Nigel Wright: 'A success-oriented, behind-the-scenes guy' - Macleans.ca

Nigel Wright: ‘A success-oriented, behind-the-scenes guy’

Our profile from the 2012 Maclean’s Power List

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Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, announced his resignation on Sunday morning.

Click here for our comprehensive coverage of the scandal involving Senator Mike Duffy’s expense payments.

In a statement, Stephen Harper said he accepted the news with deep regret.

In November 2012, Maclean’s included Wright on its list of Ottawa power players. Here is what we wrote about him at the time:

The morning papers had brought bad news—a prominent Montreal businessman delivering a scathing critique of a new government policy. And the consensus around the conference table in the Prime Minister’s Office was that the reply should be in kind: a few well-placed leaks to the media to put the spotlight on the executive’s own shortcomings to serve as a warning not to mess with Ottawa. Or at the very least, soften him up as a prelude to negotiations.

It was one of the first decisions that Nigel Wright faced when he took over as Stephen Harper’s chief of staff in January 2011. He took notes as everyone in the room had their say, asking occasional questions. Then he made a statement of principle. Regardless of how things had been done in the past, this wasn’t how the PMO was going to operate on his watch. Instead, the Harvard-educated lawyer turned Bay Street dealmaker went to call the disgruntled CEO. A half-hour later, Wright returned; the man was amenable to talking and had cleared the next two hours of his schedule to work out a deal. The crisis was over by lunchtime. “There were no political fireworks, and no one was damaged any further. The issue was just dealt with,” says one Conservative who was in the room. “That’s the way Nigel is: a success-oriented, behind-the-scenes guy who understands how to play the game, but isn’t out to win at any price.”

Harper’s government hasn’t always been inclined to play nice. Previous chiefs of staff Ian Brodie and Guy Giorno were known for their sharp elbows. But when Harper lured Wright away from a career as a managing director at buyout firm Onex Corp., it signalled a change. The 48-year-old financier has deep Tory roots and had worked in Ottawa before, as a junior aide to prime minister Brian Mulroney, but he’s a bridge-builder, not a demolition expert, the kind of guy who appeals to his boss’s wonkish, policy-driven side, rather than his fascination with the darker political arts.

“I think he’s brought stability to the PMO,” says Charley McMillan, a York University economist who served as Mulroney’s policy guru—and Wright’s boss—in the mid-1980s. “What a prime minister needs most is a surprise-free environment. And Nigel’s not the kind of guy who gets in a panic.”

Recruited as much for his business connections as his management skills, he now functions as a liaison with the country’s rich and powerful. In recent months, he’s met with the CEOs of Scotiabank, BCE, Quebecor, RIM, CN and Vale Canada. However, those ties have also been a source of controversy. In August it emerged he had twice been lobbied by Barrick Gold, a company controlled by the father of a former colleague and friend.

Still, Harper clearly has confidence in Wright’s abilities—earlier this year he raised eyebrows by dispatching his chief of staff, rather than International Trade Minister Ed Fast, to Washington to lobby to join trans-Pacific free trade zone talks. It worked.

The open question in Ottawa now is how long Wright will remain on the job. The two-year leave of absence he took from Onex, and his estimated $2-million salary, will expire at the new year. And with the next election in October 2015 already on the horizon, the Prime Minister will be looking for a long-term commitment.