BlackNorth Rising

Wes Hall

As the founding chairman of shareholder services firm Kingsdale Advisors, Wes Hall was influential on Bay Street long before he launched the BlackNorth Initiative to combat systemic racism in corporate Canada last year. When the polished businessman becomes the first Black venture capitalist on CBC’s Dragon’s Den this fall, most viewers will be exposed for the first time to his keen sense as an entrepreneur, not to mention his fondness for custom suits and well-deserved bravado (his Twitter handle is @KingofBayStreet). But Hall’s confidence and capabilities are nothing new to the business world, where he has frequently changed the landscape as a broker of multi-billion-dollar deals and a proxy battle strategist.

To say Hall’s backstory is unique is an understatement. It starts in rural Jamaica, where Hall—along with four half-siblings and three cousins—was raised in a tin shack by his maternal grandmother, who worked hard to ensure all the kids left in her care at least had love and nourishment, which often meant forgoing food for herself. At age 16, Hall moved to the Greater Toronto Area, aiming to live with his factory worker father while attending high school. The first part of that plan didn’t work out, so Hall moved into a rooming house and worked on his education by day while washing dishes at night to pay for a rooming house. Following high school graduation, Hall reversed his routine by working days in a law firm mailroom while using an education allowance to take college courses in the evening. In 1996, after Hall had earned a law clerk certificate and started a family, fate introduced him to Glenn O’Farrell, who was CanWest Global’s general legal counsel at the time. As luck would have it, O’Farrell had an eye for potential, which he valued more than experience, and Hall was hired to help manage corporate transactions and regulatory affairs at CanWest.

Following CanWest, Hall served as a relationship manager at CIBC Mellon, one of Canada’s major transfer agents. He then honed his knowledge of public company issues as VP of business development and sales at Georgeson Shareholder Communications—where the entrepreneur in him recognized an opportunity to own the market for managing corporate disputes. Using his house to secure a loan, Hall launched Kingsdale in his mid-30s to specialize in helping corporate clients lobby for shareholder votes when fighting over issues related to performance, governance, and major transactions. Since then, he has left his mark on numerous major conflicts and transactions, including messy international ones like the takeover of Canada’s Falconbridge mining operations by Switzerland’s Xstrata PLC in 2006. Hall also played a major role in the 2012 shareholder revolt at Canadian Pacific Railway, offering advice that enabled Wall Street agitator Bill Ackman to outmaneuver CP’s board, which at the time was chaired by former Royal Bank chairman and CEO John Cleghorn, and included half a dozen Order of Canada recipients as directors.

On one level, Hall’s rags-to-riches journey is the quintessential storybook tale of liberal market capitalism rewarding resilience and hard work. After all, he has gone from Jamaican tin shack to Bay Street mailroom to owner of a power brokerage with offices in Canada and the United States, one that can charge premium fees that were reportedly already as high as $40,000 a day back in 2014, according to a Globe and Mail profile. And Hall doesn’t just regularly rub shoulders with other members of Canada’s corporate elite who live near his home in Toronto’s upscale Rosedale neighbourhood—he’s both respected and feared by them. As Walied Soliman, chair of the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP, told Financial Post last year: “There is not a CEO in this country who would not return Wes’s call inside of a day.”

But Hall’s success story has a dark side, since he climbed a corporate ladder that wasn’t designed to help him reach the top. As a mover and shaker in Toronto—where just 0.3 per cent of corporate board members are Black—Hall has always been keenly aware that most of his professional peers don’t worry about their kids wearing hoodies when outside at night or find themselves mistaken for a criminal just because they drive a Ferrari or get asked to park another vehicle after arriving at a restaurant in their own hard-earned sports car of choice. And when U.S. news clips showed George Floyd being murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, Hall was also keenly aware that most other Canadian business leaders didn’t see what he saw. “When I look into the mirror, I see George Floyd,” Hall noted in a Globe op-ed last summer, adding: “Those individuals who perpetuate the cycle of racism and hate, like the ones who killed Mr. Floyd, would not have cared if he went to the University of Toronto, if he lived in Rosedale or if he worked on Bay Street. Just that he was Black.”

“Those individuals who perpetuate the cycle of racism and hate, like the ones who killed Mr. Floyd, would not have cared if he went to the University of Toronto, if he lived in Rosedale or if he worked on Bay Street. Just that he was Black.”

Long story short, Hall’s article spawned calls of support from Prem Watsa, chair and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., Victor Dodig, president and CEO of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and Rola Dagher, president of Cisco’s Canadian division, and those conversations led to the creation of the BlackNorth Initiative. By signing on, CEOs acknowledge that systemic racism exists within the workplace and pledge to help address the issue by taking specific measures to make their organizations better reflect the population—including moving to ensure that 3.5 per cent of their board members and executive positions are held by Blacks by 2025—while embracing and supporting workplace equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in general.

When the inaugural BlackNorth summit was held about a year ago, more than 200 Canadian organizations were already on board, including 30 per cent of public companies on the S&P/TSX 60. Since then, the number of signatories has more than doubled. But the jury remains out on whether the corporate world really has what it takes to live up to all the promises to take EDI seriously that were made last year.

In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission has already been petitioned to require companies to disclose what actions have been taken to support racial equality by governance activists who note that American firms collectively pledged about US$65 billion to the cause amid the public protests spawned by Floyd’s murder, but have only given about US$500 million to date.

Meanwhile, in Canada, where board-level support for addressing social issues remains questionable, a lackluster corporate showing during Black History Month has more than a few individuals worried that the momentum required to achieve real and lasting change has already been lost.

Noting Canadian “say on diversity” reports could soon be as common as “say on pay” disclosures, Hall has already warned companies to expect an open season of investor activism on public companies that fail to take EDI issues seriously because lack of diversity in the workplace isn’t just a social issue—it’s an anchor on innovation and profitability. But despite his own concerns that corporate Canada’s alleged awakening to systemic racism could prove to be nothing more than a “head fake,” Hall remains optimistic. In this Q&A with Ivey Business Journal Editor Thomas Watson, the self-proclaimed king of Bay Street and CBC’s first Black Canadian dragon explains why he thinks generational change is still in the cards while offering practical advice to organizational leaders on how to make it happen.

Ivey Business Journal: Wes, you launched the BlackNorth Initiative just over a year ago. So, let’s start with a quick update. How would you describe the response of corporate Canada?

Wes Hall: All things considered, it’s been fantastic. We now have almost 500 companies that have signed the pledge, representing over one trillion dollars in market value. The calls from interested employers started the day I started this thing last June, and they haven’t stopped. I’ve literally spent most of my life on the initiative for months on end, talking to participants and potential participants every day. I really see an opportunity for lasting change that hasn’t existed for decades. The last time we saw it followed the Rodney King verdict in the early 1990s, and before that it was in the 1960s. There seems to be a reckoning that takes place every 30 years that opens the door for real generational change, and historically our society has failed to seize it. And so, if we lose steam today, another opportunity probably won’t appear for another few decades. But judging from the discussions I am having with other business leaders, I am hoping we have learned a little bit from missing past opportunities. The commitment to change feels real, not like the empty talk of yesteryear, so I don’t think we’re looking at a head-fake moment. And the change we are talking about should go well beyond the workplace and economic empowerment. The conversations I am having involve more than just making the workplace more diverse and inclusive. We’re talking to partners about reforming everything from healthcare and education to homeownership. So, I’m pretty pleased about how things are going.

IBJ: Following what was billed as a weak corporate showing during Black History Month, a blog in The Huffington Post noted: “It begs the question, was this a movement or a moment?” This echoed the concern of others who worry that the momentum for change spawned by the death of George Floyd will be lost in the post-Trump era. How do you see it?

WH: I worry about losing momentum, but I wouldn’t judge the current level of commitment to lasting change by what we would like to see happening during Black History Month. Corporate Canada could have done a better job participating. But it’s not like International Women’s Day because relatively speaking there are a lot of women within Canadian organizations that can be spotlighted. So, while I would have liked to see more done to recognize Black History Month, I still think the enthusiasm for real organizational change on the diversity and inclusion front remains strong. Keep in mind that initiating change takes time, especially if you want to make generational changes. Think about what’s going on today as a submarine missile. It is not going to go boom right away. It’s got to break water, then travel a distance before impact can be seen. We have all the ingredients needed to set ourselves up for generational success, but it will take time for the results to be visible.

IBJ: When the BlackNorth Initiative was announced, the founding logic stated that if Corporate Canada can commit to adding gender diversity to boardrooms and executive offices, then it can do the same for the Black community and other underrepresented groups. But not too long ago, gender parity in the C-suite was projected to be a hundred years away. So, what is today’s timeline for change?

WH: It’s about catalyst. Initial promises related to gender targets led to little improvement. But because of all the “It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen” messages that let people down, women pushed for accelerated progress. Look what happened with the MeToo movement. Today, the expectations for diversity go well beyond meeting yesterday’s gender targets, which didn’t support cultural and racial diversity. And there are just no more excuses for feet dragging when it comes to meeting diversity targets for women, Blacks, Indigenous people, Asians, or any other underrepresented groups. Corporations have a responsibility to reflect society, so change is a must, and not over a hundred years. If we sustain the momentum that I see today, I think we’ll see monumental change within my lifetime.

IBJ: Past diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives failed to achieve what is expected today, leaving organizations with no roadmap for making things right. Can you share emerging best practices coming out of the BlackNorth Initiative?

WH: Sure. Like with many other organizational issues, seeking external advice is key. Most large organizations have a legal department, but when a major legal issue arises, they still seek outside counsel to supplement in-house expertise. If you’re doing an M&A transaction, even though you have a financial team internally, you’ll go out and get an investment banker to help. But when it comes to issues like diversity and inclusion, too many organizations aim to address things internally. They are not bringing in outside people with a different perspective.

IBJ: Why not?

WH: In many cases, it’s like an issue we have when trying to address mental health. Some people are just not comfortable seeking help because they see a stigma attached. When it comes to addressing the various issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, nobody has all the answers. And since nobody really wants to admit that they don’t know what to do, reluctance to seek external help becomes another issue. As things stand, there are a lot of organizations doing a good job. But there are also a lot with internal people working in silos to make things right despite obviously not having all the answers. That’s a recipe for frustration, not progress. To really move the needle, we don’t just need companies to be willing to change—we need them to be willing to work with outsiders in order to successfully identify and address internal problems. That’s why a big part of what we are trying to do is collect and share best practices. We keep saying: “Share your practices, your successful practices and your unsuccessful practices.”

IBJ: So, willingness to show vulnerability is key, right?

WH: Absolutely. BlackNorth started with CEOs reaching out for help because they didn’t have all the answers. But to change cultures over the long haul, we need that vulnerability to extend across organizations. Now is not the time to be afraid to talk about internal issues or a lack of answers. Cultures have a real hard time changing on their own.

IBJ: Focusing on gender diversity allowed a lot of corporations to claim to be diverse when in more than a few cases they really just added white women to predominately white male dominated organizations. Today, the focus is on real diversity, meaning fair representation for all, including, but not limited to, Black, Asian, and other racialized communities, Indigenous peoples, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and persons with disabilities, in addition to women. But that complicates things because nobody wants to be accused of leaving anyone behind. So, where do you start?

WH: Decisions must be made. That’s why leadership is another key to making progress.

IBJ: Can you give an example?

WH: In addition to setting executive targets for women, Blacks, and Hispanic/Latinx individuals,  Goldman Sachs committed US$10 billion over the next 10 years to support Black women-owned businesses and create one million Black entrepreneurs. The response from some other companies was, “We couldn’t do that. We can’t focus on one group like that.” But look at the statistics. Black women are at the very bottom, and so Goldman decided to implement a program that focused on that demographic. They’re aiming to move the needle and have a real impact and that upset some people. In other words, they focused on results, not optics. And I think being brave enough to strategically target one area in this case showed leadership because focusing on the most underserved can help raise everybody else up despite opening the door to accusations that you’re leaving others behind. This is also a great example of not just working within the organization on diversity and equity issues because the Goldman program aims to improve the diversity of entrepreneurship in general.

IBJ: Being brave in this case probably also meant not worrying about consensus.

WH: Exactly right. Goldman is a huge organization. If leadership waited for everyone to sign off on a particular program, then none would have been announced. You’ll rarely get full consensus on diversity and equity programs because different factions disagree on what to do and where to start. That’s why true leadership is critical. Playing it safe is easy, but it won’t move the needle.

“You’ll rarely get full consensus on diversity and equity programs because different factions disagree on what to do and where to start. That’s why true leadership is critical. Playing it safe is easy, but it won’t move the needle.”

IBJ: Can you offer another example of leadership in this area?

WH: Enbridge didn’t just set diversity targets. If management doesn’t meet the stated objectives, compensation will be affected. In my opinion, that puts Enbridge at the top of the heap when it comes to leadership on the equity and diversity front because they’re not just saying what they hope to do. They’re saying, “We’re going to be penalized financially if we don’t do these things.”

IBJ: Despite the momentum for change that you see, there must be some frustrations. What frustrates you the most when talking to other leaders about diversity initiatives?

WH: It can be frustrating when people think too hard about signing the BlackNorth pledge. By signing, companies commit to reflecting society and developing inclusive cultures. Since numeric goals provide impetus for change, we included a goal of having, at a minimum, 3.5 per cent of executive and board roles based in Canada being held by Black leaders by 2025. That’s clearly reasonable, especially for a company based in Toronto, where the population is 9 per cent Black. But that half per cent stops some companies in their tracks. In some of my conversations, I have been told, “If our board was three and a half per cent Black, it would have half a person.” It really puzzles me when I get this kind of response. I don’t understand how some people don’t see that being committed to diversity doesn’t necessarily mean checking all the per cent boxes exactly. Committing to the principal behind our targets is what matters most because they wouldn’t exist if the barriers to diversity had been addressed naturally and organically. When faced with people who don’t get it, my typical response is, “How about one Black director? Is that okay?” Going from zero to one is a hundred per cent improvement, and as far as I am concerned, some immediate progress is always better than none.

IBJ: What’s your message for organizations that said they really plan to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, but didn’t consider it a priority during a pandemic?

WH: My message would be that there are two pandemics that need our immediate focus. The COVID-19 outbreak just highlighted social injustices that have existed for far too long without being recognized by everyone because they don’t impact everyone. Being stuck at home watching George Floyd being murdered changed that. Everyone knows the law says you’re innocent until proven guilty. And people saw what happened to Floyd and knew it wasn’t right. But not everyone was surprised. Some people were just made aware of how wrong things are because they don’t face racism on a daily basis. It’s been happening all along, but they just didn’t see it pre-COVID. But now everybody can see the injustice. This calls for immediate action, especially from business leaders. It is easy to say, “It’s really bad, but we’re going to wait until the COVID crisis is over to deal with it.” But that’s not leadership. Leadership is recognizing racism is a pandemic that must be addressed with the same urgency as the ongoing health crisis.

IBJ: A poll of Canadian board members conducted during the COVID crisis by the Institute of Corporate Directors found that only 31 per cent of respondents strongly felt that their organizations should play a more active role in improving inequities in society. Just over half felt responsible for the social impact of their own organizations. What do you think about those numbers?

WH: I think they are bad numbers that reflect the need for better leadership in our boardrooms. ESG isn’t just about the environment and governance. The “S” stands for social, and a lot of people in the corporate world haven’t been paying attention to it. But that doesn’t mean the responsibility doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t mean that the consequences of ignoring it aren’t real. If a business ignores its responsibility to the environment or shareholders, it will be adversely affected, and the same is true for the social aspect. If a business has no social conscience, there will be negative consequences. And when businesses treat employees and consumers in different ways because of bias and racism that’s not just a social issue—it’s a business problem. So, a board member who says, “We don’t think social issues are our responsibility” is demonstrating a lack of leadership. In fact, one of the major reasons that we have such a big problem with bias and racism in society today is because previous generations of business leaders wrongly said: “It’s not our problem, it’s a government problem.”

IBJ: So, you see the BlackNorth Initiative and other movements for greater diversity going hand in hand with the evolution of stakeholder capitalism, right?

WH: Absolutely. But diversity is also about improving performance for shareholders. When you have individuals from just one group in charge, one that went to the same schools and hangs out in the same places, they will tend to see things the same way. And that has led to “groupthink” in our boardrooms. Think about how banks failed to focus on servicing poor communities because nobody recognized the opportunities. For obvious reasons, the traditional focus was on servicing millionaires from posh neighbourhoods like Toronto’s Rosedale. But someone with my background sees things differently than your average bank executive or director. I came from poverty, so I know what’s possible if you make loans available to underserved communities and focus on incubating a system to create the next generation of wealth. Diversity is not just fair. It is how blind spots are eliminated and opportunities to create value are unlocked.

IBJ: Research showing the value of diversity has been around for years. So why wasn’t real diversity a real goal for corporate leaders before the death of George Floyd?

WH: It took an outsider to make Abercrombie & Fitch realize its business was based on selling to teenagers and it was being governed by a board mostly comprised of directors in their 60s. The problem seems obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to insiders. They never even seriously thought about it until an outsider pointed it out. Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives face the same challenge. And that’s why outside advisors are so important when addressing things today—they help insiders identify blind spots. Keep in mind that you can’t just focus on making your organization visibly diverse by adding people from underrepresented groups. You must reform the organizational culture and infrastructure so everyone is heard and respected and can be successful. That requires more than meeting targets. You need to have difficult conversations and support diversity with things like mentoring programs and unconscious bias training. And when doing this, outsiders can really make a difference, at least if insiders are prepared to listen, which is another key ingredient for success.

IBJ: Self-awareness is key to leadership in general. What recommended readings do you have for individuals of privilege in charge of organizations expected to meet public expectations for change?

WH: I will always recommend Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I enjoy this particular business book because author Wilkerson gives us a powerful and masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America. She explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. When I compare this book to real-life situations faced by myself and others who look like me, it is quite clear there is a prejudiced system we are all fighting against. Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behaviour and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more.

IBJ: What is your advice for young professionals currently facing barriers related to bias and racism?

WH: Firstly, I would like them to know that they are not alone—use me as an example of how with perseverance and determination, you can overcome barriers that are designed to hold you back. This is one of the reasons I created the BlackNorth Initiative. I want them to know that it is not going to be this way forever; we have close to 500 organizations that have made the public pledge to uproot bias and racism from their organizations. I would also stress to young professionals that not every opportunity that you come across is one you must take; if you feel at any time that you will not get treated fairly based on who you are and not the content of your character and your abilities, decline and move forward. In the long run, this will benefit you and bring you closer to a genuine opportunity where you are encouraged and empowered to succeed.

Photo credits: Niall Collins Photography


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