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Posted: August 01, 2011

Executive edge: John Taft

Money manager and regulatory-reform leader draws on early newspaper experience

Lynn Bronikowski

ExecEdge.jpgIn the mid-‘70s, John Taft drove his $2,100 Chevy Vega to Taos, N.M., walked into The Taos News offices and was offered a job as a reporter on a probationary basis.

"I slept in my car for the first month I had the job because I was afraid of spending money on rent for a job I didn't have," said Taft, who six years ago became chief executive officer of RBC Wealth Management. At 56, he oversees a staff of 5,000, including 140 in Colorado.

"There isn't a day that goes by when some experience that I had as a reporter doesn't help me. It's the best graduate school in the world."

Taft would move to Lowell, Mass., and cover the city's redevelopment and designation as a national historic park - a story that would inspire him to go to grad school at Yale University and land a job in the public finance department of Piper Jaffrey.

"It was a remarkable story of urban development, and I wanted to do that for a living," said Taft, explaining how he went from journalism to finance in 1981. "I worked with local governments to fund innovative and interesting projects and ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do."

Taft eventually headed the asset-management business of Dougherty Financial Group. Through two mergers, he retained his job. Rather than writing stories, he would live them during Wall Street's 2008-09 meltdown.

"It was the most intense professional experience I ever had - trying to manage the firm, help clients, help employees," Taft said. "It was beyond description how every day you would walk into the office and be confronted with some issue that not only had you never seen before but you couldn't imagine seeing it."

Through the crisis, RBC earned more than $1 billion, which Taft attributes to the stability of its parent, Royal Bank of Canada.

"Canadian banks definitely got it right and survived the crisis beautifully," Taft said. "They operated more conservatively, which goes to show that you can survive the kinds of things we experienced in 2008 and 2009 - whether you're a financial institution or an individual. You just have to prepare for the next crisis."

This year Taft is chairman of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association - Wall Street's main trade group for which he's active in regulatory reform aimed at restoring financial stewardship to the industry.

"I've worked very hard to get the industry to support and to help shape a new fiduciary standard of care for financial advisers who provide personal investment advice," Taft said. "I believe strongly it's the right time in our industry for that fiduciary standard and I think it will enhance public trust and confidence in our industry."

In a sense, Taft believes his work on regulatory reform is part of his legacy, having been born into a family that included governors, congressmen and cabinet secretaries. His great-grandfather was President William Howard Taft. His father was a nuclear physicist who became dean of Yale University.

"I used to pretend the Taft legacy wasn't important to me, but it is important, and I'm very proud of it," Taft said.
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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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