How does one go from being a master’s student studying Old Norse to one of Canada’s pre-eminent corporate directors? In the case of Eileen Mercier (’69 MA), outgoing chair of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and one of Canada’s most influential women (among the top 25, according to one rating), what connects the dots is her active and lively curiosity.
As a student, Mercier was interested in how languages develop. She attended the University of Alberta to study Old English and Old Norse. After graduating, she decided to take a year-long break before continuing on to her PhD. But she had to support herself so, scrambling to find something to pay the bills after a lecturing position fell through, she took a communications job with the Toronto Stock Exchange. That’s when her curiosity began propelling her along a different career path. Soon, to better understand what she was writing about, she enrolled in a securities course. “I found I liked it,” she says, “which was a huge surprise!”
As a student, Mercier was interested in how languages develop.
Her new-found interest led her to a group doing organizational development work for the Toronto-Dominion Bank. Another step took her to TD Capital Group, where she not only got a taste of investment banking but also obtained a solid grounding in corporate governance. “I was an observer on the board or an actual board member of a number of companies in which the bank had investments, and I learned from some very accomplished board members,” she says.
Having completed an MBA, Mercier moved on from banking to management positions in other industries, holding senior posts at Canwest Capital Corp., Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. and Abitibi-Price Inc., where she was senior vice-president and CFO. “All the time doing other jobs, I had one or more boards on the side,” says Mercier, who established her own management-consulting firm in 1997. Half a dozen years later, finding herself more in demand as a board member than a consultant, she decided to become a professional corporate director — one of the first women in Canada to build a career in corporate governance.
Mercier has served on the boards of 28 organizations, from small companies to global conglomerates. She has also volunteered as chair of the governing board at Wilfrid Laurier University and vice-chair of York University’s board of governors and currently sits on the board of Toronto’s University Health Network. She holds honorary doctorates from York University and Wilfrid Laurier University and fellowships in the Institute of Corporate Directors of Canada and the Institute of Canadian Bankers.
Mercier has served on the boards of 28 organizations, from small companies to global conglomerates.
Mercier’s term as chair of the board of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan — which has more than $140 billion in net assets — has covered some turbulent times. She led the board in its oversight of investments during the 2008 market crisis, helped the plan’s sponsors resolve successive funding shortfalls and implemented a succession plan to replace the inaugural CEO. Is she planning to slow down now that her term in that demanding position is coming to an end? Not entirely, she says.
“I love to do things. I love to learn things.”
Originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 edition of New Trail