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AIMCo Needs a Savior. Mark Wiseman Needs a Comeback After BlackRock.

The Canadian pension star takes on a fraught fund.

Alberta’s controversial public investment fund (AIMCo) has secured Mark Wiseman — a Canadian pension guru fresh off his own controversy — to lead its board of directors starting next month, the organization said

Wiseman built a sterling reputation and an enduring legacy at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, which he built into a global powerhouse as chief executive officer. But his next position — BlackRock’s global head of active equities and potential heir to Larry Fink — ended badly. 

Fink ousted Wiseman last December for failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague. Wiseman also quickly stepped down from the board of FCLTGlobal, the nonprofit group he helped found to promote long-term thinking in investing and business.  

The Alberta appointment marks a return to the public eye and institutional investing’s power elite.

“He’s such a well-known figure in Canada and in investment circles that his circumstances are pretty unique,” Paige Scott, a recruiter with Kingsley Gate Partners who specializes in placing C-suite asset managers, told Institutional Investor Wednesday. Scott is not personally close with Wiseman. “CPPIB has been the most progressive, most modern, and perhaps successful pension allocator — they are emulated everywhere.” 

Alberta Investment Management Corp., or AIMCo, manages C$119 billion ($87 billion) in public pension assets, working capital, and oil wealth for the province, official figures show. But wayward trading of arcane volatility products cost the fund billions earlier this year, and ignited public outrage. The organization said it’s investigating, while pointing out that “oversight of AIMCo’s investment strategies and risk management is the responsibility of the board of directors.”

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Wiseman will be chair of that board in one week. He takes over the governing body July 1, when current chair Richard Bird finishes his second three-year term. 

Landing a prominent board position at a public entity within months of his ouster speaks to an “utterly unique” expertise and background. But marketability as a board member doesn’t directly translate to the rest of the asset management job market, Scott cautioned. 

“There’s a huge difference between being an adviser and actually running the business. When you’re an adviser, you’re not involved in actual day-to-day operations. You’re there to leverage your Rolodex, contacts, and wisdom to guide management through crises,” she said. Many professionals in Wiseman’s position end up advising or founding their own investment outfits rather than returning as big-firm executives.

“It’s just very difficult in this day and age, when the bar and standard is really high around leadership,” Scott said. “It doesn’t matter what the indiscretion is — whether you’re the President of the United States or someone running a very big business — the question raised is judgement. Or lack thereof.”

That doesn’t make redemption impossible, she noted. “Can people learn from their mistakes? I like to think so.” 

Board work can be an excellent place to start. 

In this case, the Alberta government is “trying to spin off AIMCo into its own platform separate and apart from the Canadian pension system. I can totally see why they would turn to Wiseman. There’s an almost non-exist talent pool of people who know how to do that.”

Wiseman is a tremendous asset to the troubled fund, according to those who know him. That’s the case whether or not the far-right provincial government succeeds in pulling Alberta out of CPPIB — which, thanks in part to Wiseman, has handily outperformed AIMCo.

“He’s an optimist; he’s a winner; he’s a team player, and he loves the work. I think it’s fabulous,” said Eric Wetlaufer, who led CPPIB’s vast public markets portfolio under Wiseman for years, in an interview. “His resume speaks for itself. What’s not on paper — and what’s really critical for this kind of a role — is that he understands and appreciates intersection between talent and strategy. Our business is a talent business and Mark gets that.” 

In Wetlaufer’s experience, “a lot of large plans do their strategic work and then try to find the talent that can execute. They develop an everywhere, everything, all-the-time approach that, at the end of the day, looks like paint-by-numbers. Good structures are important and can help keep you out of trouble, but they don’t give outperformance. That’s where Mark can really help. He knows to focus on the real areas where they can perform and take risk.” 

Wiseman’s motivation for joining AIMCo’s board may be public service, or to put space between the BlackRock incident and now, or just for something to do, or all of the above. 

But it’s not for the money. 

“Mr. Wiseman will be donating his compensation as chair of the board to the United Way to assist communities across Alberta,” AIMCo said in its announcement. 

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