Cedric Ritchie 1927-2016

The citizens of Toronto have recently focused on the death of former Mayor Rob Ford, but there was another passing last week of a man who had a far more profound impact on Toronto and Canada: Ced Ritchie, chairman and chief executive officer of the Bank of Nova Scotia from 1974-1995. I worked for Ritchie for two years after I left Ottawa in 1976. I thought I had seen power in the nation’s capital but I quickly realized that was nothing compared to the raw power in the hands of a bank CEO.

I don’t think in all my years I’ve known anyone who worked as hard as Ritchie. Fuelled by cigarettes and black coffee, he was on the go 18 hours a day including many weekends. He strode the corridors of the bank at top speed with his entire body leaning forward as if into a headwind. If a corporate client in Calgary wanted to talk, Ritchie would climb on a plane and go. Decisions on multi-million dollar loans were made quickly; Ritchie could size up a business leader and a balance sheet in a few minutes.

Ritchie did not seek the spotlight. In fact, he avoided it. The very thought there might be questions from the media after the annual meeting made him squeamish. He faced his own board of directors with similar wariness. In his mind, he put his signed resignation on the boardroom table at the beginning of every meeting with directors. If it hadn’t been picked up after two hours, he was OK for another month.

In that era, bank CEOs tended toward the autocratic. With 23,000 employees and operations in more than 50 countries, Ritchie had to lay down the law from time to time. But he also gave responsibilities to others and let them get on with their jobs, a rare gift not always granted by the boss.

Once, at a dinner hosted by Ritchie during a World Bank/IMF meeting, a woman rose from her seat at one of the tables. She was Claire Giannini Hoffman, daughter of Amadeo Giannini, founder of the Bank of America. She praised Ritchie’s “great warmth and humanity” and then warned: “Don’t lose that quality.” He never did.

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