Remembering Neil Petroff, OTPP's Former CIO

Earlier this week, I learned of the unexpected and tragic death of Neil Petroff, OTPP's former CIO.

An official obituary isn't out yet, the family is understandably in shock and will hold a private service next week.

I and many others were also shocked and saddened to learn of Neil's passing.

I was told he suffered cranial bleeding from a fall.

On Monday evening, after I learned of Neil's tragic death, was talking to my father who is a retired psychiatrist and told him what happened.

He reminded me of the tragic death of his friend's 33-year-old daughter who slipped in her bathtub and suffered severe hemorrhaging and died instantly.

"Unfortunately, many people die after hitting their head from a fall which is why hospitals perform CT scans if you present at the ER to make sure there is no intracranial hematoma (bleeding)."

Whatever the case, Neil Petroff unexpectedly died and my thoughts and prayers go to his wife and family during this very difficult time.

I didn't know Neil well, only met the man once and spoke to him a few times on the phone, but he really impressed me and his death got me thinking about what makes a great CIO at a pension fund.

And let there be no doubt, Neil Petroff was a great CIO, the last of a dying breed along with Bob Bertram who preceded him in that role at OTPP. 

Neil was recently at an event honoring Bob and saw many of his former colleagues there. 

So, what makes a great CIO?

Well, to answer that question, let me go back many years to the time I met Neil Petroff.

I was with Yves Martin, we drove to Toronto for the day to meet CPPIB and OTPP as Yves was looking to raise money for his commodity hedge fund, Akira Capital (which ended up closing down).

Anyway, Yves and I were waiting at Teachers' reception for our meeting to start and they were running late.

I remember Jim Leech who was then CEO, came in, picked up a piece of paper on the floor to put it in the trash, saw us and I introduced myself and Yves. 

Jim asked us who we were waiting for and we said Daniel MacDonald and Jonathan Hausman.

"Well, that's not right, they shouldn't keep you waiting, let me go tell them you're here."

And off he went to tell them we were there.

So, we get in the room, Yves goes over his pitch book, Jonathan Hausman didn't seem particularly interested as he had a flight to catch and warned us he was leaving the meeting early, but Daniel MacDonald who I consider to be the best hedge fund analyst in the industry was there so I didn't mind if Jonathan left.

Right after Jonathan left the room, I emailed Neil Petroff to let him know we were there and I'd love to meet him.

Literally five minutes later, in walks Neil Petroff with a striped golf shirt and a tall cup of Starbucks coffee, smiling: “Don’t mind me, I just came to say hello, carry on.” 

He starts fiddling the pitch book and listening to Yves and Daniel go at it.

Daniel knows his stuff but so does Yves so the exchange was excellent and Neil seemed aloof until he starts asking one excellent question after another, mostly related to the business model. 

On the drive back to Montreal later that afternoon, Yves and I had fun going over the day and I remember telling him how Neil Petroff was cool and nice to walk into the meeting and assist it after Jonathan left, and how he really knew his stuff.

Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, what makes a great CIO and why I considered Neil Petroff a great CIO even though I hardly knew him.

A great CIO is rare, very rare. They know their stuff inside out, can talk to you about public and private markets and a lot more and they're not insecure and arrogant weasels, when they don't know something, they'll tell you.

Unfortunately, the pension industry has its share of weasels, I don't need to point them out because people can spot them from a mile away.

Neil Petroff wasn't one of them, he inspired his colleagues and celebrated their success. He was a great mentor.

Ron Mock, OTPP's former CEO, owes his career at Teachers' to Neil Petroff and Claude Lamoureux who Neil convinced to hire him in 2001 after his hedge fund blew up.

Ron made some good decisions at the helm and some bad ones, like hiring Graven Larsen to replace Neil after he retired from the organization. 

Many high level Teachers' officials told me this proved to be the "worst hire ever" at the organization and it resulted in several high profile departures.

This brings me to my second point, a great CIO isn't just smart, they are great leaders who truly have your back when the going gets rough.

That's why I put Neil Petroff and Bob Bertram in a category of their own.

It's also why I continue to believe AIMCo's former CIO, Dale MacMaster, was a great CIO who really knew his stuff no matter what happened with the whole vol blowup saga during the pandemic.

There are a lot of excellent CIOs in the Canadian pension industry (men and women) but very few of them are at the level of a Bob Bertram or Neil Petroff.

I'm not saying this to put them down, it's simply the truth.

Anyway, it's Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, I felt like honoring Neil Petroff in my little way which is why I chose to write this comment.

Again, my sincere condolences to his wife and family, Neil was way too young to die unexpectedly.

May he rest in peace and let us all remember his wisdom, sense of humor and great character (those who knew him well talked to me about his personal and professional integrity).

I also want to extend my condolences to the family of Geoffrey Briant who died last month here in Montreal.

Geoff was the Executive Vice-President, Corporate Development at Cachet Sustainability, a company he helped start along with Leo de Bever, its CEO & CIO.

He had moved to Montreal in the summer from Vancouver and was excited to be back here and was especially excited about Cachet.

We were supposed to hook up but I wasn't feeling well this summer and never got a chance to see him again.

Apparently, he was complaining of some pain and the doctors told him he had metastatic cancer and only a couple of weeks to live.

Another sad and tragic death, I enjoyed our discussions with Earth Capital's Gordon Power at the bar in Maison Boulud at the Ritz-Carlton hotel here in Montreal.

You can read Geoffrey Briant's obituary here.

May he also rest in peace. 

Below, an older (2013) panel discussion featuring OTPP's former CIO, Neil Petroff. 

I remember an old discussion with him on active management where he ended by stating:"We can't share all our secrets because the minute we do, everyone is trying to mimic us."

RIP Neil, you shared plenty with us, thank you!

Update: On Saturday, November 26, an obituary of Neil J. Petroff was published in the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail:


It is with unimaginable sadness that the family of Neil J. Petroff announce his sudden passing on November 20, 2022 in Toronto at the age of 62. Born and raised in Toronto, Neil was the youngest son of the late Henry and Hinda Petroff. 

Neil is survived by his wife, lifelong partner and high school sweetheart, Leanne Petroff. He will be forever loved and missed by his daughter Lauren Briggs-Lawrance (Chris) and sons Carey Petroff and Brent Petroff (Katie Pearson). Brother to the late Ian Petroff (Marlee), Penny Petroff (Neville), David Petroff (Shimona) and Mindy Gerskup (Martin); brother-in-law to Gordon Lansdown (Paula) and Alison Lansdown (David Plaxton). Neil leaves behind many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews who adored, respected, and loved him. 

Neil grew up in North York and graduated from York Mills Collegiate in 1978. After earning a BBA and MBA from York University, he began his career in the financial sector with Bank of Nova Scotia, then Guaranty Trust, and Royal Trustco.

In 1993, Neil joined the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (OTPP), where he built his career until his retirement in 2016. During this time, he won accolades and the respect of the wider industry for being a pioneer and a highly innovative thinker in the world of pension fund investing. His broad capital markets knowledge and risk-management expertise ultimately led to increased responsibilities as Senior Vice President and eventually Executive Vice President and Chief Investment Officer, a position he was honoured to hold until his retirement. A gentle leader who operated with steadfast integrity, Neil was recognized for his role in innovative hedge fund portfolio management when the OTPP was named 'Public Pension Fund Investor of the Year' by Alternative Investment News in 2009. He received numerous other industry awards including Chief Investment Officer of the Year and a lifetime achievement award for innovation in 2014 by the publication Chief Investment Officer. 

Through all this, Neil never forgot who he worked for: he said his bosses were the teachers of Ontario. He also held positions on multiple boards including the Cadillac Fairview Corporation, RedBird Capital, Northwater Capital, NRStore and Integra among others. Despite his many professional accomplishments, family was Neil's top priority. 

He met his wife Leanne, the love of his life, when he was 16, she 15, and the rest is history. Together they shared so many adventures and, at times, incredible challenges which only strengthened their bond. Leanne was the planner and Neil was always eager to go on that next adventure. Whether it was a round the world trip with National Geographic, climbing Machu Picchu, skiing the slopes of Aspen, taking the whole family to Hawaii for his 60th birthday or just driving downtown to see a great documentary, Neil was game for it all. 

With great joy Neil supported his three children's interests and endeavours with unconditional love. He dressed as a pirate on a Disney cruise with Carey, took Brent on adventures along the Mediterranean and Californian coasts, surprised Lauren and Chris with a Super Bowl trip and hosted their incredible wedding. Family gatherings were in his blood, traditions he learned from his parent's Hinda and Henry Petroff. Their holiday parties would often welcome more than a hundred extended family and friends while birthday celebrations were more intimate. 

Neil and Leanne carried on these traditions, always welcoming family and friends to their homes. The Lansdown cottage on Big Hawk Lake in Haliburton was a special place where he enjoyed boat rides, kayaking, utility vehicle adventures and adding to his library of 'Dad Jokes'. He became a professional 'putterer', tackling projects that included building stone walkways, decks, and fixing docks. They also shared wonderful memories with family and friends at their home at The Tuscany on Grace Bay in Turks and Caicos, where he loved to golf, read, swim in the ocean and hear about his family's SCUBA adventures (he was our grouper fish by day, parrot fish by night). 

Neil was a true athlete who enjoyed running, cycling, racquetball, poker, tennis and skiing, but his greatest passion was golf. It was one of the ways he enjoyed connecting with so many people as a member of The National Golf Club and The Donalda Club, and on courses around the world. He was sometimes known as a man of few words, but if you got him talking about golf, he could go on forever. 

Beyond his personal and professional commitments, Neil was also a philanthropist. He and Leanne launched the Neil & Leanne Petroff Foundation, ensuring continued annual giving with particular interest in the SickKids Foundation and the research of Dr. Christopher Pearson at SickKids Hospital. He leaves a legacy of generosity that we are very proud of. Neil will be remembered as a man of integrity. 

A gentle, loving, intelligent, thoughtful, resilient, generous, and funny pillar in our lives. He was a constant source of reassurance, guidance and inspiration, a one-of-a-kind human being who we will all miss so very, very much. The family will be holding a private service. Friends and family are invited to join us for a visitation on December 4th from 2-4 pm and 6-8 pm at the Humphrey Funeral Home A.W. Miles – Newbigging Chapel, 1403 Bayview Avenue (at Davisville) and early next year at The Donalda Club for a celebration of Neil's life (date TBD). 

In lieu of flowers, please consider donations made in Neil's honour, to the SickKids Foundation for "Modulating DM1 CTG/CAG Research at SickKids Hospital" (https://www.sickkidsfoundation.com/waystodonate/inmemory select "Donate then Dedication"). Condolences may be forwarded through www.humphreymiles.com.

OTPP also posted this on Linkedin on Friday:

We are deeply saddened by the recent passing of Neil Petroff, our former Executive Vice President and Chief Investment Officer. Neil spent 22 years at Ontario Teachers’, including six years as our CIO, before retiring in 2015. During his tenure, he spearheaded many innovations across our Investments division, including the use of derivatives and expanding our activity in Asia with the opening of our Hong Kong office. He introduced our long-term equities strategy, our natural resources asset class and our Liability Driven Investing (LDI) program. He also helped recruit and mentor many of the current and former senior investment leaders at Ontario Teachers’.
 
Neil was an integral part of our organization and his contributions will never be forgotten. Our condolences go out to his family, friends and loved ones.


Like I said, they don't make CIOs like Neil Petroff any longer. If you were lucky enough to have known and learn from him, be thankful and carry on his legacy.

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