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From backroom to boardroom: We rank ex-pols' business clout

Friday, April 30, 2004

Brian Milner

Most ex-politicians find few lucrative gigs awaiting them in the private sector, regardless of how much power and influence they may have wielded around federal or provincial cabinet tables. Among the disqualifications: They carry too much baggage; crave publicity; remain partisan right through to their toes; and yearn for the trappings of office.

Those who do successfully make the transition from backroom to boardroom share certain traits. They already possess the requisite legal or business skill. They've earned the respect of friends and foes alike for their acumen and hard work. They avoid the spotlight. Typically, they also excel as big-picture strategists, a skill often lacking on boards filled with admin and financial types.

Based on interviews with corporate lawyers, investment bankers, political insiders and public servants, here's our highly subjective ranking of the Canadian ex-pols who, after undisputed kingpin Brian Mulroney, have made the most of their advantages and opportunities. We're looking at only boardroom influence, which excludes those politicians who have turned into lobbyists, entrepreneurs or patronage appointees.

WINNERS

1. Frank McKenna: The ex-premier of New Brunswick has moved well beyond his strong Maritime base, where he towers above all other retired pols, to become a national player. As interim chairman of CanWest Global Communications and a director of such major companies as Bank of Montreal, General Motors Canada, Noranda and Shoppers Drug Mart, McKenna has earned respect for being sharp, sensible and willing to roll up his sleeves. The only negative is that he may still harbour political aspirations. He's also mentioned, along with Brian Tobin, as a possible ambassador to Washington.

2. Ed Lumley: The former Liberal industry minister has turned a few years at the cabinet table into a remarkably long run as high-level rainmaker and influential corporate figure. He ranks on this list just by virtue of his posts as vice-chairman of BMO Nesbitt Burns, lead director of Magna International and board member of BCE, Canadian National Railway and Air Canada. But he also remains a confidant of those in power, consulted most recently on how to solve the government's accountability deficit. He gains added marks because he's close to Paul and Sheila Martin, having known both since school days in Windsor, Ont.

3. Don Mazankowski: Like Lumley, "Maz" had lots of business experience before going into politics. The former Conservative deputy prime minister retains a long list of prestigious board seats, including Power Corp., Canada Life, Weyerhaeuser and Shaw Communications, which recently named him lead director. He's still influential in policy circles, which underscores his value to politically sensitive businesses like insurance and cable. A key player in the merger of the Alliance and Conservative parties.

4. Peter Lougheed: The former Alberta premier ranks tops among those described by one former Ottawa insider as "the august wise old men." But don't let the age fool you. Even at 75, Lougheed continues pulling in business for Calgary law firm Bennett Jones and retains a handful of board seats. If influence is measured by how many powerful people seek one's advice, Lougheed "still stands very tall," according to a Bay Street lawyer.

5. Guy Saint-Pierre: At 69, the former Quebec cabinet minister is another of the august oldies. Like fellow Quebec Liberal Raymond Garneau, he's better known for his long career in the corporate world--notably at engineering giant SNC-Lavalin--than for his time in politics. He retired this year as chairman of Royal Bank of Canada, which will reduce his clout. But he still ranks among Canada's most respected and influential directors, noted for his dedication to improving corporate governance.

6. Raymond Garneau: The stock of the former Quebec finance minister and loyal Martinite has risen substantially since the departure of Jean Chr{Zcaron}tien and the return of the Quebec Liberals to power under Jean Charest. Garneau is chairman of insurer Industrial-Alliance and is widely respected in finance circles. But despite his seat on the board of TSX, his influence is largely confined to his home province.

7. Brian Tobin: The former Newfoundland premier and federal industry minister could rank much higher in the next couple of years if he doesn't succumb to politics' siren song. Tobin has just won his first full-time business gig, as CEO of Magna's property and gaming arm. But that doesn't bowl over the movers and shakers, who say he's only biding his time until Paul Martin packs it in, whether in five years or six months. Former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning, a TransAlta executive and promising boardroom recruit, is viewed in the same light: a political lifer who's trying to salt away a few bucks while waiting for Ralph Klein to retire.

8. Bill Davis: Another of the august old men, Davis will be 75 in July. He's been compelled by retirement rules to leave some of the high-profile boards he once graced, but this skillful director remains active. He wisely continues as chairman of Retirement Residences Real Estate Income Trust. You can never be too prepared.

ALSO-RANS

Jean Chrétien: Even if his age wasn't against him, the corruption scandals and his lack of business savvy would be. Like Mulroney and his own former cabinet colleague Marc Lalonde (still blamed for the despised National Energy Program), Chrétien will have to troll in the international arena because the locals aren't friendly.

John Turner: He would have been better off if he had never returned to the political stage to become, briefly, prime minister. His fierce opposition to free trade in the 1988 election against Brian Mulroney doomed his business career.

David Peterson: He's still on several corporate boards, including Rogers Communications and Magna offshoot Tesma International, but he has no influence outside of downtown Toronto. Peterson's post-political career has been hurt by his record as Ontario premier, his devastating loss to Conservative Mike Harris and his involvement, as a director, with scandal-tainted magnetmaker YBM Magnex. Observers say Peterson has learned valuable lessons from his embarrassing board experience and has turned into a cautious and more conscientious director.

Mike Harris: Asked if the former Ontario premier has managed to parlay his business-friendly policies into an influential new career, one observer put it bluntly: "Harris a player? You've got to be kidding." The proof is that he hasn't been invited to serve on any important boards, apart from that of Magna, a veritable retirement home for politicos of both Liberal and Conservative flavours.

Barbara McDougall: The former senior Tory cabinet minister seemed poised to cash in handsomely on her political record--not least because of the scarcity of female directors--but ended up with only a handful of board seats, including Bank of Nova Scotia, Corel and Stelco. Was it because of her continuing focus on foreign-policy issues, or another example of the old boys' network at work?