Jim Westlake charts new waters

Jim Westlake plays guitar in a rock band, even though he’s also busy overseeing the Caribbean regional banking institution RBTT’s merger with the Royal Bank of Canada...

–Jim Westlake. Photograph courtesy RBTTWestlake playing rhythm guitar with the RBC Performing Assets Band. Photograph courtesy RBTT

The RBTT and RBC merger

The US$2.2 billion takeover of the RBTT Financial Group (RBTT) by Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) has redrawn the Caribbean banking map, creating one of the region’s biggest financial networks.

It’s something of a surprise, then, to discover that the man charged with integrating the two operations is a fun-loving 54-year-old who has enough spare time to play guitar in a rock band and to chair charitable committees. The gruff-voiced W James “Jim” Westlake is not your stereotypical stodgy “suit,” and his easy manner is liberally laced with quips, as he shows when he explains the name he prefers to be known by.

“The W stands for William. My father was William as well, so I went by Jim—so that we knew who my mother was shouting at when she got angry.”

Westlake was born in Kingston, Ontario, where his father worked for the Canadian Penitentiary Service, and the family travelled widely, following his postings.
“I always said when I was grounded I was put in solitary confinement, and when I was let out I was paroled,” he says.

Westlake did a master’s degree in business administration from Queen’s University in Kingston, then spent 19 years at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, rising to vice-president. He joined RBC in 1995 and worked in various senior management positions before becoming group head of international banking and insurance.

Westlake’s primary focus over the coming two years will be integrating RBTT into the RBC group of businesses. With a combined presence in 18 Caribbean countries and territories, and more than US$13.7 billion in assets, the united operations will have 130 branches across the region.

The integration is expected to take 18–24 months. Westlake describes the process as “a not very exciting mix” of technology-based-systems work, structural frameworking and a lot of legal and regulatory work.

“When you consider you’re operating in 18 different countries, all with different legal structures, regulatory structures, etc, it’s more complex than taking over a similar-sized operation in one country.”

It’s already certain that RBTT’s days as a familiar name around the region are numbered. It will be phased out, says Westlake: in two years, once the amalgamation is complete, the group will be known as RBC Caribbean.

The centre for the new banking giant will be Port of Spain. In fact, Westlake says, it already is.

“The legacy RBC headquarters is in the Bahamas, but the old RBTT headquarters in Trinidad and Tobago is effectively our Caribbean centre already.”

RBTT group CEO Suresh Sookoo will become CEO of RBC Caribbean retail banking operations as senior management from both organisations is integrated.
Westlake is upbeat about the deal.

“I think that this is a very good opportunity for the region, and Trinidad and Tobago in particular. With RBTT as part of the RBC family, there is the opportunity to grow Trinidad and Port of Spain as a regional financial centre, to create a Trinidad-based world-class institution. It is the chance to grow and expand in a way that would not have been possible before.”

RBC’s takeover offer represented a 27 per cent premium on RBTT’s average share price in the previous 12 months. But will that extra cash serve to fuel an already inflationary economy in Trinidad and Tobago?

Westlake feels not, saying shareholders have a number of options, including retaining their investment in shares instead of taking cash. He also emphasises the mitigating factors, saying Trinidad and Tobago has a strong regulatory framework and the process was carried out in partnership with the country’s Central Bank and the finance minister.

 

Big though it is, the RBTT acquisition is just one of a series of takeovers by the Canadian banking giant.

“RBC is looking to expand outside of Canada and the Caribbean is a region that we have a long and established history in,” says Westlake. “RBTT was a very strong Caribbean growth story, and it really expanded our range and was complementary to our existing business. As a business model, RBTT was perfect, as there was virtually no overlap of operations whatsoever—only to a very small degree in Barbados. When you consider that you’re merging operations across an entire region, that’s remarkable.”

RBC sees this huge slice of the English-speaking Caribbean banking market as an ideal launchpad into other areas.

“We’re looking to branch out our core retail banking operations into the Spanish-speaking Caribbean as well as Central and South America.”

With nine major acquisitions throughout 2006–7, followed by the RBTT takeover in mid-2008, RBC would be forgiven if it stopped for a breather.

“It doesn’t feel like that when you’re living it,” laughs Westlake. “The acquisitions are always those which are complementary to our existing business or in what we see as potential growth areas. We have a strong management structure, our capital base is good, and earnings remain very strong. Our capacity to grow is very strong and we will continue to look for opportunities both in jurisdictions that we currently operate in and others that make sense for our shareholders.”

Westlake describes the deal as being positive not just for the Canadian arm of the new banking giant, but also for the Caribbean.

“This is not a foreign company taking over: we have been in the region for over 100 years. We were operating in several countries beforehand, such as the Bahamas, Barbados and Grand Cayman, and we’re the only one operating in Montserrat.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for the Caribbean people. Virtually no jobs are being lost, we will have 7,000 staff regionally and this will provide a stable, strong commercial headquarters for the region.

“It will be a full subsidiary which opens its customers up to the benefits of global banking with the convenience of branches right across the Caribbean. For instance, in Suriname, there were no international banks operating before this transaction. They are now opened up to international markets for the first time.”

 

But in a period characterised in North America and Europe by financial turmoil, announcements of calamitous banking losses, credit crunch and sub-prime horror stories, has RBC really emerged unscathed?

“Our strength is one of diversification in our portfolio,” is Westlake’s take on the situation. “We have four or five major lines of business in multiple countries—40 around the world.

“We were affected, but more by the contagion than a direct hit. There was a bit in our capital markets and builder finance in the US, but, throughout everything that’s been going on, our retail, business and commercial banking sections have remained strong performers. Our insurance and wealth-management arms in the Caribbean and the US have also performed very well.

“There are many reasons we were less affected than others, but on the whole, we have a better mix than others and less reliance on sub-prime or capital markets.”
His portfolio may just have increased in size, but Westlake feels he’s found a work-life balance, and hopes to maintain it.

“I am a people person, and I have a very enjoyable time getting around the world to all of RBC’s various operations.

“Otherwise I just live day to day and enjoy life: I play golf, I have a boat, and love spending time with my wife and kids.”

He lives in Oakville, Ontario with his wife of 32 years, Deborah. They have four children, aged 28 to 22.

Westlake lists his three biggest passions as family, business, and community work, and has a long history of assisting charitable organisations, including hospitals, universities and children’s associations. He’s on the boards of the Canadian Paralympics Committee and the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, and was recognised for his community service in 2002, when he received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal.

He also plays rhythm guitar with a group of fellow executives in a band called the RBC Performing Assets. They play mostly at community and charity events, covering middle-of-the-road classics by performers like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison, and the Eagles.

“The guys in the band have messed around with music all their lives. I started as a teenager. I was a garage guitarist growing up, which I guess is just a polite way of saying I never got paid for it,” says Westlake. “I have a Fender Stratocaster now, like Eric Clapton’s. I’m a better banker than him—but he’s a better guitarist.