From boardroom to classroom
I find I have the luxury of essentially doing what I want to do and what interests me.
When Don Drummond left Queen’s in 1977, MA in hand, the parting prediction of the Economics Department head rang in his ears: “Mark my words, you’ll be back.”
Indeed, Don is back, 33 years later, after a brilliant career as a senior federal finance official and bank chief economist, in which he has been a force in shaping and interpreting the modern Canadian economy.
Queen’s honoured him with a doctor of laws degree at Spring convocation, and he will take up duties this fall as the Matthews Fellow and Visiting Scholar in the School of Policy Studies.
Don never got the PhD that his department head, the late Principal D.C. Smith, had urged him to pursue. But he has been present at the defining moments of recent Canadian economic history. As a key strategist in the Department of Finance in the 1990s, he helped tame the deficit and debt crises and set the country on the road to substantive tax reform.
He seamlessly shifted to the private sector, turning the position of Toronto-Dominion Bank’s chief economist into a critical piece of the bank’s marketing effort, basically reinventing the role of economist as media star.
He had a front-row seat on the 2008 financial meltdown, which, despite pain for many people, was fascinating grist for an economist’s intellectual mill. Indeed, as a finance mandarin, Don had helped create the conditions that allowed Canada to come through the disaster in better condition than almost any other industrial power.
All this and only 56. Don still has the energy to tackle another big, high-pressure job, but he is in an enviable financial position. As a former deputy finance minister, he is now eligible to receive a fully indexed unreduced federal pension, along with a bit of pension from the TD Bank. “I find I have the luxury of essentially doing what I want to do and what interests me,” he says.
Part of that interesting work will be done at Queen’s, where he first arrived in 1976 from the U of Victoria. Like many aspiring economists of the era, he was drawn to Queen’s by the great minds in the Economics Department, including Richard Lipsey, a pre-eminent macroeconomic thinker.
“Lipsey was the big draw for me,” Don says, and he was not disappointed by the engaging professor. “Whenever I walked down the hall, his door was open. You’d go in his office and at the end of two hours, you’d be looking at your watch and saying ‘I’ve got to go to a class’.” Then Lipsey would say, ‘Well, that’s too bad, come back later.”
It’s the kind of student-teacher engagement that is too rare in today’s over-stretched academic environment, notes Don, who has two daughters in university.
Don headed off to Ottawa, expecting to work a couple of years before returning for that doctorate. It never happened, not just because of the initial paycheque of $13,680 a year, but because the work in the Finance Department was so fascinating.
He advised governments as they struggled to rein in the exploding deficits that put Canada’s financial future in jeopardy. As assistant deputy minister for fiscal policy, he worked beside his minister, Paul Martin, as they finally wrestled the shortfalls into submission. (Coincidentally, Martin also received an honorary degree from Queen’s this spring.)
It was exhilarating, exhausting work. “In a common day with Paul Martin, we met until 11 o’clock [at night], and he totally trashed everything I proposed to him. Then he’d say, ‘We’ll meet again tomorrow morning at eight o’clock.’ I was supposed to somehow reinvent the entire thing between 11 and eight.”
Don was open to new challenges when TD bank chief Ed Clark called him in 2000 about the chief economist’s job. The CEO warned that his one requirement was that Don make lots of money for the bank.
He quickly grasped a marketing role for his economics group, and became the master of the two-minute, 50-second media interview. “If you have two or three messages, that’s probably one or two too many,” he says.
For a while, he actually kept score of new accounts he had secured for the bank, and he easily recouped his department budget and much more.
Today, he is committed to 25-50 days a year at the TD Bank, with a particular focus on examining Canada’s troubling productivity gap. And he will teach at Queen’s, fulfilling his dream of “a third gig” in his career.
This winter, he will deliver a Master’s course on economics in public administration. Safe to say, Don will try to keep his office door open.
Gordon Pitts, a senior writer and editor with The Globe and Mail Report on Business, is the author of five books, including his latest, Stampede! The Rise of the West and Canada’s New Power Elite (Key Porter, $34.95).