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Business Person of the Year 2009: Larry Pollock, Canadian Western Bank

This year Larry Pollock proved why he’s the banker you want to go through a global financial crisis with

[The 2009 Business Person of the Year is presented in association with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta and Robert Half Finance & Accounting. Larry Pollock wears a Baume & Mercier timepiece supplied by Gemoro Goldsmith, official timekeeper for Alberta’s Business Person of the Year.]

Don’t argue with Larry Pollock about global warming. Not unless you’re truly prepared to stand your ground. Halfway through our interview, in his downtown Edmonton office, 30 floors up in the Canadian Western Bank building, I realize I’ve touched a nerve. It’s not that he’s saying the climate isn’t changing. It’s the cause he’d contest, particularly if you believe that cause to be us.

“They can go back millions of years and prove that the Earth warms and cools,” says Pollock, calmly, in the same voice he’s used up until this point to describe his past 20 years as president and CEO of Canadian Western Bank Group. “Shit, this used to be the tropics at one time – that’s why we’ve got all the oil,” he adds. “Is CO2 bad? You need CO2.”

“To an extent,” I say.

“You could get me going on that one,” he warns.

It seems better to let it go. One reason: it’s clear to me Pollock isn’t convinced Alberta could achieve what he sees as much needed diversification through, say, a greener economy. Another: it occurs to me I’m seeing a side of the unnervingly brawny 62-year-old I’m not prepared to take on in a one-on-one meeting, even if it is considerably subdued compared to how he might have expressed it 40-odd years ago.

Back then, Pollock was an up-and-comer in industrial financing, and the kind of guy who never shied away from heading out to a job site to deprive a surly foreman of his bulldozer due to lack of payment. Whatever frustrations that might have left, Pollock got them worked out on the hockey rink, playing semi-pro as a defenceman. A self-described “grinder,” Pollock was the reason to avoid getting caught in the corners, if you wanted to keep your teeth.

So we move on. But by then I’ve learned the Pollock of the past isn’t, fundamentally speaking, far removed from the one that led Canadian Western Bank to its 85th consecutive profitable quarter this summer, a record unmatched by any of Canada’s big six banks. If anything he’s just spit-polished those lessons of youth. Cart enough heavy equipment off to auction to recoup losses and it teaches you the value of due diligence before money changes hands more than it helps refine the art of repossession. In other words, you learn that a good defence is always the best offence. And if you’re winning, why change up the plays and risk getting out of position? The game, like the economy, can always turn.

Though he’s been criticized by analysts for his conservative approach to a business built on the slim margins of commercial lending, he’s not about to be forced to relinquish it any more than he would his control of a puck or his point of view on global warming. But sometimes the only way to succeed is to get tough, especially when tasked, as Pollock has been, with realizing an against-the-odds dream held by a few Alberta business people of a Western Canadian-based financial institution.

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