Columns

A rainmaker moves on

Deirdre McMurdy September 6 1999
Columns

A rainmaker moves on

Deirdre McMurdy September 6 1999

A rainmaker moves on

Columns

Deirdre McMurdy

Tom Kierans has led a double life. In Bay Street circles, he is well-known and respected as a shrewd investment banker

and a veteran corporate director. But a decade ago, Kierans embraced a passion that few of his fellow financiers might have suspected: public policy. “For me, investment banking was a profession,” he explains. “Public policy is an avocation.”

Despite that love, Kierans is stepping down as chairman of the C. D. Howe Institute on Sept. 6. The Toronto-based thinktank, under his leadership for the past 10 years, has emerged as one of the most influential commentators on public-policy issues. The institute’s academics and analysts made headlines in the early 1990s with their dire warnings about government deficits. The same group has weighed in with agenda-setting studies of welfare and health-care reform, taxation and, most recendy, the heated debate about a single currency with the United States. Nevertheless, says Kierans, “it’s time to move on—I never expected to stay this long in the first place.”

Now 58, he arrived at the institute in September, 1989, looking for a hiatus from Bay Street. He had just overseen the sale of McLeod Young Weir to the Bank of Nova Scotia, and although he had made millions on the transaction, he had also promised not to undertake any competing work for three years. And after 26 years in the world of corporate finance, Kierans was ready for a change. “A rough, new game was being played on Bay Street,” he says. “Relationships didn’t matter any more. The whole business was losing credibility.” At that time, the institute was also in transition. The C. D. Howe Foundation had withdrawn its funding because the institute had become embroiled in the political wrangling during the 1988 free-trade election. The output of papers was low and, for the average Canadian, difficult to penetrate. “Basically, the place was a shambles,” says Kierans. He couldn’t resist the challenge.

Tom Kierans loves bringing order to chaos. In the 1980s, he played a key role in untangling the Liberal government’s complex National Energy Program. Kierans wrote a report that created a new template for a free-market, domestic energy program. On the corporate side, Kierans has also exhibited a taste for trouble. He is currently the chairman of Moore Corp. Ltd., the Toronto-based business-forms company that is in the throes of an extended restructuring. He is also chairman of the former Crown corporation PetroCanada of Calgary and a director of BCE Inc. and seven other companies.

The son of financier and former Liberal cabinet minister Eric Kierans, Tom was raised in Montreal. He graduated from

McGill University in econom ics and from the University of Chicago with a master's in business administration, and

headed straight for the securities business. For someone who has steadfasdy refused to play golf, he has an encyclopedic range of business and political contacts.

That background, in addition to his decades of Bay Street experience, gave Kierans a unique ability to tackle the C. D. Howe Institute’s financial squeeze—his first order of business. He knocked on the doors of CEOs across the country, asking for money just as the recession set in. “The Howe is a tough sell at the best of times,” he says, “because it is a privately funded public good.” Still, by working his extensive network, Kierans pushed the annual budget to $1.6 million from $800,000. Part of the “sell” was to hold biannual gatherings of CEOs—where they could meet and get up to speed on current policy issues. “It wasn’t about griping over martinis at the Toronto Club,” he says. “These were events where they got real, concentrated information and a forum where they could discuss it.”

To generate even broader interest in the institute, however, Kierans had to accomplish three related things: increase the frequency and the relevance of publications and raise the think-tank’s public profile. He created a network of policy thinkers and writers who did more than write learned papers. Members of the network could oversee coverage of certain specific policy areas or become involved in the peer review of papers. Above all, he ensured that politics stayed out of the mix. “We were always written off as right-wingers in the past,” he says. “Perhaps the best thing we’ve accomplished here is that we are proudly centrist now.”

That new centrist stance was on full display when the institute tackled the issue that put it on the domestic public policy map: Canada’s deficit crisis. It was an early whisde-blower on the subject of government debt and deficit, and its relentless warnings garnered widespread public attention. Kierans admits the crisis was a blessing for the institute: “It’s crucial to identify a trend early and shape the debate quickly.”

Although he is leaving the institute, to be replaced by Jack Mintz, a tax policy expert from the University of Toronto, Kierans intends to continue his romance with public policy. He is assuming a chair in business ethics at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He will also serve as the chairman of the Toronto Centre, an international training program for financial regulators. And he will be associated with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. “I don’t want to do anything, I just want to make things happen,” he explains. As if there was any doubt.