Patience and persistence
Regular readers know how much I enjoy a well-written memoir by a business leader. Such a book is “Lessons Learned on Bay Street: The Sale Begins When the Customer Says No,” by Donald K. Johnson. Johnson’s distinguished career as an investment banker started in 1963 at Burns Bros. and Denton and continued through various mergers until he became president of Burns Fry and then vice-chair of BMO Nesbitt Burns. Now eighty-five, he’s as active as ever.
Johnson’s grandparents, on both sides of the family, moved from Iceland to Manitoba in the 1880s as did many others after a volcanic eruption. His father died young, leaving his mother to raise four children in Lundar, 60 miles north of Winnipeg. Sensing that Donald was intelligent she moved the family to Winnipeg so he could attend university. He graduated in engineering and followed up with an MBA from The University of Western Ontario.
During his Bay Street career, Johnson adopted several one-liners including: Never give up; Laughter is the best medicine; and Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Some people might scoff at such simple sayings, but they work. Johnson was also told early on to keep a list of contacts; his list now numbers more than 6,000. He keeps healthy by watching his diet, walking 10,000 steps a day, doing transcendental meditation and is asleep by 9:30 p.m.
Johnson is not afraid to chase opportunities. Starting in 1994 he regularly approached Warren Buffet, attended his annual meetings, offered him deals, and even sent a CD by Paul Anka, a singer they both admired. Finally, in 2017 Johnson won over Buffet when Berkshire Hathaway invested in Home Capital Group, a struggling Toronto mortgage lender. Patience and determination, Johnson would say, citing U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
Johnson’s only real trouble came from Jack Lawrence, his boss at Burns Fry for five years. “I disliked Jack, and I don’t think I was alone on the management team in feeling that way,” writes Johnson who found Lawrence abrasive and uninspiring. “If there was one thing I learned from him, it was how not to manage people.”
As a philanthropist, Johnson has donated to more than three hundred Canadian charities. His largest gift is $15 million to Toronto Western Hospital for the Eye Institute that bears his name. Johnson has also enabled others through his lengthy fight with Ottawa so donors can give shares in public companies to charities without having to pay capital gains taxes. Taxes were cut in half in 1997 and fully removed in 2006. Most years since, charities have received $1 billion in gifts of listed securities from individual and corporate donors. Since then, he has pushed for the exemption to include private company shares and real estate. Johnson will be monitoring the budget scheduled for tomorrow to see if that further relief is announced. If not, you can be sure his efforts will continue. If Ottawa thinks he’ll fall silent on the topic, they don’t understand the powerful force they’re up against.