Having stepped down on Nov. 1 as chief executive officer of the TD Bank Group, Ed Clark and his wife, Fran, were celebrating retirement with a tour of Asia.
One of Clark’s rules of thumb, as it happens, is that “life never turns out as you plan.” And his holiday didn’t either.
He learned while abroad that Queen’s Park wanted the interim report of the advisory council Clark was chairing, on how to get more efficiency and money out of Ontario assets, to be released last week — before Finance Minister Charles Sousa’s fall economic statement on Monday.
In the hours before it was completed, Clark “was sending edits back and forth” from Asia, says Frances Lankin, a member of the advisory council. “I’d see something that would come from a hotel someplace, then an airport someplace else. And then he just ended up coming back early.
“He’s committed to this.”
It seems William Edmund Clark, now 67, has been committed to pretty much everything he’s undertaken since getting his first “real world” education as a student at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s.
Back then, the student council had asked him to lead a project to build a new student residence. He wasn’t in engineering or architecture. So he wandered down to Rochdale College, the co-operative housing experiment that had recently opened, to ask for advice.
It might have been this experience that caused Clark’s successor at TD, Bharat Masrani, to note that while he himself had been raised Hindu, Clark was “raised hippie.”
Or perhaps, Clark laughed in an interview with the Star, what Masrani was thinking about was Clark’s practice of ordering in a rock band to the bank’s annual meeting and dancing with everybody “all night long.
“It’s that sort of behaviour that probably isn’t typical of your average banker. But I believe in having fun in life.”
Anyway, back to Rochdale.
When Clark asked how they had got their building done, the answer was, “Look man, it’s not as if we were born knowing how to do these things. We built Rochdale just by going at it.”
So Clark decided he would, too.
He learned by going at it through two decades of work in Africa, in France, with the federal government, in the PhD in economics he earned from Harvard, in investment banking, in running his own firm, before joining Canada Trust in 1991 and ending up guiding a large Canadian bank through the most tumultuous of financial times.
Along the way, he applied lessons he learned at one stop to problems confronting him at the next.
For instance, as a young man in Tanzania, Clark was in charge of a three-week budget process. He was told by the man for whom he worked, “OK, you have only one job. At the end of the three weeks, I cannot spend more money than I have.’
“I though, Wow! That makes it deadly simple. When I went to Ottawa I said, ‘You could learn something from the Tanzanians.’ ”
In Ottawa, thanks to his role in crafting the National Energy Program in the 1980s, Clark earned the nickname “Red Ed.” Later, he came to be known as “The Professor.”
“That’s because I never tell people to do anything. Most meetings, I’m sitting there listening and asking questions . . . I think that style is not necessarily typical in the business community, which is more testosterone-driven.”
If Clark is not of stereotypical banker cut, he’s “definitely a leader,” says Lankin, the former Ontario NDP cabinet minister.
Lankin got to know Clark over the past 15 years, and especially during her years chairing the United Way of Greater Toronto. Beyond his bank’s involvement, Clark and his wife have been generous in their philanthropic investments.
They “invest in social innovation,” Lankin says. They want to make a difference and help people. They support doing research along the way and evaluation of programs. That’s a very nice package to work with in a donor.”
Clark’s involvement is hands-on, she says. In particular, Lankin cites the Clarks’ investment in Homeward Bound, a housing program for single mothers and their children out of WoodGreen Community Services in east Toronto. It provides stable housing, schooling and support programs for women who have fled abusive situations.
“It’s incredibly successful,” she says. “It’s a really great model.
Before that, the Clarks invested in a program based on harm-reduction when there was controversy about its effectiveness dealing with the addicted.
“Right now, he’s working with others in Toronto around the creation of a housing model, working with youth from the LGBT community,” Lankin says.
“In terms of the social services sector, he always wants to be where there’s innovation or something’s going to be learned. Even when you fail, you’ve learned something that you can do better next time.
“That’s a pretty cool thing about him.”
His commitment to diversity of ideas was evident in the advisory panel, Lankin says.
“He pulled together four other people to work with him, and we’re all quite different in terms of our backgrounds and where we may have been on the political spectrum. So we bring a different sensibility and perspective to the discussion. He did that on purpose.”
Janet Ecker, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister in Ontario also on the government asset advisory council, says Clark’s experience in government and banking has given him “a really unique 360 degrees, a perspective and skill set in the intersection between the public and private sector.”
He’s a good reader of people, has a “very strong social conscience, a wonderful Jimmy Stewart manner.
“He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not somebody who has false ego issues that get in the way.”
Clark, who will continue to chair the advisory council into the new year (its final report is to be filed before the spring provincial budget), likes to say, “I start with the proposition that I’m not that smart. So I’ve got to be sensible. Get in the game. And learn and listen.”
Terry Campbell of the Canadian Bankers Association says that preference for the “sensible” is wholly characteristic of Clark.
“One of the reasons why we’ve been the strongest banks in the world, leading up to the (global financial) crisis, through the crisis and now, is that banks in Canada have really behaved as banks should behave. And Ed has a really wonderful quote about that. He said, ‘We’re in the business of making loans to people who will pay them back.’
“Now, that sounds like it’s financial services 101, but it’s a lesson that many banks in other countries forgot.”
For Ecker and Lankin, who understand politics from the inside, Clark’s pragmatism was a major contribution to the review.
As Ecker says, there have been any number of task forces that have “gone out and done grand reports that governments dismiss in 30 minutes.
“What was important was to make sure that we could move the puck down the ice. He wanted something that was doable, that would actually get done.
“This isn’t the first group that’s looked at these organizations. Hopefully, we’ll be one of the last.”
Recommendations in the panel’s interim report:
• Keep LCBO, Hydro One, OPG
• Improve profitability at the LCBO; allow it to sell 12-packs of beer
• Hydro One should streamline electrical distribution system
• OPG should concentrate on Darlington refurbishment, improving operations, lowering costs