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Saturday February 23, 2013

Straight shooting, not straitlaced

He was a corporate executive, a man for all seasons and a compassionate leader who defied stereotypes of the hawkish businessman

In the late 1980s, with Canada's federal debt soaring and interest costs chewing through taxpayers' cash, John MacNaughton and his colleagues at Burns Fry Ltd. came up with a creative solution to the nation's fiscal problems.

They would revive Elvis from the grave and schedule him to perform at a theme park built on Parliament Hill, using the proceeds to pay down the debt.

Or so ran a classic skit that saw Mr. MacNaughton don a white sequined pantsuit at a company dinner, slick back his thick mane of black hair into an Elvis pompadour, and take the stage to announce a plot to rescue Canada, with help from colleagues costumed as prime minister Brian Mulroney, televangelist Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye.

"I had the skit written by the Air Farce guys," recalls former Burns Fry head of investment banking Thomas Tutsch, who played Tammy Faye. "We knew Roger Abbott a bit. ... And they wrote this crazy skit."

Mr. MacNaughton, who died Feb. 15 at age 67 after treatment for cancer, fit none of the simple stereotypes of the dull banker or the rapacious financier.

In a 31-year career in the brokerage industry, which culminated with him becoming chief executive officer of Burns Fry (and later BMO Nesbitt Burns, after the firm was acquired by Bank of Montreal), he eschewed plots to wring money from clients or make a quick buck, and championed a straight-as-an-arrow business ethic that is still the talk of his former colleagues.

"He was a genuinely nice, decent person," says Peter Eby, former head of Burns Fry. "Not all people in the investment industry are that way. Many of the people who have been very successful, I couldn't be as kind about. I think that's what made him stand out. I don't think I've ever met somebody who doesn't like John, and you can't say that about a whole lot of people. He was the most honest person I've ever met."

Power Financial Corp. chief executive Jeffrey Orr, a long-time friend who worked under Mr. MacNaughton at BMO Nesbitt Burns in the 1990s, said he often talked with others at the firm about how their boss could have pursued a totally different career.

"He was very effective in business, but I could just as easily have imagined him as a foreign aid worker. He was a very unique guy," he recalls.

"I say that with impact, because we would often sit back and go, 'John is such a thoughtful, caring individual.' But he was effective nonetheless."

For all its success, it was a career that could have gone so differently in so many ways. In his early years in particular, there was an expectation that Mr. MacNaughton would head into the "family" business of politics or law.

Mr. MacNaughton was born March 6, 1945, and grew up in Exeter, a small town near London in southern Ontario. His father, Charles, was a provincial politician who was elected as MPP for Huron County from 1958 to 1973, serving in several senior cabinet roles in the Conservative governments of premiers John Robarts and Bill Davis.

"The MacNaughtons were royalty in that town," says Exeter native Bill Etherington, former CEO of IBM World Trade Corp., who was in the same grade in school as Mr. MacNaughton's older sister, Heather.

Exeter still has a MacNaughton Park, located on MacNaughton Drive, as a lasting tribute to Charles MacNaughton's public service.

John MacNaughton earned a BA in economics from the University of Western Ontario, and after an exhilarating summer working at the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67, he headed off to law school to fulfill his family's expectations that he would become a lawyer and settle back in Exeter.

Former Osgoode Hall law school colleague David McFadden says Mr. MacNaughton quit after the first term.

"He was there for the fall, and then I didn't see him in the new year. I thought maybe he got sick or something happened to him, and I met him and he said, 'No, I quit,'" Mr. McFadden says. "That was pretty characteristic of John. He had very clear sight of what he wanted to do and how best to do it."

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