When Raptors guard Kyle Lowry drives to the basket in Sunday’s NBA all-star game, his hometown fans will savour the moment.
The ACC faithful will show their love when he sinks a basket. And the sentiment is just what one executive in the stands will be banking on. Last August, Justine Fedak, senior vice-president and head of brand, advertising and sponsorship for BMO Financial Group, signed endorsement deals with Lowry as well as Canadian-born NBAers Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Ennis. The players, role models for young Canadians with their own hoop dreams, get involved in kids’ sports clinics, promoting the bank and the sport.
Fedak, five-foot-one, never shot hoops growing up in Hamilton — “Just look at me,” she says with a laugh — but she’s made her own mark on the game. Working the boardrooms, she has signed a number of high-profile partnerships with the Raptors, NBA Canada and Jr. NBA Canada. And there’s that BMO logo stamped on home court.
Fedak sees herself as the coach of her team of 20 bank staff across North America working on sponsorships. She and her boss, BMO chief marketing officer Connie Stefankiewicz, were on the NBA’s all-star committee as consultants and helped promote the event on both sides of the border.
“Justine is very smart, clear about what she wants, very persuasive and well connected,” says NBA Canada vice-president Dan MacKenzie, adding it took three months of talks, a relatively short time, before they nailed down a partnership deal. She’s also a tough negotiator.
“I don’t think you can get to that level in the bank and sports unless you are,” he says.
Fedak’s life can feel like a negotiation, as she is constantly juggling her roles as businesswoman, wife and mother, as well as medical challenges.
She has been based in BMO’s Chicago head office for the past 16 years. Fedak, 45, often commutes during the week to her home in Burlington that she shares with her husband, real estate broker Conrad Zurini, her daughter Alessandra, 11, and their cat, Emily. Fedak is constantly texting and calling her daughter, dealing with school work and catching up. When she sees Alessandra’s face come up on her phone, everything stops.
In 2014, Fedak was one of the Chicago Business Journal’s 40 Women of Influence. In that city, she has put together deals with the NBA’s Bulls and NHL’s Blackhawks, and helped set up a charity with Bulls star Joakim Noah.
Fedak studied sociology at the University of Toronto, a period marred by tragedy. Her close friend, who had been her longtime boyfriend in high school, was killed in a car accident in 1991. “I really sort of lost the sense of what direction I wanted to take in a career sense,” Fedak said in a 2013 interview in the MS Connection Newsletter.
After graduation, her best friend, whose father worked at the bank, suggested she apply for a job. Fedak went to work for BMO in 1992 in public affairs and media relations. At the time, she didn’t imagine where her career would lead.
“I became intoxicated with sports marketing and marketing in general and had a mentor that groomed me when I was young,” Fedak says.
Fedak has been honoured for her community work, and was named one of eight great Chicago beauties by Michigan Avenue magazine. Not a typical bank exec, she’s more likely to be found in designer leather jackets, black skinny pants and tall boots than business suits, pumps and pearls.
While she gives a lot of herself to the company, she is grateful for its support in her times of need. This support proved crucial on that day 14 years ago when she received a shocking diagnosis.
What Fedak calls a “crisis of confidence” made her consider quitting the job she loved.
After a tough blow, a coming-out at centre court
It all began suddenly on a business trip to New York. “My left side became paralyzed,” says Fedak of that day in January 2002. Within 48 hours, doctors at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto told her she had multiple sclerosis.
“I didn’t know anything about MS at the time,” says Fedak, who had been married four months when she was diagnosed. Her younger brother Paul, a cardiac surgeon in Calgary, encouraged her to learn everything she could about the debilitating, unpredictable disease, which often caused severe pain and extreme heat sensitivity. “It was scary and isolating,” she says.
Senior colleagues, the first to know, rallied around her, as did family and friends. Still, it took years to come to terms with a disease for which there is no cure.
While there have been mountains to climb, Fedak hasn’t allowed MS and physical limitations to define her. Not long after her diagnosis, while she was still able, Fedak trained for a half-marathon, building her strength and endurance even as the disease was sucking her energy. She finally ran it in 2009.
Fedak kept her condition a secret for a long time, worried she’d be treated differently. “I felt broken and didn’t want to be a poster child,” she says.
But her symptoms got worse, and on Christmas 2012, Fedak came out publicly: at a Bulls game, she walked to centre court using her cane. When people asked why she was using it, she told them.
The team was very supportive, she says, and one of the first people there for her was Joakim Noah.
Now she jokes that her trademark clear acrylic cane is ideal for pulling hard-to-reach bottles of water across a boardroom table.
She knows what she can do and what she can’t. When physically taxed, Fedak works from home. A fast-moving escalator is scary; so are long lines to get through airport security. Standing for extended periods can set off a tremor in her leg, a warning that it may give way.
She’s grateful to be working for a company “supportive of women, diversity and inclusion.”
“I’m surrounded by people who care and check in on me,” Fedak says, adding that Stefankiewicz, her boss, “is always asking me if I’m OK or need to rest.”
Letting go has been liberating for Fedak, who has become a strong voice for those with MS and people with disabilities, in the hopes of inspiring others. In 2013, she was given a standing ovation by 300 supporters when the Chicago chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society presented her with the Woman on the Move Award.
She has also been honoured for her business success. Fedak received a lifetime achievement award from Dalhousie University, where she earned an MBA while at the bank.
Last fall, she joined a delegation that accompanied Premier Kathleen Wynne’s trade mission to China.
Throughout, the blond executive who has 48 pairs of funky glasses became a media darling, appearing on television and speaking about the disease and the NBA. She has penned guest columns for the Chicago Sun-Times. In one, she admitted to being taken aback after learning some colleagues said they were intimidated by her. Instead of taking umbrage or dismissing it, she began working with an executive coach.
“… And I have agreed within my own heart to be open to learning things about myself that I may not really like, knowing that, in the end, every one of us is perfectly imperfect,” she wrote back in 2014.
In Canada, Fedak’s signature is on some of BMOs biggest sponsorship deals, such as its partnership with Toronto FC. The Calgary Stampede and Kids Help Phone are also on the bank’s roster. BMO soccer programs run nationwide, with more than 20,000 youth house league players taking part. Though the bank won’t disclose how much it invests in sponsorships, last year it donated $56.8 million to charitable, not-for-profit and community groups.
Justine Fedak is still very much on the move. But just as a second can make all the difference in basketball, she says what’s most important for her is “the moment.”
“I live life on a 24-hour clock.”