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The bold salesman dominated the Canadian business world from the 1950s to 70s, and helped build Wood Gundy into the country's largest brokerage and corporate-finance firm
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, April 13, 2019 – Page B24

William Wilder, who has died at 96, was one of the most powerful men on Bay Street from the 1950s to the 70s, helping build Wood Gundy into what was then the largest brokerage and corporate-finance firm in Canada.

Bill Wilder, as everyone knew him, was a super salesman who could run numbers in his head, helpful when selling a deal to finance Canadian companies. He was a networking master and knew everyone he needed to know in Corporate Canada, in part through his membership in establishment meeting spots such as the Toronto Club, the York Club and the Mount Royal Club, among others.

"He was front and centre of so many big deals we did," said Ed King, who worked with Mr. Wilder and was chairman and chief executive of the firm from 1988 to 1992.

"Bill was an inspirational guy to work with and a great salesman."

William Price Wilder was born in Toronto on Sept. 26, 1922. His father, also named William, was a successful stockbroker who died when William was six years old.

His mother, the former Marjorie Murray, came from a family that owned a dry-goods store on King Street near Bay Street, where Scotia Plaza stands today.

He was raised in Toronto's Rosedale neighbourhood and went to Upper Canada College from Grade 4 to graduation in 1940. In his death notice, which he wrote, Mr. Wilder said he planned to be an architect, but the Depression of the 1930s meant a slump in construction, so he chose to study commerce at McGill University, in Montreal. Halfway through his second year, he was failing calculus, but that problem was solved when he left McGill to join the Royal Canadian Navy, for which the university granted him a pass for the year. He took officer's training at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island.

When Sub-Lieutenant Wilder arrived in England, he was seconded to the Royal Navy and assigned to HMS Whitshed, a destroyer. He was interviewed by one of the ship's senior officers, who had never met a Canadian.

Even though SLt. Wilder told him he was from Toronto and was studying at McGill, the officer said: "All Canadians are cowboys, so we'll call you Buck." The nickname stuck.

Years later, when Mr. Wilder was often travelling to London on business for Wood Gundy - so often that he was a member of Brooks's, one of the city's top private clubs - he spotted the officer on the street, although by this time dressed in civvies.

"Captain Fitzroy-Talbot," Mr.Wilder said. "It's Buck," came the reply. The two stayed in contact for decades after that.

SLt. Wilder was aboard HMS Whitshed when she escorted U.S.

troopships landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the Allied invasion of France during the Second World War. He was a Lieutenant by the end of the war, and last year received the Legion of Honour from France for his wartime service.

After the war, he returned to McGill, and upon graduation landed a job at Wood Gundy as a travelling bond salesman, covering Southwestern Ontario. He soon tired of life on the road and decided to go to Harvard Business School. Since he was a veteran, the Canadian government covered the tuition.

The classes of 1949 and 1950, Mr. Wilder's year, produced a crop of executives who dominated the North American business world for the next several decades. Mr.Wilder was no exception.

"What Harvard Business School did for me was to point out that if you're going to be a success in business you've got to be able to reach decisions even when you don't have all the facts," he told author Peter Newman. "I find that Canadian executives are frightened by the very thought of taking decisions."

He returned to Wood Gundy, but much higher up the ladder. He started in the institutional equity department, buying and selling shares with insurance companies and pension funds. Mr. Wilder always liked stocks, which are riskier, over bonds, which are usually safer.

"In all the years I dealt with him, he never owned a bond," said his son Bill Jr., who is a stockbroker in Toronto.

Wood Gundy expanded as Mr.Wilder worked with Ross LeMesurier in building the firm's corporate-finance department.

"They could open any corporate door in Canada," Bill Jr. said.

Corporate finance involves the investment house guiding a company when it wants to raise money by selling its own stock to the public. It was a highly lucrative business for Wood Gundy, and the other dealers, since banks were not allowed by law to be in the corporate-finance business or to own brokerage firms. Things stayed that way until the 1980s.

Mr. Wilder became executive vice-president of Wood Gundy in 1961 at the age of 38, and president in 1967. He was at the pinnacle of the financial world in Canada, as important as a bank president.

His firm was No. 1.

"Wood Gundy is Canada's largest and most powerful investment house," Mr. Newman wrote in Volume 1 of The Canadian Establishment, published in 1975. He noted that Wood Gundy made $51-million in 1974 (worth $275million in today's dollars, according to the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator). In most brokerage firms, the only shareholders were the partners, but Mr. Wilder changed that in the late 1960s, allowing other employees to own shares in Wood Gundy, figuring it acted as an incentive.

In 1972, Mr. Wilder left Wood Gundy to head the Canadian Arctic Gas Consortium, which planned to build a natural gas pipeline from the Arctic to markets in the south, running the pipeline along the Mackenzie River Valley. The pipeline would have been 3,860 kilometres long and cost $8-billion (more than $50billion in today's dollars), the largest construction project in the country. In March, 1974, prime minister Pierre Trudeau, then heading a minority government supported by the NDP, named justice Thomas Berger, a former leader of the British Columbia NDP, to head a Royal Commission into the project. In 1977, Mr. Berger recommended a moratorium of 10 years, which killed the project. It was the first big failure for Mr. Wilder in his business career.

Until then, he had been a Liberal Party supporter, but that ended his support.

"He started out as a Liberal because they paid for his college education at McGill and Harvard," Bill Jr. said. "He worked hard for the Liberals. But he soured on Trudeau."

After the collapse of the Arctic Gas project, he became chairman and CEO of Consumers Gas, the largest natural gas distributor in Canada. The business morphed into Hiram Walker Resources, and Mr. Wilder ran that until the Reichmann family bought it.

After he retired in 1984, he soon bought an interest in Creemore Springs Brewery.

"My father found a lot of inefficiencies, and he and his friend and partner Alastair Gillespie tightened the bolts in the business," his son said. The two men bought the business for $5-million and sold it to Molson for $25million 10 years later.

The ultimate establishment man, Mr. Wilder was on the board of Royal Bank of Canada, Noranda Mines, Canadian Life Assurance Company, John Labatt Ltd., Sears Canada and others.

He was a generous man, both with his money and his time. He was on the board of the Hospital for Sick Children for 16 years and was one of the largest donors to Upper Canada College. A building at Harvard University is named after him. He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2017.

Mr. Wilder married Judith Bickle, always known as Billie, in 1953.

She was the daughter of a successful stockbroker, and he once told an interviewer that if you married a rich woman you had to make your own money, otherwise she would lead you around by the nose. He was a devoted family man and spent a lot of time at his farm in Uxbridge, north of Toronto, where he raised beef cattle, and at his summer cottage in St.

Andrews by-the-sea, N.B. He fished at the Tadenac Club on Georgian Bay and kept fit playing tennis and golf and, until recently, working out at the Cambridge Club in downtown Toronto.

Mr. Wilder died in Toronto on March 23. He leaves his wife, Billie; children, Martha, Bill Jr., Tom and Andy; and five grandchildren.

Associated Graphic

Former Wood Gundy Securities president William Wilder, seen at his desk in Toronto in September, 1970, was the ultimate establishment man, serving on the boards of several companies, including Royal Bank of Canada and the Hospital for Sick Children for decades.


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