Obituary: William McDonald, banker who spent much of his life in Canada but never lost his Scottish ways

William 'Bill' McDonald
William 'Bill' McDonald
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Born: 27 July, 1946, in Catrine, Ayrshire. Died: 7 February, 2012, in Penn, Buckinghamshire, aged 65.

BANKERS weren’t always baddies. In fact, Bill McDonald, who has died following a courageous battle against bowel cancer, was indisputably one of the good guys.

He was born in the Ayrshire mill village of Catrine, where his father was foreman “tenter” – a highly skilled and responsible post – in the local cotton mill.

He did well at primary school and in 1958 followed his elder brother Jack, now a retired doctor, to the local Cumnock Academy, where he was placed in what has since been recognised as one of the most stellar classes in the history of that school.

Bill didn’t complete the full six years at the academy, leaving at the end of his fifth year to enter the banking industry in the Cumnock branch of the Royal Bank.

Not long before his death he remarked that those days, as a local teller – often on his way into work in the morning, being handed the previous day’s takings by a local shop keeper, to take to the branch – were the happiest of his career.

In 1966 he transferred to the Glasgow Chief Office of the bank, but, with promotional opportunities rare, in 1968 he emigrated to Canada to join the Toronto Dominion Bank.

Here promotion came quickly, but on reading that members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were paid more than bank clerks, he applied to become a “Mountie”.

Waiting for some necessary paperwork to be sent from Scotland delayed his application, however. Meanwhile, he was promoted to assistant manager status at the bank and allowed his application to become a Mountie to fall.

The Mounties didn’t get their man that time, but he later helped them get theirs. Bill described Toronto in the early 1970s as “a wee bit Wild West”.

He shared a flat with two other expatriate Scottish bankers, one of whom had had to carry a suspected bomb out of his branch. The other had tackled and overpowered a would-be armed robber.

Bill felt a bit left out, until a well-known Toronto con man tried to rob the branch. Bill gave chase and caught the miscreant, before remembering he had left the loaded Webley revolver, which, as assistant manager he was authorised and trained to use if necessary, back in his desk drawer. He got the reward money for that arrest.

While in Toronto he met and married his English-born wife Mary, and in 1977 they returned to the UK, Bill having been promoted to the Toronto Dominion’s City of London corporate office.

He transferred to their merchant banking arm and rose to become their senior manager treasury, from which post, in 1986, he was head-hunted by Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) to help manage its Eurobond portfolio.

Bill was one of the early masters of derivatives, becoming head of derivatives for SCB in 1990, before, in 1995, he was promoted again to become administrative assistant to the chairman as chief of staff in the investment bank.

He chose to take early retirement in 1996, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, bringing to an end a distinguished banking career, during which he was one of the first people within the industry to call for tighter controls on activities in investment banking.

In a much-discussed speech to the Bombay Chamber of Commerce in 1993 he warned of a scam similar to that which Nick Leeson would later pull on Barings Bank, being worked in India. Bill had spotted what was happening and had an audit team sent out from London. The scam cost his bank $300 million.

On retirement he kept busy; the MS didn’t progress past the very early stages and didn’t prevent him from restoring and using daily for ten years a venerable Rover P4 from 1961, similar to the one his first bank manager at Cumnock had driven.

He indulged his passion for classic cars and steam trains – finally getting to drive a steam engine, hauling a three-coach train containing family and friends – as a 65th birthday treat.

He loved trips on the Waverley when in Scotland, the rail journey from Fort William to Mallaig and hill walking. He also suffered in the cause of Wycombe Wanderers for 20 years.

He became a JP in 1998, sitting as chairman in the local courts, both youth and adult, in Aylesbury, Buckingham and Amersham and sitting on several court committees.

Bill was a founder member and treasurer of the Buckinghamshire County Foundation, a body which has since 1998 given away more than £3 million to local good causes within that county. He was also a Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator in his adopted village of Penn.

But, for all his years in Canada and globe-trotting from the City, Bill never lost his Scottish accent. Indeed, he was an enthusiastic participant in OPBB (Old People Behaving Badly) an ad hoc group of his Cumnock Academy contemporaries, who met regularly for long lunches in London.

However, Mary McDonald wasn’t too pleased when he came home from the first such get- together with a broken ankle.

Bill is survived by Mary, his wife of 40 years, daughter Jennifer, son Robert and their partners Nick and Paivi and grandson Wilfred, whose imminent arrival gave Bill a reason for so fiercely fighting the cancer following his diagnosis last April.

He faced cancer head on and appreciated that his success in the world of banking had enabled him to enjoy 15 good years of retirement, doing the things he wanted to do, at a time when he was young and fit enough to do them.

Bill McDonald died a contented and fulfilled man.