Re­view by An­thony Wil­son-Smith

Lau­rence B. Mus­sio A Vi­sion Greater than Them­selves: The Mak­ing of the Bank of Mon­treal, 1817-2017. Mon­treal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Press, 2017

Policy - - In This Issue - Re­view by An­thony Wil­son-Smith Con­tribut­ing writer An­thony Wil­son-Smith, for­mer ed­i­tor of Ma­clean’s, is Pres­i­dent and CEO of His­tor­ica Canada. AWil­son-Smith@ his­tor­i­ca­

A Vi­sion Greater than Them­selves: The Mak­ing of the Bank of Mon­treal, 1817-2017

By Lau­rence B. Mus­sio

“Let me is­sue and con­trol a na­tion’s money and I care not who writes the laws,” the 18th cen­tury banker Mayer Am­schel Roth­schild de­clared. He was well-placed to say so; the leg­endary fam­ily dy­nasty that he helped build has some­times tran­scended na­tions in the scope of its in­flu­ence.

For­tu­nately for Cana­di­ans, the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions gov­ern­ing our coun­try have been in gen­er­ally wellmean­ing and ca­pa­ble hands since— and even be­fore—Con­fed­er­a­tion. As the aca­demic and busi­ness his­to­rian Lau­rence B. Mus­sio re­minds us in his smart and en­gag­ing new cof­feetable book, A Vi­sion Greater Than Them­selves: The Mak­ing of the Bank of Mon­treal, 1817-2017, that was true even when money was is­sued by the banks them­selves. BMO, Canada’s old­est ex­ist­ing bank, be­gan print­ing pa­per money within the year of its found­ing. It did so right up un­til 1942, when its last $5 bills—re­plete with pic­tures of the bank’s pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager—were put into cir­cu­la­tion. (With the 1935 es­tab­lish­ment of the fed­eral Bank of Canada, the banks were given a time­line to start re­duc­ing and even­tu­ally re­tire the ban­knotes they is­sued from pub­lic cir­cu­la­tion).

Mus­sio, with the full col­lab­o­ra­tion of BMO, tells these and other sto­ries in smooth prose of­ten leav­ened with dry wit and oc­ca­sional blunt­ness. The end re­sult lifts the book well above cor­po­rate ha­giog­ra­phy—to the great credit of both au­thor and sub­ject.

Mus­sio clearly un­der­stood that the his­tory of a bank, while im­por­tant, doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make for breath­tak­ing read­ing if pre­sented in the usual time­line form. In­stead, he uses bite-size snip­pets to re­late BMO’s growth and achieve­ments. In all, there are 200—one for each year of ex­is­tence—di­vided into three sec­tions. Those are The BMO Uni­verse (pro­files of key peo­ple and events); Two Cen­turies of Bank­ing (sta­tis­ti­cal snap­shots); and The Ma­te­rial Cul­ture of BMO Bank­ing (pho­tos of his­toric ob­jects such as tele­graph code­books; The 1890s ‘Blick­ens­der­fer Typewriter’, one of the first truly por­ta­ble type­writ­ers; and the 1870 “Pro­tec­tograp” de­signed to thwart forg­ers).

De­spite the stodgy im­age of banks, Mus­sio re­minds us that they— specif­i­cally BMO—are of­ten in­no­va­tive in the de­vel­op­ment and use of tech­nol­ogy. Be­fore 1979, clients could only per­form large trans­ac­tions at their home branch. Com­put­er­ized multi-branch bank­ing al­lowed cus­tomers for the first time to “per­form de­posits, with­drawals, fund trans­fers and pass­book up­dates” at any branch. Twenty years on, the in­tro­duc­tion of mo­bile bank­ing meant that cus­tomers could, for the first time, elec­tron­i­cally “move money, check credit card bal­ances, trade stocks and more” as we do to­day.

Mus­sio’s will­ing­ness to ac­knowl­edge when the bank and/or key peo­ple are less than per­fect (and BMO’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept that) add to the book’s charm. In slightly barbed prose, he praises the leg­endary W.D. “Bill” Mulholland’s achieve­ments while not­ing that his ex­act­ing man­ner “would have made him feel at home as a Ro­man pro­con­sul or a field mar­shal”. Of an ear­lier leader, Edwin Henry King, he cheer­fully re­ports that he was “called—de­ri­sively—the ‘King of Canada; ‘a lit­tle God’…’tru­cu­lent and un­com­pro­mis­ing’…’and [de­scribed] even by his al­lies as ‘very pe­cu­liar’.” Mus­sio also notes those oc­ca­sions when BMO has been late to the game. For ex­am­ple, the in­tro­duc­tion of MasterCard credit cards in the early 1970s came “frankly be­lat­edly”.

Those small asides en­hance ap­pre­ci­a­tion of BMO’s achieve­ments by cre­at­ing a sense of bal­ance. Af­ter two cen­turies, there aren’t many ar­eas of Cana­dian life where BMO has not been in­volved, through its vast net­work of branches; com­mu­nity phi­lan­thropy; eco­nomic im­pact—and, most re­cently—ex­pand­ing our coun­try’s busi­ness foot­print abroad. BMO set up an of­fice in Lon­don in 1870, and has been in busi­ness in the United King­dom ever since. It be­gan pre­par­ing to do busi­ness in China in the early 1970s and set up its first rep­re­sen­ta­tive of­fice in Bei­jing in 1983. In the United States, its 1984 ac­qui­si­tion of Chicago-based Har­ris Bank made it the pace-set­ter for other Cana­dian banks en­ter­ing the U.S. mar­ket.

Mus­sio’s book ap­pears as BMO pre­pares for a new chap­ter; Wil­liam Downe, af­ter a decade as CEO, will re­tire in Oc­to­ber and be re­placed by Darryl White, the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer. That’s nice sym­me­try; a new CEO as the bank begins a third cen­tury of oper­a­tion. There is ev­ery rea­son to pre­sume that the sea­soned White will build on the suc­cesses of Downe and his pre­de­ces­sors. In the mean­time, BMO—and Cana­di­ans—are well-served by this au­thor­i­ta­tive, af­fec­tion­ate but clear-eyed look at a na­tional in­sti­tu­tion that fit that de­scrip­tion even be­fore Canada ex­isted.

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