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Steve Peacher: ‘If you give people an opportunity, people will rise to it’

Steve Peacher, president, Sun Life Investment Management, poses for a photo at the company's new building on York Street in Toronto, Tuesday, July 11, 2017.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Steve Peacher, 53, is president of Sun Life Investment Management, the third-party institutional-investment-management arm of Sun Life Financial.

My father had majored in accounting, and it's a practical major in terms of moving into the investing world. When you major in accounting, most of the people you're going to school with every day are angling to become accountants. But I really just wasn't excited about going to work for one of the big accounting firms as an auditor. At the time, the jobs that seemed the most interesting were the jobs at investment banks.

I grew up in Wheaton, about 30 minutes outside of Chicago. Wheaton is one of those typical all-American, Midwestern towns. It was a great place to grow up and sports were central to our lives .

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I got an offer to work at Dean Witter Reynolds, this was 1986. What was important to me was that they had a small investment-banking office in Boston. I was interested in moving up to Boston because my wife, who wasn't then my wife, was up there. I worked for a guy who was demanding, but he would also give me a lot of responsibility early on because the office was small and there was no one else to do it. I think what I learned from that is that if you give people an opportunity, people will rise to it.

At the beginning of 1990, I had answered an ad in the Wall Street Journal. Putnam Investments was looking for a high-yield bond analyst. It turned out to be great timing for me that was not by design, totally by luck. Drexel [Burnham Lambert] had just gone bankrupt and Mike Milken was under indictment and people wondered if that market was going to go away. But that ended up being the bottom of that market.

In 1999, I ended up running our high-yield bond group. I had gone from analyst to director of research, been a portfolio manager, then was running the group. It gave me experience in analyzing companies, managing money, managing people. Between 2000 and 2005, Putnam Investments had gone through a couple of tough times. None of this I was directly involved in, but it impacted the firm. In 2005, I was contacted about a role in Boston to run the fixed-income department at Columbia Management. It felt like a good time to make a change.

I went through the heart of the financial crisis there at Columbia. I had a nice office in the corner but I took one of the spots in the middle of the trading desk. It was just a way to get things done, be in the middle of things, be very visible and be able to have impromptu conversations.

By the summer of 2009, we were close to striking a deal with Ameriprise to buy Columbia Management from Bank of America. And just at that time, I got a phone call about the role of chief investment officer at Sun Life. I had always been managing or been working with teams that managed other people's money, but the prospect of being inside a financial institution where you are managing money on the balance sheet across a broad array of asset classes was also interesting to me.

At Sun Life, we own [MFS Institutional Advisors], which is a big, long-standing investment manager. In 2012, the board asked the question: Asset management is one of our four [strategy] pillars – does that just mean we are going to own MFS? I went back to the board nine months later, and said, "I think Sun Life has the opportunity to develop a third-party institutional asset manager by taking the strategies that we use to manage our own money and offering it to other institutions." The board liked that idea and we started to pursue that in late 2013.

At that point, I was wearing two hats. I was the chief investment officer and, at the same time, I was driving this new business. As that got off the ground, we made some acquisitions. By the end of 2015, CEO Dean Connor and I decided that I just couldn't wear both of those hats. So we hired a new chief investment officer.

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Investment firms are almost like sports teams. That's about having good people, but it's also about the culture they've worked in and built up over time. Our goal has been to not disrupt the culture at the firms that we bought but to try to bring some benefits to them as we launch new products, give them new resources. Their clients don't want to see that their teams are disrupted. So it's been important to me to make sure that doesn't happen. Two years later, we've had almost 100-per-cent client retention, almost 100-per-cent employee retention.

Physical fitness continues to be an important part of my life and I try to squeeze in fairly intense workouts when I can.

As told to Patrick Brethour. This interview was edited and condensed.

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