A woman of substance

Jalynn Bennett, a pioneering business executive and one of the warmest people I’ve ever met socially, has died at 71. Her combination of brilliant insight and self-deprecation was a delight to behold. 

After graduating from Trinity College in 1965 with a degree in economics she was forced to do what many well-educated women did at the time, take a lowly secretarial job. In her case, she worked at Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. (Manulife) where CEO Syd Jackson recognized her prowess. Within twenty years of joining the firm she was a vice-president and among three female executives reporting to Jackson, a high-water mark for women that few firms have matched since. Her recent board roles (CIBC, Rexel Canada Electrical, Teck Resources Ltd.) set a public standard in a country where half the boards have no female directors at all. 

When the men-only lunch clubs, York and Toronto, decided to finally open their membership to women in the early 1990s, Bennett was their first choice. But the change did not come without friction. Speaking against her at the special meeting called at the York Club was her own uncle, Len Lumbers, Chairman of Noranda Manufacturing. The resolution passed, Bennett became a member, and she held no rancour against her relative for his stance. 

I ran into Bennett in 2009 in her beloved Nova Scotia where she summered. We were all on line waiting for the annual Folk Art Festival in Lunenburg to open. She had just read my book on Manulife, and although she was long gone from the place, I was pleased to learn she thought what I’d written was accurate. She immediately homed in on one of my favourite moments in the book, where I took off my shoes and socks and placed my naked feet on the manicured putting-green grass that surrounds the head office on Bloor Street. 

Bennett laughed with enjoyment at my so-called reverential sensation. She always went to the heart of the matter.

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