RBC head Gordon Nixon receives honorary doctorate
May 22, 2003
2003-05-22 - KINGSTON, ON, May 22, 2003 - RBC Financial Group CEO Gordon M. Nixon was presented with an honorary degree from Queen's at spring convocation today. [The transcript follows of his speech to hundreds of graduating Queen's Commerce, Executive MBA, MBA for Science & Technology and PhD students.]
Mr. Nixon has maintained close ties with Queen's since graduating with a Commerce degree in 1979. He was part of the recent "Campaign for Queen's" cabinet and is currently a member of the Queen's School of Business Advisory Board.
Upon receiving his honorary doctorate from Queen's Chancellor Charles Baillie and Principal William Leggett, Mr. Nixon spoke to the crowd of students, family and friends that filled Jock Harty Arena.
The following are Mr. Nixon's remarks:
“Meeting the Challenges of Today”
Chancellor Baillie, Principal Leggett, Dean Johnson, Dean Scheck, ladies and gentlemen and members of the class of 2003.
I would like to begin by thanking Principal Leggett and the Senate of Queen’s University for honouring me with this degree. It is a particular privilege to have it bestowed on me by Chancellor Baillie, a fierce competitor but also a colleague and friend who has provided outstanding leadership to his company, Canadian business at large and the broader community. Charlie is a great example for all of us in the business community and Queen’s is very fortunate to have both him and Marilyn Baillie providing outstanding leadership to this great institution.
I must admit that when Principal Leggett called to say that Queen’s wanted to recognize me with an Honourary Doctorate of Law, my initial reaction was one of great surprise. The first thing I said was: “I’m too young to receive this honour!” However, the first thing I thought was: “Thank heavens I don’t have to meet the acceptance standards at Queen’s to receive it!”
I’d like to acknowledge my family and friends who are here today beginning with my mother, who I am sure senses the same pride that all parents feel today as you receive your degrees.
I’d also like to thank my brother John; my parents-in-law Jack and Enid Raymond; and good friends Tim Price (also a classmate and housemate from our days in Kingston) and David and Martha Shaw whose son is graduating this afternoon.
In particular, I would like to recognize my wife Janet, who is a Commerce ‘80 graduate and unquestionably the most important asset that I acquired from my years at Queen’s. Janet has an equal share in this honour, not just for her unqualified support but also for the advice, mentorship and gentle reminders that she has always provided.
And finally our greatest combined accomplishment – Jacqueline, Patricia and Timothy. We are very proud of our children and I thank them for their support and inspiration.
I must say that it is a daunting task to prepare remarks for a convocation address. What words of wisdom would be memorable to you young men and women enthusiastically awaiting today’s commencement ceremony, anxious to get out and celebrate, and about to begin the next chapter in your lives. Somehow comfortable topics like Canada’s productivity gap, North American economic performance, or why bank mergers are good for Canada just don’t seem to make it.
Therefore, what I would like to do is reflect on some of the challenges of today’s complex world and provide some thoughts on meeting them. In that respect, there isn’t a better place to start than by highlighting the foundation that Queen’s has provided you in meeting whatever challenges lie ahead.
Like any great company or institution, Queen’s has adapted to change over its 162-year history. As a result, while its wonderful traditions have been maintained, its product and culture have evolved, keeping Queen’s at the forefront of both Canadian and international universities. When I hear about the wonderful programs and initiatives at this university, and when I see new infrastructure projects that combine both the new and modern with the old and historic -- it makes me particularly proud to be a graduate.
Balance, in my view, is what really differentiates Queen’s. It not only has a rich academic environment but also a wonderful atmosphere that enables one to explore beyond education and to build long standing and enduring relationships, many of which will remain with you throughout your lives.
Being here today brings back great memories – life in the student ghetto, late nights at the pub, playing rugby and hockey, and even attending those riveting lectures in Dunning Hall. There are some I won’t mention because my kids are here – but they were also good experiences!
As you embark on the next phase of your lives, I can assure all of you here today that you will become increasingly aware of both the academic and social foundation you have been provided at Queen’s. It’s now up to you to take advantage of it.
Challenges of Today
Since my days at Queen's, the world has changed dramatically, impacting the requirements of those entering the workforce. When I graduated in 1979, markets were protected, Berlin still had a wall, and cell phones were something you found in prisons. But over the course of my business career, the world has been transformed by a number of major trends including globalization, massive advancements in technology, and marketplace transparency. In addition, the cold war ended leading to significant geo-political shifts and a redefinition of the world economic landscape.
This transformation led to a period of extraordinary economic growth – the longest bull market in history, and an environment where companies could grow from a standing start to billion dollar organizations without ever producing a product. It was quite a period! (too bad you missed it). However, history repeated itself and we are once again living with the hangover from an unprecedented binge.
From the Tulip Bubble that swept Holland in the seventeenth century to the South Sea Bubble in England in 1720 -- from the Mississippi Bubble in France to the crash of 1939 -- all bubbles have unique characteristics, but also common themes. Unfortunately, one of them is greed and corruption, and that has been quite evident in some of the high-profile corporate collapses that we have recently witnessed.
Thus in the opening years of the 21st century, we find ourselves burdened by concerns for the integrity and credibility of business. A lot of people share responsibility for this situation – corporate executives, boards of directors, governments and regulators, bankers, lawyers, accountants, investors and even academia. The sad part about this is that, with the exception of those “poster children” of corporate greed, many of our problems emanated from a system where perspective was lost and inappropriate activity became common and acceptable practice.
Winston Churchill once said, “the farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Unfortunately, we have a habit of always believing that “this time it’s different”. A book written by Charles Mackay entitled “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” is the foundation for many examinations of the recent collapse of our markets. It was written in 1841. You should all read it, not once, but every five years just as a reminder.
As Canada’s leaders of tomorrow, you will be faced with the additional burden of restoring public confidence in our system and it will take time. You will face a more conservative environment with greater focus on long-term sustainable value and organizational culture.
You will also have the added challenge of operating in a wired world where technology compresses the time frame and increases the magnitude of every decision and 24/7 media scrutiny analyses each decision. The implication of this environment can be dramatic.
Baring Brothers, a 233-year-old English bank was ruined in a few days because of the actions of a single trader. Arthur Andersen was destroyed in a few weeks by the questionable audit standards applied by a single office. Reputations of individuals have been ruined by a single lapse of trust, and corporations have lost billions of dollars in market value overnight.
Media scrutiny has many positives including improved transparency, disclosure and fairness. However, in a world where war has become a form of reality television, political figures have lost any right to privacy, and the affairs of business institutions can be reported without any context, institutions and individuals face increased risk.
Don Tapscott and David Ticoll will be releasing a book this fall entitled “ the Naked Corporation” in which they state: “The new world of transparency revolutionizes every aspect of our economy and forces firms to rethink their fundamental values. Some companies and employees will thrive in this new world; others will struggle to stay afloat. Few understand how far the revolution will take us, and what to do about it.”
In addition to a more conservative and transparent environment, you will also face much greater scrutiny around issues of governance, compliance and risk management. Unlike when I graduated, we are now required to manage our activities to minimize the impact of potential terrorist attacks and unexpected events like SARS. And in a global world, we face economic challenges from emerging nations and technology advances that can render our businesses obsolete.
Indeed, there is no question that the first decade of the 21st century will be very different from the last decade of the 20th. You will be entering an environment in which corporations, institutions, and governments will be shifting their priorities and emphasis. You will be entering a world in which the pace of technological change makes today’s knowledge obsolete by tomorrow. You will be entering a society in which economic and social development are inextricably linked. But notwithstanding its complexities, you are also entering a world with unparalleled potential.
Meeting the Challenges
In closing, I would like to leave you with four thoughts.
First, always remember that sustainable success is built on a foundation of trust, honesty and integrity. Without these values, you cannot sustain a personal or business relationship, nor build a foundation for risk taking, investment, and growth. Always remember, if it’s too good to be true… it probably is -- and if it doesn’t feel right … it likely is not.
No matter what you want to do with your life –- raise a family, make a million dollars, save the world from global warming, or all three – always remember that your reputation is the most valuable asset you will ever have. Use it wisely, don’t compromise and you will bring honour to all those who have put their faith in you.
Second, I’d like to emphasize the increasing importance of human capital and human assets. Across all industries – old and new --- financial capital and fixed assets are giving way to human capital as the key determinant of future success. A profound transformation is occurring in business, government, education and across all parts of our society in which brawn is being replaced by brain as the key element of success. In a knowledge economy, it is human capital – that will drive innovation and success.
Almost every bank has the same range of products and locations but it is the quality of our people and the innovation of our organization that will give us our competitive edge, particularly, when 96% of our transactions now occur outside our physical network. In a sunset industry like steel, it is innovation that has made Dofasco one of the world’s most productive steel company. In the energy sector, it is people who are developing new forms of clean energy, and it is innovation that will safely extract oil from the tar sands or gas from the Mackenzie Delta. And in growth sectors like technology, biotech and advanced manufacturing, it is knowledge and new ideas that are critical to our country’s future prosperity.
Outside of the business world, human capital is equally critical. Social services, health care, education and politics are also going through profound transformation and all require leadership and innovation. All of you graduating today have the intellect, capacity and training to make a major contribution to whatever endeavour you choose; and you should all have confidence in your ability. You are all comfortable with today’s technologies and you are comfortable with today’s “way of thinking”… and that gives you a great ability to make a difference.
Third, as the next generation of leaders, you will face major change throughout your life. I talked earlier about some of the significant changes that have occurred since I graduated. Over the next 20 years, change will be just as dramatic but equally unpredictable. Your ability to manage and adapt to change will be a key driver of your success. Regardless of the size or activities of a company or institution, those that are willing to adapt and in some cases, totally re-engineer the way they operate will be the winners. Those that bank solely on tradition and history will generally fail.
So, whatever you do following graduation, embrace continuous learning and don’t hesitate to shake a few branches and push the established ways of thinking.
And finally, the fourth and final point I’d like to make today concerns the need to take risks and innovate. Successful societies are those that can both develop new ideas and successfully commercialize them. This is one of our biggest challenges that we will face in the 21st century. To the fullest extent possible, we must ensure that new knowledge and ideas are generated in Canada, and that it leads to production in Canada so that prosperity and jobs flow to Canadians.
To achieve this goal, we need to encourage young men and women to commercialize their ideas. You are beginning your careers at a time when the power of technology is changing every facet of business and society and whatever field you enter, don’t hesitate to take risk and to innovate. It is critical to individual and collective success.
Members of the class of 2003 – you graduate today with a few clouds on the horizon but with a brilliant future and unparalleled opportunity for accomplishment and fulfillment. I can’t give you the key to success, but I can tell you that the key to failure is to not believe in your ability to succeed. You can’t steal second base with one foot on first and you can’t achieve your goals without taking risk, learning from your setbacks and driving hard - without compromising your values. You’ve been given a great foundation at Queen’s and your time has come. I wish you every success. Congratulations and, once again, I would like to thank the Senate of Queen’s for giving me this very special honour.