Don Fullerton 1931-2011

Among all the senior bankers of recent vintage, Don Fullerton possessed the most grace and the quickest wit. As a sometime thorn in the side of the banks, I had been particularly scathing in my books and magazine pieces over the years about Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) where Fullerton was chairman and chief executive officer from 1985-1992. As far as I was concerned, CIBC was the worst run and the most political – a toxic combination – of the Big Five Banks. CIBC always seemed to be the last bank in the door with the biggest wheelbarrow full of money for companies about to implode: Massey-Ferguson, Dome Petroleum, Olympia & York.

In the mid-1990s we both attended a cocktail party at the home of a mutual friend. I found myself as part of a conversational bouquet on the patio with him during that warm summer’s evening. Fullerton looked at me disapprovingly across the circle of eight people and set out to skin me alive with witnesses. “McQueen, I can’t begin to tell you how much you’ve got wrong about banking over the years. I don’t know where you get your information but it certainly couldn’t have been from anyone who worked at the banks. Do you just make things up?”

“Well,” I replied, “I’d be happy to sit down with you and go through these mistakes you claim I made and see what you’re talking about.”

“Do you know how long that would take? Do you think I’ve got that kind of time to spend with the likes of you?”

He continued in that vein for a while. I smiled through it all and so did he. The following week I phoned him, offering to buy lunch. He accepted. And so began the most unlikely friendship that continued over an annual lunch most years since. He ended up telling me a lot about banking but I also heard about many other things including the Li Ka Shing Foundation where he was a director and all the good work the foundation was doing. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye on issues, but we agreed on more than either of us could ever have imagined, and we always had a stimulating conversation, the likes of which are all too rare.

I last saw him a couple of months ago. “Call me for lunch,” he said. I’ve been busy about other matters and didn’t get to it. I missed my opportunity for a last lesson from my belated mentor, who, despite what he said at that reception, ended up taking the time to teach me a lot. And it was my turn to buy, too, a fact he likely would have had in mind when he invited me to call.

1 Response

  1. Geoff Fullerton says:

    Finally, someone writes an article from the heart and with true honesty, rather than blocking words to fill column space.

    You must be an incredible man to manage through your difficult times with your wife just passing away and on top of that, unselfishly taking the time to write a memorable tribute to Don Fullerton.

    I can see why you two formed a bond as you both have high intellect (Never admitted to the big guy as it went directly to his head, never to leave) and a desire to challenge those that dare to step in the ring.

    Let me introduce myself. My name is Geoff Fullerton, 2nd oldest son of Donald. As you have experienced and can relate, I to have challenged my father on many worldly issues and in depth conversations that most often end in his favor. These were purely unselfish reasons that allowed me to sit back while he assumed control.

    Your article in the Globe and Mail is so true to his life. Your wit and honesty inspire me to write to you to express my gratitude.

    A few years back, I completed my first novel that took five years to complete. I cannot imagine writing as you do. The book is now in the hands of my son and those that I love. As you have provided to me, I to have opened a window into my life that can be passed on to my son and his grand children. Information that will not appear in an obituary but something created from the heart with a lot of humor. The book is a testament to the way my father lived his life. No challenge was ever to big, just do it and stop whining.

    After reading many articles in tribute to my father, I now realize how little we know about those we love.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and emotions for someone I truly love.

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