D. R. Wilkie: a Dominant Figure in Canadian Banking

W. A. Craick January 1 1913

D. R. Wilkie: a Dominant Figure in Canadian Banking

W. A. Craick January 1 1913

The aim of this regular monthly feature is to give our readers right across the continent a knowledge of the leaders—the men and women who are doing things in all departments of Canadian life. The sketch this month deals with D. R. Wilkie, one of the outstanding figures in Canadian banking, giving an account of his interesting career, and incidentally touching on many features in connection with his personality and success.

IT was a happy coincidence that the year which witnessed the completion of his half-century of service in the banking arena, should have been signalized by the elevation of the chief executive of the Imperial Bank to the presidency of the Canadian Bankers’ Association. In May, 1862, D. R. Wilkie, then a youth of fifteen, became a member of the staff of the Quebec Bank, and in all the fifty years that have since elapsed, his name has constantly figured on the pay roll of one or other of the two banks with which he has been continuously associated. To-day, succeeding the late Sir Edward Clouston, Bart., he occupies the most commanding position in Canadian banking circles.

Unlike many of the leading men of the day, who take a delight in tracing their rise from such humble beginnings as shining shoes, carrying water or selling newspapers, D. R. Wilkie can scarcely be called a self-made man. He belongs to the third generation at least of culture. His father and his grand-uncle before him were scholars of brilliant attainments, rectors in succession of the Quebec High School and men whose personalities were impressed on two generations of the youth of the Ancient Capital. Born into such a family, the future banker inherited not only their abilities, but the advantages of position which such a connection gave.

A mixed Scottish and French strain exists in the Wilkie blood, which may be taken to account for a certain contradictoriness in his make-up, the carefulness of the Scot contrasting at times with the open-hearted liberality of the Frenchman. The son of a Scotchman, born in Quebec on December 17, 1846, he was brought up among the picturesque surroundings of the French-Canadian city and here he spent his first twenty years.

One can well imagine the kind of life that was lived in the home of the strict, precise schoolmaster. There was rigid discipline, enforced application to study, and constant training in methodical habits, the results of which are apparent in the mature man of to-day. The mother was a woman of fine character, whose influence was likewise calculated to mould a strong personality. In the Wilkie household there were also accommodated from time to time boys from other parts, attending the High School, who were there placed under the immediate care of the Rector. Prominent among these at the time when D. R. Wilkie was living at home, was a youth who is to-day a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Justice Cassels, of Ottawa. In the companionship of these boys and under the supervision of his father, the future bank president passed his earlier years.

It is always a matter of interest to trace out that circumstance in life which influences a man in his choice of a profession. Oftentimes it is seemingly of the most trivial character. In the case of Mr. Wilkie it was so slight an incident as to be almost inappreciable, and yet his whole future career has apparently hinged upon it.

When a lad of fifteen his father had occasion to send him one day with a message to a friend. The friend happened to be one of the directors of the Quebec Bank. As a man will often do, when he sees before him a bright, intelligent-looking boy, he asked young Wilkie what he intended to become when he got through school. The boy had not made up his mind; he had far-off visions of taking up the study of law, but for the present he expressed anxiety to be doing something for himself, no matter what.

The director was evidently impressed with the youth’s personality, and spoke to the president of the bank about him. The latter, who knew the father intimately, and was assured that the son of such a man ought to turn out well, asked him whether he would not care to enter the service of the bank. The opportunity to get started in business seemed too good to miss and the fifteen-year-old lad became forthwith an employe of the financial institution.

Still, this step in itself did not settle the problem of what he was to be. The profession of the law continued to fascinate him, and he determined to use the bank as a stepping-stone to this end. In the sixties, banking hours were short and the work comparatively easy. He was able to continue his studies at Morrin College in the ample spare time which was his after the duties of the day had been completed.

Thanks to native ability and also to the fact that other employes of the bank had dropped out of the ranks, his rise in the service was unexpectedly rapid —a circumstance which placed him in a dilemma. He was anxious to continue his preparation for the life of the bar; but at the same time he began to see gratifying prospects ahead of him in the banking business. A decision became imperative. He was assisted in his choice by James Stevenson, general manager of the bank. The latter had heard through Professor Hatch, of Morrin College, that the boy was intent on going in for the law. He summoned him to his office one day and put the case to him frankly. If he intended ultimately to leave the bank, he could not expect to receive further promotion. On the other hand, if he would agree to stay by the bank, he would assure him that there were splendid opportunities before him. The case, thus stated, was not without its effect, and D. R. Wilkie then and there decided on his future course. A banker he would remain.

James Stevenson was an excellent mentor. An accomplished gentleman, with wide literary tastes, he was one of the foremost bankers of the day, and under him Mr. Wilkie received his early training in banking. Much of a man’s future success undoubtedly depends on the kind of instruction and encouragement given him at the outset by his superiors and the president of the Imperial Bank does not hesitate to express his obligation to the veteran Quebec financier, who gave him his start by imparting a solid groundwork of banking knowledge and inspiring him to aim high.

At the astonishingly early age of twenty, D. R. Wilkie was sent from Quebec to St. Catharines to assume the management of the bank’s branch there. Even in those days of opportunity when promotion was rapid, this rise to a managership within five years was remarkable, it showed that the young man was already regarded as possessing abilities of no ordinary character.

Three years after his arrival in Ontario, history records that he was married to Miss Benson, a daughter of the late Senator John R. Benson, of St. Catharines. He is thus related by marriage to a family, the head of which once occupied a prominent place in the legislative life of Canada, and which has given a son to distinguished service in the British army in the person of Major-General Sir F. W. Benson. Mr. Wilkie’s two sons inherit a little of the military spirit of the Bensons, for they have both taken up soldiering as a career.

In 1872 the Bank of Hamilton was launched by capitalists of the Ambitious City and in their search for a general manager, the promoters hit upon the late H. C. Hammond, at the time manager of the Toronto branch of the Quebec Bank. Mr. Hammond accepted the offer that was made to him and resigned his position. In the emergency young Wilkie was instructed to report in Toronto and take over from him the keys of the Toronto office. It is true that forty years ago Toronto was a comparatively small city, but none the less the time was one of expansion in banking circles and the arrival of Mr. Wilkie in the Queen City at the age of twenty-five was fortunate for him.

The following year witnessed the incorporation of the Imperial Bank by a group of Toronto capitalists. At first it appears the efforts made to secure sufficient capital proved ineffectual, and it seemed as if the institution was doomed to perish still-born. But in 1874, the late H. S. Howland, who was one of the originators of the bank, came into contact with Mr. Wilkie, and, appreciating his abilities, urged him to take an interest in the organization of the new corporation. The young banker was gifted with shrewdness and foresight, even in those early days, and he was nothing loath to forego the distant prospect of further promotion in the Quebec Bank for the immediate opportunity for advancement in a new and prospectively vigorous rival.

Through his St. Catharines’ connections he was able to make an immediate arrangement that guaranteed the success of the Imperial flotation. His father-in-law was interested in the Niagara District Bank of St. Catharines, of which the late T. R. Merritt had been for twenty-one years president. The bank was small, having only two branches, in Ingersoll and Port Colborne, in addition to the head office, but it had sufficient standing to make its absorption of value. With the Niagara District Bank merged in the Imperial, the shareholders of the two institutions assembled on February 25, 1875, and appointed H. S. Howland president and T. R. Merritt, vice-president. D. R. Wilkie had meanwhile become general manager, or cashier, as the office was then called.

It may prove interesting to hark back to the March day in 1875, when the Imperial Bank first opened its doors for business. The Toronto office was accommodated in the building on Toronto Street now occupied by the Canada Permanent Loan Corporation. The quarters were small, so small that the least of all the Imperial branches today would be ashamed to do business in such premises. The staff consisted of Mr. Wilkie and two or three other young men. There was no vault, and on the conclusion of the day’s business one might see the manager put the cash and securities in a small satchel and, guarded by his staff, carry them solemnly down the street to the Quebec Bank vault, there to be kept over-night.

The memory of these humble beginnings is lost in the glory of present achievements. Palatial offices, with plenty of marble and polished wood and metal, make one forget that there was ever a time when business was transacted in cramped, ill-lighted premises. But the metamorphosis is not without its significance, and in the little offices even of to-day where ambitious young men are making a start, one may see a repetition forty years hence of what Mr. Wilkie has achieved.

The remaining chapter of Mr. Wilkie’s career is synonomous with the history of the Imperial Bank. Beginning with a paid-up capital amounting to $804,000 in 1876, and with branches in Toronto, St. Catharines, Ingersoll and Port Colborne, expansion has carried the capital up to $6,598,500 at the close of 1912, while the number of branches has increased to one hundred and ten. Until 1902, H. S. Howland continued in the presidency. On his death in that year, he was succeeded by T. R. Merritt. When in 1906 the latter likewise passed away, Mr. Wilkie was elected to the presidency, retaining as well the position of general manager.

As a banker, D. R. Wilkie’s outstanding characteristic is an extreme cautiousness. He has a mania for holding large cash reserves and in this respect his bank, with possibly one exception, maintains a pre-eminent position among all the chartered banks of the country. As navigator of the financial barque, he has a keen eye for squalls and begins to take in sail at the first symptom of disturbance. When the storm of 1906-07 swooped down on the sea of business, the Imperial was close-reefed to meet the onslaught and rode through the gale with scarce a tremor, while some other craft, were in considerable distress.

The position of the Imperial Bank at this crisis was undoubtedly a steadying influence in Canadian finance, and the country owes not a little to the careful guidance of D. R. Wilkie and men like him when conditions were so uncertain.

At the same time it must not be assumed that Mr. Wilkie lacks progressiveness. If he has an eye for storms, he has also a keen scent for favorable breezes. He foresaw the expansion of the West, and it will be found that the Imperial Bank was one of the first to establish branches beyond the Great Lakes. Indeed, at several points it was the first bank on the ground. It opened in Winnipeg in 1880. It established a branch in Calgary in 1882, and in other cities it was early in the field. It may be said in fact that the Imperial policy from the start has been largely the promotion of Western development along conservative lines.

In the actual work of management, Mr. Wilkie is strong on detail. He has a wonderful grasp of all sides of a problem. There are those who are ready to maintain that he attempts too much and that in seeking to control every movement, he is unconsciously weakening the efficiency of his staff. Be this as it may, he is an outstanding example of the strong-willed, dominant personality who sweeps things before him by sheer strength of purpose. He has aimed to make the Imperial Bank not necessarily big but strong. He has cared more for quality than size, and these ideas he has impressed on those under him.

Discipline rather than a desire to court popularity has marked the general manager’s attitude towards the staff of the bank. There is a trace of the military as well as of the magisterial in his make-up, which inclines him to severity. He is not a popular manager, if by popular is meant one who lays himself out to be agreeable by adopting a free and easy manner. The Imperial system is military in its discipline, and D. R. Wilkie is the dictator. His authority is not divided. He is the one man whose word carries weight from the assistant general manager down to the youngest office boy, and in this sense, the bank is veritably a one-man institution.

The system, however, is not without its advantages. It has meant that he has gathered about him in the management a staff of men who have a high regard for the dignity of the institution. It will be found that the Imperial managers are as a rule men of superior calbre, who merits the respect and real confidence of their customers.

Personally, D. R. Wilkie is a neat, well-groomed figure, always immaculately dressed and frequently appearing with a boutonnière. He is inclined to be stout, and his bearing is dignified. He is clean-shaven, save for a moustache, with hair growing thin but always carefully brushed. When at work he affects the new-fangled horn spectacles, which add a further note of distinction to his appearance. His accent is slightly English, and he speaks slowly and deliberately. Pie is a man who looks ten years younger than he actually is.

Blessed with an iron constitution, Mr. Wilkie is able to do two men’s work without distress. There is no rest cure for him, no dieting, no regular and systematic exercising. Pie works early and late, and thinks nothing of carrying home an armful of documents to be studied out in the quiet of his library. Pie can dispense with sleep to an amazing extent. Indeed, when on one of his Western tours of inspection, he can actually work the clock around and appear as fresh and debonnair as ever the next morning.

At the same time, while he is a strenuous worker, with great powers of application, he can also take his recreation with equal zest. In his earlier years he was a devotee of cricket, and played a good game. For some time he was vice-president of the Toronto Cricket Club, and one of its best batsmen. Latterly he has taken up golf with enthusiasm, and his is one of the familiar figures on the Toronto Golf Links in the summer time. He has an odd style of play, all his own, and the Wilkie flourish as he swings his club, would enable one to distinguish him half a mile away. As he plays, he keeps up a constant flow of almost boyish chaffing of his opponent.

Several stories are told about his play among his golfing companions. On one historic occasion he made a stupendous drive, which carried his all quite out of sight. A thorough search was made for the lost object, but for a long time it could not be located. Then, wonderful to relate, it was discovered reposing peacefully in the hole at the next green.

The president of the* Imperial had obviously done the hole in one stroke, which was a feat unparalleled in the annals of the club. Unfortunately for the prowess of the doughty player it subsequently transpired that one of his waggish friends, noticing the search, had slyly dropped the ball into the hole. It is said that Mr. Wilkie took the joke in good part.

On another occasion he was driving off from the first tee near the clubhouse and as usual was making one of his tremendous flourishes in hitting at the ball, when, for some unaccountable reason the club slipped from his hands and went hurtling over the roof of the house. Most players would have uttered unprintable ejaculations at the mishap, but not so Mr. Wilkie. He simply called to the caddie in a most matter-of-fact tone to run and bring him back the club.

While, it would be untrue to say that D. R. Wilkie has confined his energies exclusively to the building up of a great banking institution, there is no doubt that the development of the Imperial Bank has been his one passion. If there has been a trace of self-glorification in his efforts, that pardonable weakness will be overlooked m the success which the bank has attained under his guidance. Such work as he has done outside the walls of the bank and such interest as he has taken in art, music or society, has been genuine and unstudied. It has been a spontaneous expression of his personality, not assumed to gain fame or popularity.

He has gone in for the encouragement of art simply because he was at one time put in charge of the affairs of a young artist. He became interested in his work and that interest spread to the work of other artists. He makes no pretence of being a connoisseur, and he is not a collector. He likes pictures, but he cares more for encouraging native artists than for laying up a store of costly paintings, the value of which is too often dependent on what they will bring. His friendliness with the artists of Toronto and his pleasure in visiting their studios led to his being elected president of the Canadian Art Club a few years ago.

Most people are familiar with the appearance of the Imperial’s bank notes, which are undoubtedly among the most artistically attractive of those of any Canadian bank. In designing them, Mr. Wilkie, of course, took a personal interest, and their beauty owes not a little to his good taste. Apropos of these bills a little story may be told which illustrates the love of badinage which exists among Mr. Wilkie’s circle of friends. It will be remembered that a prominent feature on the bills is the portrait of the Prince of Wales. Now it seems that the bills were first issued soon after the appointment of Mr. Cawthra Mulock to the directorate, of the bank. Mr. Mulock was then and still is a boyish figure and the opportunity afforded thereby for a joke at Mr. Wilkie was not to be lost. A friend accosted him at the club with the remark, “Well, Wilkie, I must say you are to be congratulated on those new bills of yours. It was certainly quite a stunt to work in that picture of your baby director.”

Mr. Wilkie entertains lavishly because he enjoys it; not because he wishes to gain popularity. He is an active member of many clubs, yet no one can accuse him of being a tuft-hunter. He does not go out of his way to be friendly, but is contented with the society of the people he likes. At no time does he appear to better advantage than at the head of his own table. Extremely hospitable and fond of entertaining, he is a past master in the art of making his guests feel at ease, and he can keep a score of people in the best of humor with themselves and the world in general for hours at a time. He is fond of banter and remarkably quick at repartee. Among the ladies he is a great favorite, and no one is more gifted than he in saying and doing the right thing at the right time.

In his attitude towards charity and public service he adopts the same principle. He does not pose as a great philanthropist, but at the same time he does not refrain from helping forward good causes. He has been particularly active in the support of the Victorian Order of Nurses, and his name will be found associated with the work of the Toronto General Hospital.

That he has a kindly heart goes without saying. One day not long ago he was walking to his office and his way took him down George Street, past the Boys’ Home. As he went by the institution he noticed a row of weary-looking young faces peering through the railings at the passers-by. The sight touched him, and he was not long in making up his mind that the urchins' ought to be provided with a gymnasium where they could spend their time to better advantage. He set to work to collect money for the purpose, and now the Home is well equipped in this respect.

Formerly Mr. Wilkie took an active interest in Board of Trade work and was president of the Toronto Board during the critical years of the commercial union agitation, which he opposed strongly. He is an ardent Imperialist, and has made some strong pronouncements in the press on the duty of Canadians towards the Empire.

Mr. Wilkie once wrote a book on “The Theory and Practice of Banking in Canada,” and he is the author of several essays and newspaper articles on the same subject, particularly dealing with the legal aspects. He is an authority on bank law, which renders his selection as president of the Bankers’ Association at this particular time, when new legislation is in preparation of special advantage to banking interests.

Apart from the attention he pays to books and articles on banking, his reading is of a general order. Pie retains the remnants of the excellent libraries which belonged to his father and grand uncle, and occasionally looks over the old volumes. He is a great admirer of Rudyard Kipling, whom he likes because of the Imperialistic strain of his writing, and he is also fond of Shakespeare, Carlyle and Scott.

The views of such a man on the prospects of bank clerks in Canada should carry weight and this sketch of his career and personality may well be wound up with a few of his own observations on the subject.

“The business of banking from the employe’s point of view, is full of promise, says Mr. Wilkie. “It is true that salaries are small at the start, but banking comes very close to being a profession, and what profession is there which offers remuneration from the very date of the entrance of the student upon his career? A student of law, of medicine, or even of divinity, spends from four to five years in preparation for his calling at the expense frequently of his parents. The student of banking enters at once on the receipt of a salary of from $250 to $350, and at the end of his fifth year he is enjoying an income of $750 at least. From that point he has his future in his own hands; he has been thoroughly trained in business affairs, and is fit to take up any business occupation.

“It should not be long before the bank clerk has proved himself capable of taking charge of a branch, where the remuneration is not less than $1400 and may even be as much as $2500. From that point to the management of a large branch, with a salary of $5,000 or more, or even to a general managership, is within the possibilities. I don’t know of any better opening for a young lad who has not had the advantage of a college education, than that of the banking profession.”**