be rushed. It might have been easy to act quickly in my new job, to impress people with speed. But I knew there was much time ahead to get it right.” He would take a similar approach throughout his eight-year tenure at the top, which saw BMO achieve outstanding financial results.
Comper’s paternal grandfather, Harry Christian Comper, left England and arrived in Toronto with his wife in 1914, “with between four and six children.” The couple ended up on Oak Street, in working-class Cabbagetown. “They were very poor,” Comper writes, “because Grandfather wasn’t working regularly.” Despite the financial hardships, and with all the kids helping to support the family, Tony’s father managed to attend De La Salle College (where Tony himself went years later). This set the stage for a long career with Commercial Credit Corporation and a pleasant life in Leaside, a much nicer neighbourhood.
Comper’s maternal relatives hailed from Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec. After his grandfather’s haberdashery failed in the early 1900s, the family moved to Saskatchewan, where they homesteaded near Marengo. Eventually, Comper’s mother, “who had the elegant name of Marie-Noelle Marie-Antoinette Dubé,” headed east to train as a nurse, “and that’s when she met my father.”
When Tony was sixteen, his father got him a summer job as a messenger at the King and Yonge branch of the Bank of Montreal (after he was turned away by a Royal Bank branch manager). It too was a prescient choice:
Because of the size of the King and Yonge branch, we had six messengers doing all the routine commercial procedures and exchanges of the Bank, which was a big deal. That was my summer job all the way through high school and then during university. I majored in English Literature at the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, but every summer I’d go back to the Bank, working there on a seasonal basis from 1961 until 1967 — when I was faced with deciding which professional route I was going to take.
Comper had plans to become an English professor and entered graduate school. But after the first year, “my marks weren’t quite good enough to continue.” It’s a comforting lesson, though perhaps unintended, that a person can in fact land in the executive suite even if he or she doesn’t always get good grades. Comper admits that he “fooled around a lot” and “enjoyed himself immensely” in graduate school: “I played bass guitar in a band I’d cleverly called The Compleat Works in tribute to my literary studies — but I probably spent more time on the band than on those literary studies.” And so he left U of T and went back to BMO, where he became part of a special development program for future branch managers. Instead of staying in the program, however, he moved to the bank’s head office, in Montreal, in 1970. Eight years later, at thirty-two, he was a vice-president — the youngest in bank history.
“By 1975, Liz and I had been married for four years,” Comper writes, though he doesn’t offer many details about their early relationship, beyond letting us know they started dating just before he left Toronto. And it’s not as if Liz plays an unimportant role in Comper’s larger story: later, she’s front and centre for her charity work and health issues. This is but one example of where a more traditional autobiographical approach would make his life’s trajectory easier to follow.
What we do understand is that Comper worked hard, made friends easily, took on difficult assignments, and relished problem solving every step of the way: “My job was to fix things.” As for the larger Tony’s Takeaway? “Managing a bank — or any organization — is a people business. Staff want to believe your goals are their goals. Sell them on your ability to get them there. That’s my idea of leadership.” And though “the golden rule of leadership is to be true to yourself, to be authentic,” another “five fundamental rules” will help everything “fall into place.”
Near the end of Personal Account, Comper offers a few tales that read like essays on globalization, executive compensation, corporate social responsibility, crisis management, and diversification, and the results are quite interesting when he links such topics to personal experiences. But he also peppers in the reminiscences of friends, which come off as predictably laudatory — like expanded promotional blurbs for the book that contains them.
Some believe if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes. And for the uber-ambitious, that could well be the take-away from these two books: Get to the top, and life will be swell. It’s only the chumps who get left behind. But even if they’re not fully described in these pages, Johnson’s and Comper’s lives suggest there’s more to it than that. Both men have done good things in business and have used their success to help others. Both admired the companies they worked for. Both hope everyone can have such opportunities. Both have ambitions and egos, but neither comes across as cynical.
Each in his own way, Johnson and Comper speak of the importance of personal relationships, but neither means that horrible impulse that drives steely MBA graduates to “network” at checkout counters and funerals. For them, networking isn’t an artificial scheming process but the result of real connections with real colleagues and clients. If nurtured rather than exploited, these relationships can eventually translate to something larger. The two men also suggest living in the moment and making sure that you’re giving your current task — however mundane or problematic — your full attention. Don’t worry if you don’t always see how you’ll get ahead, they tell us. (On this point, even Buddhists and Jordan Peterson would concur.)
So no — sociopaths, bullies, and hypocrites are not the only ones who triumph in the ruthless world of high finance. And that might be the most counterintuitive summation of these self-help-flavoured memoirs: in corporate life, decent people can rise to the top, and nice guys don’t always finish last.