Gordon Sharwood 1932-2010

Gordon Sharwood’s departure from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was in keeping with the principles of the man. In August 1969, Sharwood was reading the newspaper at breakfast when he saw an item saying Russell Harrison was being transferred from Quebec to run the bank on a day-to-day basis.

Until then, that had been Sharwood’s role and he had done it well. Earlier that year, CIBC passed the Royal to become Canada’s largest bank. Such success was insufficient for Neil McKinnon, the autocratic chairman and CEO of CIBC, who toyed with potential successors among his senior executives for years.

Sharwood telephoned his wife Sandy, who was at their summer cottage. “Take the train home,” he said, “I’m going to resign.” McKinnon refused to even see Sharwood. His relayed explanation was suitably peremptory. “I didn’t consult the people Sharwood was brought in over.”

McKinnon was finally thrown out of office by the board of directors in 1973 and the bank went through a healing process and a series of new leaders. Yet ten years later, when I interviewed him for “The Moneyspinners,” Sharwood told me, “The Commerce is still run by McKinnon’s ghost.”

Sharwood launched a merchant bank, took a particular interest in entrepreneurs, and was an optimist in a world dominated by the dour. “There’s no reason why entrepreneurs can’t go out and raise money,” he told me in 1995 for my book about startups, “The Last Best Hope.” He was on major boards such as Canadian Pacific Transport and Dover Industries but his best work was with organizations such as the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise helping smaller firms where so many jobs are created.

Gordon Sharwood may not have led a bank, but his was a life well led. Banking’s loss was the entrepreneur’s gain.

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