“The financial crisis was, in some respects, the easiest time ever, because there was never any debate about what needed to get done. There is nothing like a crisis to create incredible focus!”

Picking through the fallout with Peter Levitt, executive vice president and treasurer of Manulife Financial Canada

Peter Levitt

Peter Levitt personifies enthusiasm. As executive vice president and treasurer of Manulife Financial, he is responsible for all aspects of Manulife’s global treasury functions, and oversees Manulife’s relationships with bankers, rating agencies, investment dealers, and debt investors. His zest for his work, including managing through the largest financial crisis of a generation, is not just evident but infectious. In this interview, he shares insights into surviving and thriving through the chaos.

Advantage: After 25 successful years at Canada Trust and TD, you moved to Manulife Financial just in time for the global economic meltdown. Did that seem like bad luck?
Peter Levitt: In June 2007, I moved to Manulife; the financial crisis started within months of my arrival. My impression of what this job would be, and what it ended up to be, were night-and-day different. There were things I believed would be a low priority, things I wouldn’t spend much time on—reality was the opposite, but this presented great opportunity.

Did you realize at the time you were witnessing an epic moment in financial history?
Yes, and it’s been a huge learning opportunity. Interestingly, the financial crisis was, in some respects, the easiest time ever, because there was never any debate about what needed to get done. There is nothing like a crisis to create incredible focus!

The issue was that it had to get done. So when I had to raise capital, it had to be done, it had to be done on good terms, and it had to be done at the right time. And since execution became critical—getting approval and getting decisions—it wasn’t difficult, because people knew what needed to get done.

What aspects of Manulife allowed this to happen?
This company is absolutely remarkable about being decisive. To me, it has been a great joy to be part of a management team that is so clear in purpose.

How has the crisis defined your role as treasurer?
The past five years have been a golden era for risk management and treasury people. It’s been a terrible time for the general public. But if you have a role in treasury or risk management—and there’s a healthy component of risk management in treasury—this is when the role really came to the fore and companies came to understand that these positions can have an enormous impact on the company.

The profile of the treasurer went from an important middle manager to a critical senior executive. Because of the crisis, you needed to be in front of the CEO a lot, or in front of the board at times. If you can handle it, it’s a great learning opportunity. I got 20 years of experience in 5 years.

What kind of person “can handle it”?
Well, it helps to have a good sense of humour! And stamina counts—the hours were definitely extreme.

In the spring of 2009, I recall the first day I hadn’t worked for six months. Christmas Day, New Year’s Day—there wasn’t one day without working for at least a few hours. There was too much happening; there was just no give. We worked nonstop, as did many people caught up in managing through the crisis.

Bench strength is key. I inherited an incredibly strong team with tremendous capabilities. Recognition for what the company has done helps. We just had a rating agency analysts’ review a month ago, and they said, “You guys are the masters of underpromising and overdelivering. Every time we come in and do our annual review, you have done more than you said you would, in risk reduction, capital raising, and other areas.”

Manulife’s international head office in Toronto.

How do you stay on such even footing with the rating agencies?
A lot of success is about relationships, ultimately based on trust. And this works with all relationships: investors, bankers, rating agencies, regulators—all of them will treat you 100 times better if it starts from a foundation of trust.

So you are straight with them, you deal with them honestly, you share information as appropriate. That can be tough, because when there’s bad news you aren’t looking forward to calling your rating agency, but you have to, because you’re in it for the long run. And so here we are after five years of financial turmoil, and Manulife is still AA rated.

What advice would you give to someone just entering the field?
If you’re a junior analyst just starting out, the worst thing you can do is complete an analysis and hand it off. What you need to do is think about how it’s going to be used, what decisions will be driven by the results of your analysis, and how can it be more broadly applied. Technical competence is a given table stakes, so you have to go beyond.

Truly understand what the relevance is of what you’re doing and how it ties into the bigger strategy of the organization. People lose sight of that all the time.

Second, remember the people side is as important as the technical side. You can have a brilliant analysis, but it will go absolutely nowhere if you can’t sell people on your ideas and get them onside. Always be focused on exceeding everyone’s expectations all of the time, presenting insightful and relevant solutions.

Thirdly, culture is important. When one of our board members first heard I worked at Canada Trust in the 1980s, he wanted to know all about it, because that culture transformed the Canadian-banking landscape. It was a unique culture that thrived on collegiality and inclusion, always dealing with the people issues as the core part of what it takes to get things done. For example, in the 1980s I was just a technical, nerdy computer guy, yet I was invited into meetings to develop our product strategies and branding, which is not what happens in most companies.

Manulife is moving to that culture, and I am proud to be part of another cultural transformation.