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To fix the economy, Trudeau taps global star in corporate world

Dominic Barton, head of McKinsey, is a Canadian with a global perspective, acquired from a lifetime of living and working on four continents.

Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is turning to one of the world's leading corporate fixers as it grapples with a distressingly long list of economic challenges.

Dominic Barton, who runs consulting giant McKinsey & Co., began work this week as the $1-a-year head of Ottawa's newly created Advisory Council on Economic Growth.

Unknown to most Canadians, the 53-year-old Oxford-educated former Rhodes scholar is a global star in the world of corporate and country strategy. He provides advice to chief executives and world leaders, he's a prolific writer on global economic trends and a sought-after speaker.

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He also happens to be a Canadian.

The growth council reports to Finance Minister Bill Morneau. But Mr. Barton's engagement has the thumbprint of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his office all over it.

Mr. Barton's influence is already evident in recent government moves, including the willingness to run a budget deficit to kick-start the stalled economy, its plan to create an infrastructure bank to attract foreign investors and its exploration of much deeper ties with China, including a possible free-trade deal. Mr. Barton has spent much of his career in Asia, and his appointment suggests the Liberals share his view that the region, and China in particular, are central to Canada's economic future.

There are also echoes of Mr. Barton's thinking in Mr. Trudeau's attempt in Davos to rebrand Canada as hotbed of human talent rather than just natural resources.

At the urging of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, senior Liberals sought out Mr. Barton's advice when they were in opposition, and again immediately after their October election win. The idea of Mr. Barton taking on an even greater role took root at January's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he arranged a series of private round tables between Mr. Trudeau and leading business executives and economic thinkers.

"They really got to know each other at Davos and hit it off," a senior government official said of the Prime Minister and Mr. Barton. "On the way back, Justin said: 'We really have to use him.'"

There is a long tradition of Canadian prime ministers tapping outside advisers, and Mr. Trudeau appears to have found his economic muse in Mr. Barton.

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"We're looking to get a much broader global perspective on Canada's place in the world and the economy," the official explained. "We are looking for an ongoing and unique source of advice on economic policy."

So just what will the government get from Mr. Barton? He's a Canadian with a global perspective, acquired from a lifetime of living and working on four continents. He was born in Uganda, where his father was working as a missionary and his mother as a nurse. The family later moved to Chilliwack, B.C. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia and dreamed of a career in Third World development. But his first job after graduating from Oxford with a masters in economics was as a currency analyst in London. He joined McKinsey in 1986.

One of the youngest-ever McKinsey partners, Mr. Barton was elected to the first of three three-year terms as global managing director in 2009. His final term is slated to end in mid-2018.

Mr. Barton carries a Canadian passport and has an apartment in Toronto. But he hasn't lived in Canada since the mid-1990s, when he moved to South Korea and later China. He's now based in London.

Many of his clients aren't even aware he's Canadian.

Last week, he was working in South Africa. He was in Thailand when Mr. Morneau tagged him for his growth council earlier this week. By Friday, he was in Vancouver for a meeting of Asian and Canadian business leaders.

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"He's around the world and lives on an airplane," said Stewart Beck, a former top Canadian diplomat in Asia and now president of the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation, where Mr. Barton serves as a director.

Plugged-in doesn't begin to describe Mr. Barton. His list of contacts includes CEOs and world leaders on every continent. As one government official put it: Getting Mr. Barton on board is a bit like hiring the global public service.

"He has an immense global network," Mr. Beck said. "That's critical for us to understand how we need to engage economically with the rest of the world. And he's truly dedicated to Canada. He works for a global company, but his Canadian roots are front and centre."

Mr. Barton ranks among the reigning stars of corporate and country strategy – in the mould of Michael Porter, the Harvard University competition guru who wrote a landmark 1991 report for Brian Mulroney's Conservative government.

Mr. Barton evangelizes on the importance of such things as big data, innovation, sustainable growth, managing for the long term and the global economy's permanent pivot to Asia. But getting results from embracing these concepts isn't easy. Countries and investors who followed his frequent urgings to get into China, for example, might now be poorer.

Nonetheless, people who've worked with him say he's a brilliant strategist – on companies as well as countries – with a penchant for getting leaders to narrow their strategy and focus on their strengths.

"He's not an advocate of the peanut butter approach, where you do a multitude of things and spread yourself really thin," said one business executive who's poised to join Mr. Barton's government advisory panel, but hasn't been announced yet. "That often happens in Canada."

He's facing a tall task. The Canadian economy has hit a rough patch, dragged down by the collapse in commodities prices. But the problems go much deeper and predate the spectacular fall in the price of oil. The country's businesses have been falling badly behind foreign rivals in R&D for a decade and the country has lost export market share in its traditional markets, including the U.S. And Canada has a dearth of global corporate champions, capable of helping the country pivot towards more promising overseas markets in Asia and elsewhere.

"I don't know if Dominic has any silver bullets, but if I drew up a list of people to ask, he would surely be on it," remarked John Manley, the former Liberal cabinet minister and president of the Business Council of Canada. "He has his finger on the best advice that's being provided to governments and businesses all around the world."

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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