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.