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Helen Sinclair 1969

Banking Leadership and Entrepreneur

Helen Sinclair opens the door to her Toronto office wearing a trim navy pin-stripe suit. It’s the only clue that she is a banker. Behind her on the wall are pictures of oversized birds and shaggy creatures painted by her children in the rainbow shades of a Crayola colouring box. Vintage photographs of downtown Prague, her mother’s birthplace, line another, in front of which are leather chairs that say, “ËStay awhile, we’re in no rush.’

The bustle of Bay Street is just a few short blocks away. But here, in this sanctuary of domestic charm, the atmosphere is quiet, genteel. If Christ had known Helen, the moneychangers might still be in the temple.

For most of her career, the 48-year old Torontonian has laboured hard to reform the image of banking as a grimy, greedy profession. During the seven years she was president of the powerful Canadian Bankers Association (1989 to 1996), Sinclair (the first woman to hold the position) skillfully sailed her industry through revisions to financial sector legislation and other public policy discussions about the evolving role and structure of banks.

Her commitment to change led her in 1996 to abandon her high-paying, high-profile job to found her own company. Bankworks Trading Inc., which repackages and sells services, technologies and training products already developed by North American financial institutions to an international roster of banks and financial companies, has made headway in its first few years of business. With the Institute of Canadian Bankers, it has developed courses on the credit needs of small and medium-sized businesses, as well as treasury and risk management, plus a management training program for large insurance companies. Bankworks has also hosted a conference about money laundering at the Banker’s Club in Mexico City and worked with Swedish bankers in search of training from Canadian forensic accountants.

“I’m not a technical wizard,” she says, in a soft but assertive voice. “But I’m not afraid of technology and its impact on our industry. I think a lack of fear is the most important thing in wanting to move the world forward.”

Her fearlessness, determination and workaholic tendencies (she took a mere month off work for her first child and three weeks for her second; she had her briefcase with her at the hospital) motivated the Old Girls’ Association to honour her with the 1999 Old Girls’ Award. The prize is fitting as Sinclair says she owes her spunk to the school where she was Head Girl in her graduating year of 1969.

“Havergal never told you that an area shouldn’t be looked at. It never put the brakes on your learning. So that spirit of going after it is really what it took to get ahead. It’s an attitude, I think.” Part of that attitude involves taking risks - starting a new company, for instance, and encouraging your kids to follow their hearts at a young age.

Sinclair, who holds a number of directorships including the Toronto-Dominion Bank and Stelco, Inc., and husband Jamie Coatsworth, a partner at Coopers & Lybrand, have a policy at home: Don’t just think about it, do it. Their two children - 16-year old Mark, a student at Upper Canada College, and 15-year old Anna, entering grade 12 at Havergal - are already showing signs of their mother’s no-holds-barred spirit.

Last summer, Mark went on an unchaperoned trip to Europe. “There were a lot of parents who thought we were delinquent,” says Sinclair, “but he wanted to try it and we felt he was ready.” Anna, meanwhile, is pouring all her energies into ice hockey with an eye fixed on becoming the best female goalie in Canada. Her daughter’s jock ambitions suit Sinclair just fine. “People tend to think you have to be well-rounded, but I don’t think so. I believe in following your passion. Interesting things can happen when you do that.”

Written by Deirdre Kelly 1979