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Scotiabank's sage works his playful side

By SINCLAIR STEWART Courtesy: The Globe & Mail

TORONTO - A little over five years ago, on his 50th birthday, Sabi Marwah stood shirtless in the marble foyer of Bank of Nova Scotia's flagship Toronto branch. At least it looked like Mr. Marwah. Sort of.

His turbaned countenance had been grafted onto a beefcake's body, a cardboard cutout of rippling abs, bulging pecs, acid-washed jeans and cowboy boots. His right hand clutched a one-metre-high bank card.

As far as ignominy goes, this was plenty bad -- worse, even, than when a group of colleagues burst into his office with squirt guns and soaked him to the bone. This time, however, the practical jokers had more insidious designs. They pasted letter-sized versions of their photographically altered chief financial officer on the inside of some women's washroom stalls, and dispatched another to Sylvia Chrominska, the head of human resources. "To my dearest friend Sylvia," the inscription read. "Fondest regards, Sabi."

What in the name of Animal House were they thinking?

Mr. Marwah was widely regarded as the sharpest CFO on Bay Street, perhaps the country, before he relinquished that role last year to become chief administrative officer: essentially the second-most powerful position at the bank. Yet for all the reverence of genuflecting analysts, for all the gravitas his name conjures in the Indo-Canadian community, there is a puckish side to this éminence grise, a willingness to use humour -- even if it occasionally means being the butt of the joke -- as a means of managing his charges.

"[People] don't see this playful side, which is more than playful -- he's just a downright prankster and is wonderfully irreverent," says Rob Pitfield, who heads up Scotiabank's international operations (and who is thought to be the ringleader of the birthday stunt).

"I believe it's precisely these kind of things that make big companies go -- it is the fun, and the informality, and the personal relationships. All the formal stuff -- that's the stuff that tends to impede you more than anything. So having this dimension, I believe, has been a huge, huge factor in Sabi being successful."

Sarabjit Marwah was born in Asansol, a small town near Calcutta in West Bengal, India. His father, like many Sikhs, fled Pakistan after India was partitioned by the British in 1947, leaving behind most of his property and wealth. He was a lawyer by training, but after relocating he managed to build a prosperous coal-mining business from scratch, imparting a rigorous work ethic to his son.

"He left Pakistan with virtually nothing," Mr. Marwah recalls during an interview in his Toronto office. "He said 'I'm going to build it all over again.' He never lamented the fact he left behind a fortune."

The son, now 55, is impeccably dressed in a navy pinstriped suit and black silk turban. He has an inviting manner and the air of a polymath, flitting effortlessly from a discourse on banking intricacies to a discussion of Indian culture and Sikh art.

He's probably the only person who has ever thought to include Cedric Ritchie, the former Scotiabank chairman, and Mother Teresa in the same sentence (both were mentors). The latter he met several times as an undergraduate student in Calcutta. During the summers, Mr. Marwah helped construct housing in one of her leper colonies, and was struck by what he viewed as the Catholic missionary's "profound sense of humanity."

After getting his degree, Mr. Marwah moved to Delhi, where he obtained a masters in economics, and then, consumed by wanderlust, moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the MBA program at UCLA.

He made spending money by playing cards (bridge, not poker), and after toying with the notion of pursuing a PhD decided he needed a real job. For nine months, he worked as an economist at an oil company, scraping together $10,000 so he could backpack his way across the United States. When he eventually ran out of cash, his brother, an engineer who had gotten a job in Toronto, mailed him a plane ticket to Canada.

Mr. Marwah interviewed with Scotiabank shortly after he arrived in Toronto in 1979. He had managed to nail down a computer programmer's job at Manulife Financial Corp., though he knew next to nothing about programming. But he did have a knack for analysis, and Scotiabank hired him as an analyst in its finance department.

Originally, the plan was supposed to be a carbon copy of his time in California: stay long enough to save some money, and then take a year to travel around Europe before returning to India. But one year dissolved into the next, and soon he was distinguishing himself within the bank, rising progressively through the ranks to the CFO position.

"I think he's probably about the best I met," says Peter Godsoe, the bank's former chief executive officer. "He's like a great conductor. Good CEOs are, good mathematicians are. They sense numbers -- they know the details, but they can see the broad picture. It's very rare."

Mr. Marwah has always impressed analysts and investors with his command of the bank's financial position. Yet effective CFOs don't merely tabulate and sort data; they convert it into information, and then analyses, and then use those analyses to help executives make decisions. Where most people would see a jumble of numbers, these hyper-numerate types see the threads of an elaborate narrative.

"Numbers are language," Mr. Marwah shrugs, as though this were no different than forming a sentence. "You can really look at a series of numbers and tell a story. Most people fail because they take data to a certain point and it stops there. You've got to take it all the way.

At Scotiabank, which has more international operations than any of its peers, Mr. Marwah is a rarity -- unlike other executives who have been dispatched to the periphery or shuffled between divisions, he hasn't left the offices at King and Bay streets for 27 years.

"It's not exactly what I would call a recommended career path," he says, although this is a bit difficult to swallow, given his professional trajectory. The finance department is like a nexus; it is the point through which all decisions must pass, and as such, offers a perspective on the entire organization. It also offers a degree of impunity. "You can look at anything, and who's going to say no?" Mr. Marwah says. "You're only limited by your own initiative and your own curiosity."

His new role, as CAO, is not entirely dissimilar. The title sounds a bit cumbersome, but the job can be boiled down to a fairly straightforward premise: aligning technology and business practices around the world so that Scotiabank functions like a truly global company, and not just a large Canadian bank that has accumulated a series of foreign satellites. Of course, a big part of this job is managing a disparate work force spread across Mexico, the Caribbean, South America and China.

"We have fun at what we do," he smiles, discussing the running series of practical jokes at the bank. "It lightens [things] up, and also it builds relationships. In any large corporation you can manage by authority only so far and then after that you have to manage by relationships."

Mr. Godsoe is fond of telling a story about a sensitivity training seminar Scotiabank hosted in the early 1990s. One evening, after a particularly lengthy session, a tired Mr. Marwah finally put up his hand to ask the seminar leader a question.

"I'm confused," he began, before puncturing the tension. "Do you think I qualify as a visible minority?"

Mr. Marwah concedes that things have gotten better for ethnic minorities in Toronto since his early days at the bank, when there were just "a couple of turbans" on Bay Street.

Practically speaking, though, he acknowledges there remain plenty of excuses for not hiring minorities, and so he has quietly tried to do something about it. Immigrants, often members of the Indo-Canadian community, regularly seek his counsel, and he meets with as many as he can, with the intention of helping them launch a career.

"There are some very bright young immigrants out there, and they're very highly educated. All they need is that one break; that first break to really help them get in, help them find the right way, find the right job," he says. "But I tell them: Once you get the break, you're competing on your own. I'm not going to help you, I'm not going to pull rank, none of that crap. I've never been disappointed yet."

The obvious question is whether Mr. Marwah will ever replace Rick Waugh at the helm of Scotiabank, and in the process become the first minority CEO of a major Canadian financial institution. He doesn't think so.

"I have one life ambition: to play 18 holes with the same ball," he says dryly. "You have to be realistic and say, 'Do I have the skill sets to run the bank?' If I really felt I wanted to run the bank, I wouldn't have just stayed in finance. . . . I'm good at advice and counsel, I'm good at analytics. There's a lot of things I'm not good at, and some of those things are requirements to be CEO."

Those things would include glad-handing and being in the public eye, both of which can make him ill at ease. He would rather be behind the scenes, in true éminence grise fashion.

"He's probably one of the most successful executives in the country, in his own quiet way," Mr. Godsoe says. "He's well, well, under the radar screen -- a well-kept secret."

*****

Sabi Marwah

Title: Chief administrative officer, Bank of Nova Scotia

Age: 55

Born: Asansol, India

Family: He and his wife, Amrin, have two daughters, both at university. "I have two daughters who run my life, and who are really the central point of my life for that matter."

Major influences outside the bank: His father for his work ethic and values; Mother Teresa for her humanity.

Little-known fact: He was a competitive bridge player in university.

Hobbies: He and his brother are prominent collectors of Sikh art pieces, and helped stage a major exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2000. He is also a golfer with a lousy short game, according to former boss Peter Godsoe.

On his reputation for being one of Bay Street's smartest minds: "Either they've been talking to my mother or they have very low standards, one of the two."

Work philosophy: "It's incumbent on every person to reinvent themselves every few years. It's incumbent on ourselves to learn. I never viewed my job as my domain. That was the minimum I had to do."

On India: "India is one country that tests every sense in your body to the maximum -- your sense of smell, your sense of taste, your sense of noise, your sense of poverty, your sense of wealth."

Awards: Routinely wins company's annual karaoke contest in support of the United Way. Sings Sonny and Cher duet (I Got You Babe) with human resources head Sylvia Chrominska.

Indulgence: Recently became a cottage convert after buying a summer property in Muskoka.

Conversation about this article

1: Ved Arora (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.), August 23, 2007, 1:14 AM.

Dear Sarabjit Ji: I am very proud of you. I would like to propose your name for the 2007 EMCY (Excellence in Multiculuralism Yearly Awards).

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