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Russell French and the 100-page look-see

Russell French, CPA, CA, CIRP
AVP, Business Restructuring at BDC

Affectionately referred to by his colleagues as the “Starbucks Princess” for his complex coffee orders, Russell is the highly talented and highly respected leader of BDC’s restructuring group in Ontario and Eastern Canada. He shares with us how he got into the restructuring industry and his transition to working at a bank.

1) How did you get into the restructuring industry?

Like so many others, I fell into it. I was a co-op student at the Waterloo office of Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC). There was one restructuring partner in that office and he needed help with a large receivership. I was the only one sitting in the bullpen at the time and I got picked. I enjoyed that assignment and kept putting up my hand for other restructuring assignments as I articled for my CA designation. That eventually led to 15 years in EY’s restructuring practice, where I had the chance to work on all kinds of interesting files across the country. I was never planning on leaving the Firm, but an opportunity came up to join BDC that was too good to pass up and I made the move.

2) What was the biggest adjustment moving from the restructuring practice of EY into the special loans group at BDC and working at a bank generally?

For the first two months, every time I finished something, I wanted to write it down – I kept forgetting that I was no longer docketing time. There was definitely a culture change. At the Firm, I found that people shared the same “go go go” mentality. When I came to the Bank, I saw that not everyone wanted the same thing for their career – I was now working with a wider group of colleagues with diverse goals and career aspirations.

I also had to get used to the internal processes of a bank. When I was at EY, I did not fully appreciate why bankers couldn’t be more straightforward or make quicker decisions. I understand it now though. There are processes, procedures, and authority levels at a bank, and they are there for a reason. Bankers have “skin in the game” in comparison to the professionals, and their decisions can’t be made lightly.

3) How has BDC’s approach to handling special loans changed during your time at the bank?

I’ve been at the Bank for about 4 years now. But I’d say the biggest change occurred before I joined. BDC’s previous approach to troubled loans, like other banks, was to simply liquidate. Seven years ago, the Bank realized that it needed to focus on rehabilitation and created the Business Restructuring Unit (BRU).The group is staffed by specialists with strong restructuring experience and is tasked with helping clients save their businesses and support them through the difficult decisions to turn things around.

4) How does the bank measure success for this group? How has performance been?

We focus on one key measurement: number of files either sent back to the field or fully repaid. In the BRU’s seven years, we have had an exceptionally high success rate, exceeding the Bank’s expectations. It’s something that we are very proud of.

5) Do you see any troubling trends across certain industries or regions?

BRU is national, so obviously, with the low oil prices, a lot of our work in the last year or so has been out West, and we still see the oil and gas industry as being weak. Interest rates are low and, in Ontario, there’s a lot of money on the street that hides a lot of problems. Only time will tell when this will end.

6) What do you expect and value from restructuring professionals that you hire on files?

I value firms that aren’t afraid to make a decision or provide their recommendations. I don’t want someone to just tell me what I want to hear. I want them to lay out the alternatives and then provide a clear and well-founded recommended course of action.

Also, don’t tell me what I don’t need to know. I remember receiving a 100-page “look-see” report from a firm once. It cost $100,000. I remember doing the math as I flipped through each $1,000 page. I only really needed the first ten pages.

7) What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the restructuring profession?

You have to like dynamic environments and be okay with a lot of disruption and last minute situations. The Bank is a little more stable than the professional services firms, but overall, there’s not a lot of structure in the restructuring industry (pardon the pun). In return for the chaos, however, you’ll be well rewarded and can have the satisfaction of saving a business from failure.