Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time called ripe for national securities chief

National Bank's Spiring outlines some advantages

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Charlie Spiring believes Canada is as close as it has ever been to getting a national securities regulator.

The former CEO of Wellington West Capital and current vice-chairman of National Bank Financial thinks the time has come to retire the current model of 10 different provincial regulators and another three in the territories.

Not only would the move save "tens or hundreds" of millions of dollars by streamlining the work of overseeing the complicated financial services industry, it would improve investor returns.

"Right now, a lot of the costs are invisible because you're not paying it directly. When you buy a mutual fund or a stock, the cost is embedded in that. You want to pay for advice and good money management, not for some piece of paper that is nearly useless for you," Spiring said in an interview at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café Wednesday.

Perhaps most importantly, Spiring said the national-regulator idea has the endorsement of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

"(The industry) has been talking about it for 30 years. I think this is the best shot we've ever had," he said.

Spiring will make his national-regulator pitch in a speech to a CFA Society Winnipeg luncheon today at the Fairmont Hotel. He also plans to tell a few behind-the-scenes tales from National Bank's multi-year courtship of Wellington West that ended in a $333-million deal in May 2011.

Although Wellington West was the one being bought, Spiring said his team was negotiating from a position of strength. National Bank had the bulk of its assets in Quebec and wanted to expand into English-speaking Canada, where the Winnipeg-based firm had become the top independent brokerage in the country.

"We jokingly called it our own little reverse takeover. You can't buy a bank in Canada, but this is as close as you can come. Their weakness was our strength, and our energy, skills and award-winning style was what they needed to wake up and motivate a bank," he said, adding National Bank now has more than half its assets outside its home province.

The industry veteran knew the stakes in the negotiations for his employees, his shareholders and himself.

"This was my Super Bowl," he said.

His game plan was to know what the questions would be before they were asked and to be better prepared than his counterparts across the negotiating table. He also wanted to ensure Winnipeg and his people were part of National Bank's future plans.

He wasn't afraid to pull a trick play out of his playbook, either, so he hired CIBC to be ready to do an auction for Wellington West's sale.

"My intention was National Bank was the right buyer, but I had to get them to become an exclusive buyer. I knew they wanted it, but I had to give them a reason. The reason was the threat that we would go to auction and they couldn't afford to lose the most perfect baby for them," he said.

Wellington West paid an "exorbitant fee" to CIBC World Markets to ultimately do nothing, but it was well worth the cost.

"I joke with Jason Stefanson (CIBC's head of Prairie investment banking) that he earned money for nothing but he made me a crap-load of money for doing it," he said.

Spiring said the plan is to add to National Bank's single branch in Winnipeg and add sub-branches in other cities such as Brandon or Steinbach.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 A18

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