Q&A: RBC's John Taft urges banks to return to customer-focused culture

Published October 27 2012
Updated October 27 2012

So, how did the great-grandson of a U.S. president wind up working for the biggest bank in Canada?

John G. Taft, progeny of President William Howard Taft and currently an executive with Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), assures that his northbound journey into financial services was not one driven by financial motives.

Taft, 58, began his career as a newspaper reporter in Lowell, Mass.

Intrigued by the idea of helping communities finance projects, he went back to graduate school at Yale to learn about municipal financing. Taft eventually ran a mutual fund company that invested in municipal bonds. Twelve years ago, he sold the firm to RBC and took a management role with the Canadian bank.

"Everyone thinks you're going into the financial services industry to make a whole lot of money and retire before you're 40," he said. "That was the last thing on my mind. I was going to help state and local government and not-for-profits … do a better job. I was in the financial services industry to make a difference and not to make a lot of money."

These days, Taft's day job as CEO of RBC Wealth Management revolves around helping well-to-do clients make and protect their money. But he remains passionate talking about people over profits, conscience over complex financial trickery.

Taft recently came to Tampa to speak at the JHS Capital Advisors National Conference about his book, Stewardship: Lessons Learned from the Lost Culture of Wall Street.

During his trip, he talked with the Tampa Bay Times about how he'd like to see banks get back to their roots. Here's an excerpt:

What's the message of your book?

I'm trying to help restore the public trust and confidence in the … financial services industry, which obviously was severely damaged by the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 and which has continued to be undermined by the series of market glitches that investors see in the news. Things like the (Wall Street) flash crash. Like the nasty IPO of Facebook — not just that the price was soft but the fact you couldn't trade the securities. Then you had the Libor scandal this summer.

So there's been a series of things that have left investors scared. Restoring the public trust and confidence in financial markets is not just an issue for the financial services industry; it's an issue for the country.

What Wall Street culture has been lost?

We've lost touch with our stewardship mission, our purpose and our values. When we do what we're supposed to do as an industry, we serve the needs of clients and we help society reach whatever its goals are. We match up investors with people who can help them. It's an intermediary role. We are a means to an end.

We got away from that. We started thinking of ourselves as an end unto ourselves. We started getting involved in activities that less involved the needs of the client.

So how does Wall Street find its footing? What role does regulation play in keeping profiteering in check?

I'm one of those people in the financial services industry — and there's a lot more of us than probably the media thinks — who believes a financial regulatory environment is necessary and important. Not all of the new regulations made sense; not all are necessary. But we need new rules and, yes, they do play a role in getting us back.

That alone is not enough. You need to get to the (corporate) culture issue, and you can't do that through rules and regulations and laws. There has to be a change inside. You start with leaders like myself using different language and sending different messages to the people who work for them. You can't minimize the importance of that. … It's happening.

Is there enough of a sense of renewed stewardship to reach systemic change?

To be honest with you, after writing this book and traveling around the country, I do feel this. I wouldn't say we've fixed the problem … but I would definitely say more so than I had hoped, there are signs of change. The marketplace (is) telling financial institutions that they want them engaged and client-focused … instead of big risk-taking changes the put the balance sheet at risk. The regulatory environment is more hostile now to pure profit-making activity. It's a lot more difficult to engage in those (practices) today.

Any concrete examples of how the marketplace is rewarding client-focused companies?

Look at Morgan Stanley's purchase of Smith Barney's retail brokerage business. That will significantly shift the business mix at Smith Barney much more heavily toward client focus than it was in the past.

You've held up Canadian banks as model institutions?

Yes. I think that Canadian banks, if you look at the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 … performed the way you want banks and financial institutions to perform.

RBC has sold its Florida bank branches to Pittsburgh-based PNC. Are you still active in Florida?

They have sold their retail banking business (in Florida), and most of their business revenues are coming from their brokerage business in the United States. … It's more (meeting) niche client needs and the needs of our wealth management clients.

We have a very sustained presence in Florida with our wealth management business and our capital markets business … here in St. Pete, in Tampa, Naples, Miami. We're a market leader in West Palm Beach.

Uncertainty is percolating with the presidential election and the year-end fiscal cliff, which could trigger huge spending cuts. What's your advice to worried investors?

The year-end is an artificial date. In general, since the financial crisis, investors have been overallocated to save assets like cash, like bonds, which have risk embedded in them. With cash in this environment, you lose purchasing power at the rate of inflation every year. And, yet investors are underallocated in (stocks). A lot of investors missed the nice rally that we had this year.

With what's going on with the fiscal cliff and debt limits, there's still a lot of uncertainty. But what we try to tell investors is you should have, at the very least, a benchmark for a (certain) allocation of stocks. You need to come out of your shell, and you need to put money to work in the stock market despite the uncertainty and despite the recent past. That's what our advice has been all year long.

As you mentioned, the stock market has had a nice rebound. Do you see another surge in 2013 depending on election results?

That's one of many outcomes. Of all the (possibilities), if you have an incumbent get re-elected and if the incumbent re-elected is a Democrat and has to share power with a Republican Congress, that's the scenario under which you have the best percentage return in the first year of a president's term. And it's a double-digit return.

(But) investing based on a political strategy? I don't think that's very wise.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]