A remarkable man passed from the scene this week. His name was Rowland Frazee and for many years he was chairman and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, the country’s largest bank. He was remarkable not just because he was a highly successful business leader, but because he managed to rise to the pinnacle of success while being a gentleman with a strong social conscience.
I first met Mr. Frazee some three decades ago, when he was on a jury which gave me some award. He was interested in social responsibility issues long before they became a fad. One way you can tell a genuine leader is by his capacity to show an interest in others and make them feel important. And I felt very important after my meeting with him. He was like those baseball greats of yesterday who managed to hit more than a few out of the park but always had their feet planted firmly on the ground. He started working in a small bank branch, answered freedom’s call in the second world war, where he was wounded three times in the Italian Campaign and in battles in Europe, and then returned to raise a family and resume his career. He presided over a period of impressive growth and change at Royal Bank that kept it solidly in the lead of its competitors. And, believe it or not in this day of numbingly common ethical debacle and almost daily corporate embarrassment, he managed to do it all without a hint of scandal or making a giant size payout because somebody at the bank dropped the ball.
He was, like many who have come this way and are now sadly gone, part of the greatest generation. They knew what was important. And they knew what many in my generation and a few others forgot or perhaps never learned: a virtue called humility and the concept of “enough.”
Rowland Frazee’s life and career seem such an astonishing contrast to the so-called hedge fund and LBO heroes of today, who instantly appear then quickly vanish from the scene, and where the celebrity status of self-proclaimed movers and shakers has about the same shelf life as a prize in a cereal box. They strut around the stage for a while. Some even manage to acquire billions and ever more youthful wives. But in the end, they don’t seem to leave very much behind that can be measured or appreciated in human terms. Egos die. Legacies endure.
Mr. Frazee retired some years ago to the small New Brunswick town where he was raised, and contributed his time and ideas to the community. He touched many people in far-reaching ways, not the least of which was to remind us all that there is room for a gentleman in the world of big business who can still accomplish a lot without being nasty, garish or boasting about the size of his mansions.
I am not generally one to suggest more awards in a world already overcrowded with prize-winning real estate agents and endlessly honored show business types. But there would be no better way to celebrate Rowland Frazee’s legacy than for Royal Bank’s board of directors to establish an award that recognizes and encourages in others the kind of civilized conduct he exemplified in business and public life. It is a model which both business and society need to see much more of these days —and very soon.