Banker with a social conscience

When I was researching the first book I ever wrote, The Moneyspinners published in 1983, some of the CEOs of the Big Five Banks didn’t know quite what to make of me. Russell Harrison of CIBC declined my interview requests with utter disdain. Others gave me hours of their time, and revealed their innermost thoughts. Rowland Cardwell Frazee, Chairman and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, was among the latter group. Frazee died on July 29. He was 86.

Frazee was the first of the chairmen I wrote about to invite me on his plane, a Lockheed Jetstar. I met him in Manhattan and we flew to Halifax, where he gave a speech, and then set out for Toronto. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend hours with my subject, tape recorder a-running.

Suddenly, the pilot’s voice boomed in the cabin: “There’s some pretty nice real estate coming up.” “Well, it’s either St. Andrew’s or St. Stephen,” said Frazee, speaking of the towns in New Brunswick where, respectively, he planned to retire and had been his boyhood home. As he pressed his nose against the window and gazed down at the sunlit coast, he could have been a boy again, winsomely yearning for the seaside he loved so much.

Frazee might have been tough in meetings, but he certainly showed his softer side to me at a time when bankers didn’t admit to such emotions. His leadership style was forged in the Second World War as a major battling up the boot of Italy. Raw recruits worried how they’d react when first fired upon. He empathized with them and tried to explain how it would be. As he recalled those conversations, he wept.

But of all the constituent parts of Rowlie Frazee’s life, nothing had a greater impact than his daughter, then in her late twenties. Born with muscular atrophy, Catherine never walked, but there was nothing wrong with her mind. She told her father about the environment and nuclear disarmament and why the bank should have better access for the disabled.

The two of them talked once about modern music. Rowlie complained how a recent concert in Montreal was nothing but dissonant, individual noises. Catherine had just attended a similar event in Halifax but had discovered understanding. She looked up, saw a jumble of wires, and decided, “The music was playing the ceiling.”

Rowland Frazee, banker with a social conscience, is listening even now and hearing that music with the ears of a man who spent his long life learning all the while. Few bankers of any era could say the same.

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