When Matthew Barrett passed the CEO reins at the Bank of Montreal annual meeting over to a beam ing Francis Anthony Comper, it was like Douglas Fairbanks Sr. handing his sword to Tom Hanks.
While Barrett is slick and silver-tongued, Comper, the bank's former president and chief operating officer, is a techno-whiz who speaks in jargon. Comper has toiled diligently in Barrett's shadow, working with him to steer the bank towards record profits. One observer character-
ized the president's promotion as "the revenge of the nerds." Then again, says a chairman of another bank, "Anybody would appear wooden after Matt-he's a tough act to follow."
Tony Comper is not so wooden when he speaks to young academics at his alma mater, St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Comper, 53, reveals that his student days were filled with reading English literature, drumming and singing in a rock band, and exploring the possibility of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He has encouraged students and would-be bankers to get a broad education.
“He’s very self-contained and composed, and a lot of people read into that—incorrectly—stiff and remote,” says St. Mike’s president Richard Alway, who has worked with Comper when the new CEO was on a hospital board and on the university’s governing council. “There’s a very strong spark of personality there, and a very active sense of humour.”
Comper was born at the end of the Second World War. His mother was a nurse and his father a financial executive. Between the ages of 16 and 22, Comper worked summers at the Bank of Montreal branch below Bay Street’s financial towers. After starting full time at the bank in 1967, he joined the personnel department in Montreal, where he first met Barrett. The two became drinking buddies and longtime colleagues. Two years ago, Comper served as the best man at Barrett’s second wedding. Comper’s innovations with the bank’s computer systems and other successes assured his boardroom ascent. In 1989, he became Barrett’s lieutenant.
The team of Barrett and Comper has been credited with the bank’s nine consecutive years of record profits. Some members of the bank’s board say Comper needed Barrett as much as Barrett needed him, but Bay Street analysts are sure Comper will flourish on his own. They say the Bank of Montreal does not need charisma now— it needs a hands-on innovator who can implement restructuring plans with the patience and wisdom of a would-be priest.
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