BMO CEO Bill Downe to retire in October

TORONTO — Bill Downe — the chief executive who steered the Bank of Montreal through the global financial crisis, the subsequent recession and the ongoing transition to digital banking — is preparing to retire after more than a decade at the helm.

Downe, 65, will wrap up his tenure on Oct. 31, the last day of the bank’s financial year, before passing the reins to Darryl White, BMO’s (TSX:BMO) chief operating officer.

The 45-year-old was previously the head of the bank’s capital markets division and has been exposed to every aspect of the bank’s operations, said Downe.

“I think he’s going to do a terrific job,” Downe said in an interview.

His retirement comes at a time when banking is going through a significant shift. Changing consumer preferences have forced banks to provide more services online and prompted them to rethink their traditional branch formats.

South of the border, BMO is engaged in the dialogue over the Dodd-Frank Act, a series of reforms introduced in the wake of the financial crisis. The Donald Trump administration has vowed to overhaul the act.

Downe says there is room to streamline and simplify the rules in Dodd-Frank. But, reflecting on his own takeaways from the 2007-2008 crisis, he emphasized how higher capital requirements have benefited the banks.

“I don’t think any responsible banker would call for a return to the pre-Dodd-Frank framework,” he said. ”It just has accomplished so much that I think has permanent value.”

The past 3 1/2 years has seen a changing of the guard at Canada’s biggest banks, with Royal Bank (TSX:RY), TD Bank (TSX:TD), Scotiabank (TSX:BNS) and CIBC (TSX:CM) appointing new chief executives.

Downe’s retirement leaves National Bank’s Louis Vachon as the last remaining big bank CEO who guided his company through the financial crisis.

Looking forward, Downe says growing its international footprint will be key for BMO, as scaling its business will allow the bank to be more efficient and profitable.

“We live in a country of 35 million people,” he said.

“We now have a home market, because of the size of our footprint in the United States, of 400 million people. That’s a much bigger market. And we’re able to build commercial bridges around trade finance and investment between North America and Europe and North America and Asia.”

In a statement Friday, BMO chairman Robert Prichard highlighted Downe’s efforts to transform the bank through investments in technology and improving the representation of women in senior leadership roles.

He also espoused White’s leadership skills and his experience.

“He is a natural and authentic leader and the right person to lead the bank in a time of change in the wider economy,” Prichard said.

Barclays analyst John Aiken said he isn’t expecting a change in the bank’s strategy in the near term.

“Although Mr. White’s appointment is not terribly surprising given BMO’s reorganization of its executive committee last fall, his promotion breaks the trend of Canadian banks’ boards shying away from capital markets backgrounds for the corner office,” Aiken said in a note to clients.

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