David Laidley: Alumnus profile
Former Chairman, Deloitte Canada
|Tell us a little about yourself.
Becoming Chairman of the firm in 2000 totally changed my life. My professional practice was in Montreal. I’ve never lived in another city, and didn’t have to travel much. Suddenly, I was travelling virtually every week. I had an apartment in Toronto and a very different life, and it was the most exhilarating, the most challenging, and the most nerve-wracking experience. Truth be told, at the beginning I was scared to death — but it was exciting.
What was your first job with Deloitte?
I joined the firm in 1967 out of McGill as a CA trainee, and I wrote my CA exams in 1969. Frankly, when I joined the firm, I had no idea where it was going to lead. But I went into tax in 1970 and stayed there until 1986.
I became a partner in 1975. Tax was growing enormously at that time, and I was in the right place at the right time. In the mid-80s, I switched back to the audit side to focus on financial reporting.
I had been elected to the board in 1996 and for reasons that still escape me, I was nominated by the board to become the Chairman in 2000. I was Chairman until 2006 and I retired in 2007, exactly 40 years to the month after joining the firm.
“Becoming Chairman totally unexpectedly in 2000 surely had to be the highlight — because that was completely out of the blue.”
What have you been doing since you retired?
I joined the board of the Bank of Canada in June 2007, where I also chair the Audit Committee. It couldn’t have been a more interesting time. We had to find a new governor — we appointed Mark Carney on Feb. 1, 2008 — and we went through the upheaval of 2007 and 2008. It has been an extraordinary experience.
I’m on a number of other boards, including Aviva Insurance in Toronto and Aeroplan here in Montreal. The curse of being an accountant is that you’re on every audit committee, and I chair a couple.
I’m also the Chairman of a company called Nautilus Indemnity, which is the global captive insurance company for Deloitte. It provides professional liability insurance to all the Deloitte member firms around the world.
What was the highlight of your career with Deloitte?
One of the highlights was becoming a partner, absolutely. And becoming Chairman totally unexpectedly in 2000 surely had to be the highlight — because that was completely out of the blue. It wasn’t on my radar; I was just an everyday hard-working partner, which is what this firm is made up of.
How would you describe the secret of your success?
In my view, it’s largely luck and timing. Yes, the harder you work, the luckier you seem to get. But I’ve seen very good people who didn’t get the opportunity. I would not have considered my career a failure if I hadn’t had the opportunity to become Chairman of this firm. It was an extraordinary opportunity, but only a few people get that chance, and a lot of it comes down to timing.
What’s the value of the relationships that you formed while working at Deloitte?
If you’re dealing with a professional issue, you can’t talk about those things outside the firm, so having relationships within the firm with people in whom you have confidence and trust is obviously important. I also found it useful to work with clients or potential clients as colleagues on a board — like the board of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, which I chaired for about eight years — compared with just knowing them as clients. You get to know people on a completely different level.
When you look back, was there any one relationship that impacted your career?
I’d say there’s one at each end. One was my mentor, Bob Cockfield. He was 20 years older than me, but we had a great relationship. I don’t think I’d be with the firm today if it weren’t for that relationship. Having that with someone who was a mid-career, relatively senior partner just made my whole relationship with the firm very different.
The other was Anna Martini, who was a senior on the audit staff when I returned to the audit practice. She had a much better grasp of the technical aspects. I learned a lot from Anna, even though she’s considerably younger. And I would like to think she learned something from me in terms of developing as a professional. One of the pleasures I’ve had over my career is seeing young people do things more skillfully than I could ever do, so I’ve always encouraged others to take an interest in developing people.