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Fortune’s Wheel and the Destiny of Canada’s First Bank

Dr. Laurence B. Mussio

In the medieval age, the concept of Fortune’s Wheel (the Rota Fortunae) gained popularity as a concept to explain the workings of fate: the waxing and waning of good times and bad. At the top of the wheel you reign, sovereign. A turn of the wheel and you’re out of power and wealth: on the way down. At the bottom of the wheel, fortune crushes you. At the final turn, you’re pulling yourself back up.

In a matter of days and weeks, I think a lot of us feel as if we were the dude at the top in January 2020, moved to the next slot by March, and now find ourselves identifying with the guy hanging on for dear life at the bottom of the wheel in April, probably to June really. Corona at the top…virus at the bottom. Big Circumstance has Fortuna spinning her wheel. As the song reminds us, That’s Life.

The question of whom fortune favours was very much on my mind these last eight-plus years as I studied an institution that had gone through many turns of the wheel throughout the two-centuries-plus of its existence. That long-run perspective puts our current position — as individuals and institutions — on the wheel in some context. It also might encourage us to think how long we/they have been in the top position, and how inevitable the movement of the wheel.

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That institution mentioned above is the Bank of Montreal, Canada’s first bank. On April 16, McGill-Queen’s University Press will officially release my two-volume analysis entitled Whom Fortune Favours: The Bank of Montreal and the Rise of North American Finance. The book’s appearance at this moment of crisis is an unexpected blessing because it throws into high relief the history of an institution that has survived panics, depressions, wars, rebellions, insurrections, stock market crashes, (other) bank failures, and two major world wars. The story of resilience runs like a subterranean river through both volumes. So think of it as an unintended but direct message from the past about how previous generations coped. (For more on why executives need the long-run view, have a look at this OpEd in The Globe and Mail.)

One thing is for certain: a company’s experience deserves a seat at the decision-maker’s table, as BMO’s Joanna Rotenberg just posted here. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all basing at least part of our decisions on what came before, on our values, on our traditions, on what worked and what didn’t, even if what is coming is entirely new. We have one past and many possible futures. We need to understand the one to plan for the many possible.

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The book should be useful, and not just interesting, for the banker, the policymaker, the scholar, and darned near anyone who wants to understand the evolution of Canadian finance. There is a lot of political economy in it, as you might expect. Whom Fortune Favours provides a ton of case studies on politics, crisis management, strategy, technology, globalization, organizational behaviour, and more. Across the last two centuries, the Bank-centered flows and networks were able to bring together wealth, resources, capital, and technology with ideas, visions, and projects. They also had their turns of the wheel, like most institutions and individuals. This is a work of independent scholarship, so every turn is fair game.

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The book is available in English and French, so you can read it in both of Canada’s official languages. I would also say the physical books themselves are magnificent — the highest expression of the bookbinder’s art — thank you MQUP.

Let me conclude with a word about the people who commissioned and supported this project. It’s one thing to talk about how important the long run is, and another thing to commit the time and resources to unlock that experience for the common benefit. I particularly single out Bill Downe, Mona Malone, Patrick Cronin and Darryl White.

Thank you to world-famous historian(TM) Niall Ferguson for writing such a splendid foreword.

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