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Charting Martin Thibodeau’s royal ascent

29-year RBC Royal Bank veteran now heads B.C. operations
Martin Thibodeau started his job as RBC Royal Bank’s regional president for B.C. in early spring | Chung Chow

Martin Thibodeau arrived in Vancouver from Montreal in March to start his stint as the regional president for RBC Royal Bank’s B.C. region along with plenty of luggage and 12 dozen Montreal-style bagels to distribute to his employees.

“They smelled a bit in the plane, but it was a good smell,” Thibodeau said with a laugh while speaking with Business in Vancouver for an exclusive interview in a small boardroom at the bank’s B.C. headquarters.

The bank’s retiring regional president for the B.C. region, Graham MacLachlan, and two other bank executives met Thibodeau at the airport and the foursome embarked on a shuttle run that included stops at six RBC bank branches to meet staff and clients and dole out goodies.

He has a goal to visit 80 of his bank’s 169 B.C. branches by the end of the year and is on track to do that, having visited Prince George, Kelowna, Victoria, Nanaimo and cities across Metro Vancouver.

“I’m a firm believer that our branches are very important to our success, and connecting with the store, our branches – it’s like a restaurant. You need to be in the restaurant meeting clients,” said Thibodeau, who oversees mortgage-lending workers, financial planners and other staff in RBC’s branches, which employ 3,531 of the bank’s 6,840 workers in the province.

The balance of the staff at the province’s largest bank-sector employer work in divisions for which Thibodeau is not responsible, including RBC Dominion Securities, RBC Insurance and RBC Capital Markets.

“When you get to this particular role, it’s less about your career and more about growing others’ careers,” he explained. “It’s like being a general manager of a hockey team. You’re a big enabler of building leaders.”

Thibodeau knows the role well because his previous position was as president of RBC’s Quebec region. The move to B.C. is therefore, in one sense, a lateral move. When it comes to RBC’s retail banking presence, however, the volume of the B.C. region’s business is about twice that of Thibodeau’s home province of Quebec.

The 51-year-old exudes energy and is as passionate about meeting people as he is about being active in the community.

He has already been accepted as a member of the Business Council of British Columbia’s board of governors, and he expects to be active in organizations such as the United Way, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and BC Children’s Hospital. A membership at the Vancouver Club has been approved.

Greater involvement with a specific charity is likely to come after he has been here for about half a year, Thibodeau said, explaining that he is still getting his bearings in his new home city.

He has already identified a local golf club he wants to join, but he declined to divulge its name because he said his membership is pending. He has been active cycling and made trips to ski at Whistler.

Fostering diversity is also one of Thibodeau’s passions. He co-chairs RBC’s national diversity leadership council and has been active in community organizations that champion diversity.

Longtime friend, former client and Dorel Industries principal Jeff Segel recalled Thibodeau going on a Judeo-Christian mission to Israel for non-Jews that the Federation Combined Jewish Appeal organized in 2016.

“He was the glue that binds,” Segel said. “He’s the inspiration. He’s the guy who is up before everyone else and has a gung-ho smile on his face.”

Thibodeau told BIV that his range of past experiences is why he celebrates diversity.

“The experiences I’ve been though – geographically, in different roles, meeting people or being in different lines of business – help me to become a leader who embraces diversity and supports women, LGBT, Mosaic [the Royal Bank’s internal employee resource group for newcomers to Canada] and Indigenous people.”

Raised in the small town of Joliette, north of Montreal, Thibodeau graduated in 1989 with a commerce degree from the Université du Québec à Trois-
Rivières, majoring in finance and human resources.

RBC representatives conducted a recruitment drive on campus just as Thibodeau was graduating, so he went for an interview without expecting much.

His parents were both ill in hospital when he broke the news to them that he had landed a job at the Royal Bank.

“They broke into tears,” he said. “In their mind, having a son who will work for the Royal Bank, they knew that I would have a long career and a good career. They were extremely proud. It took me a while to understand because, for me, a bank is just a bank. But you start with RBC and you grow and you get different opportunities, and you discover a great organization.”

One key to Thibodeau’s success has been his willingness to move wherever the bank needed him.

He started at the bank on a management track that involved a year working in various departments at a Montreal branch. He was then given the opportunity to manage the bank’s largest branch in Quebec City.

What followed was a series of managerial and executive roles that had him hopscotch the country with bases in places such as Moncton, Winnipeg and Montreal.

By the time he did a stint at head office in Toronto, as vice-president of Canadian banking, he had a good sense of the regions, but it was at head office where he fully understood how the bank operates.

“When you are in the field, no matter where you are – if you’re in Quebec or in Prince Edward Island or in Winnipeg – you tend to think about your world as being the most important,” he said.

“I was a bit naive. I was in the different markets thinking that everything will come my way because I’m in charge of commercial [banking] for Manitoba and Saskatchewan or because I’m in charge of eastern New Brunswick and P.E.I.”

The head-office stint helped him realize just how big an organization RBC is and how the bank deploys capital to regions where the money is likely to bring the biggest return.

Most of his 10 geographic moves while at the bank have been with his wife, Caroline, and their three children, now aged 24, 22 and 16.

“I’m married to a saint for having done all these different moves in the bank,” he said. “All of the stories I’ve told you today could only be possible if you have a strong partnership like the one I have with my wife.” •

Sidebar questions:

Last music downloaded or streamed: Best of Pink Floyd, Pink Floyd

Favourite recent movie: The Shape of Water

Favourite book about business: Outliers: The Story of Success and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking from Malcolm Gladwell (not business: Sapiens)

Famous person you would like to meet (could be living or dead): Barack Obama and Michelle Obama

Place in the world that you have yet to visit but would like to: India

Profession you would like to try other than your own: Teacher of math or history teacher

Advice that would you give a younger you: take risks, get outside your comfort zone and take six months to travel around the world before you start working

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