Power to the People

Aston Hill COO Mike Killeen opens up about his experience and management strategies in the mutual fund sector

Contrary to expectations about financial-industry C-suite executives, Mike Killeen is anything but stuffy, harried, and overworked. In fact, the COO of publicly traded Aston Hill Financial spoke with Advantage from his Lake Huron cottage, in a quiet hour while his kids were at tennis lessons.

The comfort of his career has come after a series of gambles, begun at the age of 29, when, against the advice of his family and friends, Killeen decided to leave a well-respected law firm and join a then-small mutual fund company as its general counsel. That initial leap has led to an impressive career, including the move to Aston Hill in 2010. Here, Killeen discusses his current role, his lessons learned, and his future imagined.

Advantage: What are some of the greatest transformations in the financial-services industry that you have navigated in the past 20 years?
Mike Killeen: Regulatory oversight of our business has increased dramatically. The mutual fund sector is one of the most highly regulated businesses in Canada, so there has been a significant opportunity for me to contribute with my corporate- and securities-law backgrounds.

As COO of Aston Hill, what specifically are you most concerned about?
Industry competition in mutual fund distribution in Canada and our ability to maintain and grow shelf space. Exceptional client service has become a competitive advantage in our industry, and we’ve recently expanded our youthful and dynamic sales force. We’re still a fairly young company, so every day I instill the notion that one slip with a broker may affect [that broker’s] choice to deal with our company again. The average broker will only usually choose three fund companies to invest with, so we have to fight hard every day to get on their recommended list.

Internally, a key part of my role is making sure that we maximize operational efficiency both internally and with our back-office provider, RBC Investor Services.

What ideas most influenced you in the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program?
In 2007, I decided to take some time off before seeking out a broader leadership opportunity. I was accepted to Harvard in early 2008 and lived in a dorm room for three months on campus. While it was a grind, it was the perfect time in my career to explore the executive-education and networking opportunities that the program affords. The most illuminating module of the program was on leadership, and I still draw from it every day. It opened my eyes to think I could have greater impact being a leader on a higher level, rather than getting lost in the details.

Mike Killeen’s
Career Milestones

1987
Earns his bachelor of science degree from the University of Western Ontario

1990
Earns an LLB from the University of Western Ontario

1990–1994
Articles and then serves as an associate lawyer at Borden & Elliot

1992
Gets called to the Bar

1994–2007
Serves as senior VP, general counsel, and corporate secretary at CI Financial

2008
Attends the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program

2009
Works as an executive vice
president for Davis + Henderson

2010
Joins Aston Hill Financial as COO

What would your direct reports have to say about your management style? What excites you?
At this stage in my career, I think my team would say I give them an incredible amount of latitude to carry out their job and I trust that they will do the right thing. I spend a lot of time up front with every team member to set a clear path and guidelines. I then give them a lot of autonomy to do that job. We have a high retention rate to show for it.

The team around me sees my passion for building firsthand; I get very excited about growth. What excites me is the opportunity to build the company from the ground up—starting with the right recruits—to launch the best investment products … by executing on acquisition alliances. Currently, we’re around $8 billion in assets under management. Ideally, we’d like to double it in three to five years. We’ve got a youthful team and the horsepower to do it, and I get excited about that. We work hard to empower and engage our people, but it just takes one person to undermine that.

What are you reading these days?
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a neat little book that makes a nice complement to Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, which could apply to the sports world as well as the business world. It’s inspirational. Because of my heavy involvement in sports over the years, I am fascinated by the parallels between the traits of successful coaches—like John Wooden and Phil Jackson—and successful business leaders, including the importance of igniting passion in your team members.

What career ambitions do you hold for the next 20 years?
I aspire to someday run a public company. At Aston Hill, I’ve partnered with a great management team and can imagine working out the rest of my career there. We’ve become friends as well as colleagues, with a lot of mutual respect. I’d take a pay cut to be able to work in that paradigm every day. I place huge value on what I have at Aston Hill.