The sun has set
John McNeil was one of the very few senior Canadian business executives with a world view. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, most of our big-league CEOs were born in small-town Canada. They’d find their way to Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, and then slog their way to the top. Not McNeil, who died February 26, at eighty-four. The former chairman and CEO of the Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada had grown up and lived in England, Africa and Scotland before emigrating to Canada.
For McNeil, that broadband heritage was both a strength and a weakness. Because he was so strong-willed, McNeil soon ran afoul of an early boss, Bank of Montreal Chairman and CEO Bill Mulholland. After the two clashed publicly, the division where McNeil worked just happened to be reorganized and he was out of a job. When I interviewed McNeil about his departure from BMO, he was almost wistful. “I believe a cat can look at the king, and that ….” When his voice trailed away, I finished the sentence, “… says it all.” McNeil nodded and whispered, “Maybe.”
When my book about bankers, The Moneyspinners, was published in 1983 I included our conversation and the lead-up to his leave-taking. McNeil was spitting mad I’d quoted him and did not speak to me for years. For my 1996 book, Who Killed Confederation Life?, I needed to know how willingly the insurance industry had tried to save Confed, one of its own. Half a dozen competitors had met numerous times but no deal was struck nor buyer found. When the regulators seized Confed, the other CEOs were too embarrassed to talk about their ineffectual efforts.
McNeil, who participated in all the meetings, was my last hope. I feared he’d still hold a grudge but I put in an interview request anyway. To my great surprise, he agreed, and arrived at the designated meeting room carrying a stack of journals in which he’d made contemporaneous notes about who said what to whom over a period of many months. That book, which won the National Business Book Award, owes much to McNeil’s notes and his willingness to forgive my sin of commission. McNeil will forever be remembered as a man who always spoke truth, a rarity in any era.