Queen's University

Carrying the ball for Queen's

RBC President and CEO Gordon Nixon, Com’79, is one of Canada’s busiest corporate leaders. So why has he made time to sign on to head the Initiative Campaign, the University’s newly launched $500-million fundraising appeal? His answer to that question might surprise you.

It’s a little-known footnote in the biography of Canada’s most powerful banker: a single drama course at Queen’s in the late 1970s. But it was more than a throwaway elective for this rugby-playing Commerce student destined for big things in the financial world.

Gord Nixon remembers it, 35 years later, as a course that truly stretched him.

“I wasn’t particularly good at acting, and drama was a little outside my comfort level,” the President and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) admits, smiling at the memory of his brushes with stage fright. But after all, wasn’t that the whole point, he asks rhetorically – to challenge himself beyond what was familiar and comfortable?

Gord and Janet Nixon Janet and Gord Nixon met during their student days at Queen's

That drama course was a tiny building block in an educational process that turned a raw-boned teenager from Montreal into an assured performer on one of today’s biggest stages – the global ­financial services sector.

It’s where the plot, in recent years, has oscillated between farce and tragedy. “In my lifetime, I don’t remember the world ever being as troubled as it is now, in terms of so many moving parts,” he observes, in the wake of a summer marked by interest-rate-­manipulation scandals and the bailout of European banks.
His student years at Queen’s – in courses from accounting to theatre and playing for the varsity rugby squad – helped prepare him for this moment in history, but he wonders: How do we equip future generations for this life of constant, radical change?

That challenge is a major reason why Nixon has signed on as Chair of the Initiative Campaign, the University’s newly launched mission to raise $500 million – by far the most ambitious fundraising initiative ever at Queen’s ... one that would have seemed just as unimaginable as the need for it – even a decade ago. Nixon views the world outside his quiet, dark-wood-panelled office with a combination of hope and alarm. Canada has weathered the financial storm since 2008 better than most other countries, but the future of our standard of living is by no means ­assured, he worries.

“You have to be training people for where the jobs are going to be, not where they have been,” he says, explaining why educational institutions, including universities, must step up and innovate.

Yet Nixon looks at universities and sees a worrying paradox – great schools and programs that often are hamstrung by slowness to change, and by increasingly constrained finances.

More hard skills training, but at what cost?

“You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,” he warns. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to be part of the solution.”

Even so, Nixon is not a hard-liner who would sacrifice ­humanities and social sciences on the altar of job-intensive skills with measureable financial returns. He hasn’t forgotten what that undergrad drama course did for him. Successful lives, he argues, come to people fully exposed to life – people who have moved from teenager to adult in an environment that is broad, stimulating and – as in his case – that takes them outside their comfort zones.

Yes, we need more hard-skills training in education, he agrees, “but we have to be very careful about short-circuiting the development of the human mind.”

Nixon sees that intersection as a place where Queen’s excels and must continue to excel. It must generate great research and ­produce brilliant graduate students, but it must also deliver the richest undergraduate experience in Canada.

This nuanced prescription comes from the man who heads one of Canada’s top employers – a man who oversees a financial industry jobs juggernaut with 80,000 employees, and that hires thousands of people a year, including hundreds of university graduates - everything from problem-solving engineers to number-crunching MBAs.

RBC’s university hiring is often focused on business graduates, but Nixon says the bank also needs people who can communicate and lead. “We don’t want financial people who are great with numbers but who can’t write a thank-you note or a business letter. There’s a lot of that today, given technology and the Internet jargon. Many ­people don’t write well anymore.”

He also sees how a university’s physical environment contributes to that fully realized human being. It means labs and classrooms, but also sports facilities, such as Nixon Field, the rugby pitch that he and his wife Janet (Raymond), Com’80, have funded at Queen’s. An athlete himself, Gord Nixon is very committed personally to the funding of renovations for Richardson ­Stadium and to the building of a new campus hockey arena.

Go0rd Nixon during his rugby-playing daysGord Nixon (right) during his rugby-playing days, where he starred with the Gaels' 1979 championship squad. (1979 Tricolor)

After all, it was that whole experience that allowed him to grow as a young adult. “I did well as a student, and I played a lot of rugby,” he says, describing his Queen’s years.

“It was a very strong [Commerce] program, but the university experience in general, particularly at the undergraduate level, is an holistic one – social, athletics, education, everything.”

Inside Commerce, Nixon thrived in the crucible of a compact, intensive program with notable collegiality and accessibility to professors. “It’s one of the benefits of being part of a small program or small school within a university,” he notes.

After graduating from Queen’s, Nixon joined the investment bank Dominion Securities, eventually moving to Tokyo to head up its operations in Japan. Two years after RBC acquired Dominion Securities in 1987, Nixon returned to Toronto and moved up the ladder of Canada’s largest bank. In 2001, he was appointed President, and then Chief Executive Officer.

At 55, he is still very young to be a bank CEO with 11 years under his belt, but it is the time of life when corporate leaders think about their legacy.

“I’m a great believer that business leaders, and leaders in other fields, have an obligation to give back,” he says. “Queen’s came to me to ask if I’d chair this capital campaign, and from a timing perspective and my possible ability to make a difference, it sort of fit. I got a lot out of Queen’s, and it certainly has had an influence on my development and my career.”

Nixon dismisses the thought that he has any great insights as an educator, but on the fundraising side, he sees an opportunity to make an impact that lasts long after his banking days have ended.
He is to some extent the face of the Initiative Campaign, in terms of co-ordinating the Campaign cabinet and its efforts. However, he believes success rests squarely on the ability of the Principal and the University to tell a compelling story in a ­discerning marketplace.

While broad participation is important, Nixon is aware that that philanthropy operates under “The 80-20 Rule” – that 80 per cent of all donations come from just 20 per cent of the people who give. Such donors are constantly offered opportunities to invest their money, and, as Nixon notes, “They’re looking for something they are passionate about.”

A university must play to its strengths

That means an organization must sell its vision. ”That has to come from the University, not from Gord Nixon or another cabinet member phoning up a friend.

“It may have worked that way 50 years ago, but not today. ­Contributions come from having a product that’s attractive and through which people feel that, when they invest their dollars, those dollars can make a difference.”

It also means a university has to play to its strengths, he says, which is how he has endeavoured to manage the bank. Observers credited Royal Bank’s CEO for not succumbing to the wave of overspending and overexpansion leading up to the 2008 financial ­crisis that created mayhem for so many other institutions.

And what is Queen’s strength? “I still think of it as a relatively small university in a non-urban area,” says Nixon. “That’s a different educational environment or experience from that at McGill or the U of T, which are large universities in large urban areas.”

It is not a question of which is “better”, he explains. It is about different learning experiences.
“One of the attractions of Queen’s is the wonderful undergraduate program in a wonderful physical setting, where the ­students are in close proximity to each other and there’s a tremendous amount of school spirit. I think of Queen’s – and I’m clearly biased – as the best undergraduate school in the country.”

On the postgraduate side, it is more difficult to try to compete head-to-head with the larger universities, and so Queen’s has to be focused on where it aims to be a leader, he says.

Nixon is not a one-note cheerleader for the joys of university life. He can be critical of the role universities are taking, or sometimes not taking, in the global economy. He sees the challenges as a bank CEO, but also in his role as chair of former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Jobs and Prosperity Council, and as chair of MaRS, the technology hothouse in downtown Toronto.

He emphasizes that universities may be slow in applying technology, “but ultimately they have to adapt and to some degree economics will force the adoption.”

One situation he sees, for example, is that customers and rivals are constantly challenging RBC to explore new ways to deliver services instantaneously through electronic media, mobile devices, and the Internet, but universities generally are lacking that same sense of urgency to explore more efficient delivery of their services and products. “I’d say they’re slower adapters than would be expected in the private sector, and,” Nixon adds, “innovation has to come into the equation if we’re going to be able to deliver [programs] in an efficient manner.”

He emphasizes that universities may be slow in applying technology, “but ultimately they have to adapt and to some degree economics will force the adoption.”

Nixon also sees a role in university life for leaders from beyond the academy who, with the perspective of outsiders, can introduce ground-breaking ideas and programs. He has seen this happening particularly in business schools and law faculties, where deans and teachers from other walks of life have reinvigorated programs around the world.

Innovation, he warns, is not just about extracting support dollars from the state; it’s about how these funds are invested, and how programs are developed. Yet the conversation inevitably turns to future funding, and Nixon is wary of wading into the great tuition debate that sent Quebec students onto the streets earlier this year.

But the bottom line, he says, is that due to massive deficits, governments are cutting back on education support, expenses are soaring and external sources of funding have to play a bigger role in university operations. That means there’s a greater and ever-expanding need for alumni and individual donors to support post-secondary education.

Individuals must step forward

Nixon is particularly sensitive to the needs of the great health care facilities and universities, which must excel if Canada is to stay in the big leagues of world economic powers. It is, he says, “a question of math. Governments don’t have the dollars to provide the funding, and if we are to continue to run top global institutions – whether Toronto’s University Health Network, or universities such as Queen’s and the U of T – there’ll be more and more ­requirement for non-governmental sources of funding.”

Corporations are certainly looking at where they can make a difference, but they can be highly focused in their giving and are often limited by financial programs related to profitability. RBC, for example, donates a maximum of one per cent of pre-tax profits to charities, and its gifts to Queen’s are targeted currently in the areas of environment and water and children’s mental health.

Research is also a valuable source of innovation, and forging partnerships is the key, Nixon says. “Major success will come from having the private and public sectors and academia working together to making those research dollars count.”

However, the bottom line is that it is individuals who provide the bulk of the dollars in any fundraising campaign, and these individuals cannot be pitched on the basis that they are simply filling a hole left by government. “These donors are not just writing cheques – they have an exacting and significant process [for donating their money], and you have to sell them on it. It has to be the leaders and visionaries in the university who do that.”

That said, Nixon may come through with a timely phone call, if it can make a difference.
Sometimes, when talking about the minutiae of fundraising, it is easy to forget what is at stake. Nixon keeps coming back to the complex challenges faced by universities in an age when careers are displaced by technology and jobs are moving to developing ­nations where wages are lower.

Initiatice Campaign launchGord Nixon (third from left) and his wife Janet joined Principal Daniel Woolf, Chancellor David Dodge, and an overflow crowd of alumni, faculty, students, and friends of Queen's at the Sept. 29 launch in Grant Hall of the Initiative Campaign.

"It's a different world out there . . . ."

Predicting which will be the value-added careers of tomorrow is a daunting task in an information age in which the notion of value is so elusive. Nixon notes that three of the most influential companies in recent years have been Google, Apple, and Facebook. Until very recently, when Google took over Motorola’s cell-phone division, the two combined had fewer employees than RBC.

“It’s a different world out there,” says Nixon. “How do you find jobs for the next generation of people, and how will their standard of living be enhanced? It’s not easy to answer, but you don’t want to give up trying, because ultimately, if you can find solutions, you can be ahead of the game.”

Gord Nixon clearly feels humbled by the task faced by the people who must deal every day with the huge expectations of training tomorrow’s leaders, employees, and citizens. It is not easy being a bank CEO in a time of radical change, but, he adds “I’m not sure which would be the worst job – a university president, high school teacher, or camp director.”

All these jobs require skill sets that the self-effacing Nixon says are beyond his own abilities. “You’ve got to keep politicians happy, parents happy, and students happy. You have a lot of constituents to deal with.“

And if he can help them in some substantive way, he clearly feels that will be legacy enough.


Article author Gordon Pitts is a Senior Writer with The Globe and Mail Report on Business. – Ed.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2012 Issue #4Queen's Alumni Review
2012 Issue #4
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