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From Civil War To Corporate Success, Roy Ratnavel Shares His Story Of Overcoming Adversity And Pain
Roy Ratnavel has a classic rags-to-riches immigrant story. While he's now a successful Bay Street executive at a global asset management firm, it's pure grit and resilience that got him this far.
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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After being forced to leave war-torn Sri Lanka and immigrating to Canada, Roy started as a mail clerk at CI Global Asset Management and over the span of 30 years, has made the leap to Executive Vice-President at CI Financial as well as the Head of Distribution for CI Global Asset Management.

Tell us about what life was like for you in Sri Lanka, to your journey here in Canada.

As a teenager, growing up in northern Sri Lanka I never thought I would live to see my twenties. My scarred memory is still full of incidents and experiences living in Point Pedro — whose inhabitants were frequently bombed and shelled to oblivion, during the height of war. Most nights during the heavy bombardment my brother and I used to lay on the floor of our ancestral home. The cracks made by the incendiaries as they landed; the shock-waves from high explosive bombs, preceded by a seismic wave that was felt as we laid on the ground and the subsequent haunting screams of those poor souls who got caught in it. 

Then 1987 rolled around and ‘Operation Liberation’ was activated — a military offensive carried out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to recapture part of the territory in the Jaffna peninsula from the Tamil Tigers — which included my hometown. When the soldiers came — I was arrested along with many of my friends at the age of 17, for being Tamil, and I was sent to prison. After my release, sensing that there was no future for me in Sri Lanka — my father decided to send me out of the country for a better and safe life and thought Canada might be that land of opportunity. It was on April 19, 1988 — when I was 18-years-old, that I landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport, by myself. Three days after I landed my father was shot and killed. 

You have been at CI Global Asset Management for over 30 years which is very much unheard of today - where somebody stays at a company for that long. Tell us how you got your first job there and what made you stay that long with the same company?

My father’s untimely death left me with the feeling that I had to live for two people. I thought — if I did well enough in life, somehow, I could make up for the life he should've had. At first, I got a daytime job in a factory — and, then at night I would clean office buildings. On weekends, I had a third job as a security guard. But I knew I had to get out of this routine, if I wanted to achieve my goal. My roommates and I used to buy the Toronto Sun newspaper, which we never planned to read — but, just for the Sunshine Girl on page 3. But one night, I flipped through the job listings, and there was one that said ‘Office Help Needed. $14K.’ I applied — even though I didn’t even know what ‘K’ meant.” 

My offer letter for a ‘mailroom clerk’ dated February 16, 1989 — thirty-two years ago — now hangs in a frame on the wall in my office. CI was a very tiny, privately owned asset management company back then with a few million dollars under management. I stayed at CI for this long not out of loyalty, but because no one else would hire me. Kidding aside, when CI went public in June 1994 —I bought as many shares as I could afford in the initial public offering (IPO). Since then I felt like an owner and saw CI as an extension of myself. As a result, I did what others would not do — because no one washes the rental car. I behaved like an owner and took genuine ownership and pride over my work here. Now, I can’t quit on myself. 

What does your typical day look like? Managing teams is a difficult endeavour, what is your approach?

Morning routine is vital to me. I wake up every morning at 4:30 am, have a double espresso shot and check the headline news from around the globe. Then hit the home gym for an hour. By then my report card comes in the form of an overnight sales email. Even when it’s positive, it’s not a glorious euphoria — because I’m relieved and then thinking of how to win the next day. I try to get to the office by 7:15 am. 

Once in the office, I pour over the overnight sales report to gauge the inflow and outflow of assets. Then I get in touch with my direct reports for clarifications and thoughts — if necessary. My usual day consists of many management meetings and team meetings to create sales strategies and initiatives to utilize CI’s diverse lineup of investment mandates for financial advisors.

I believe that most managers fail to comprehend that their jobs are not about personal achievements, but instead about enabling others to achieve. Leadership can be so stressful that most people internalize their stress to make themselves insecure and self-centered to a point where they cannot properly support their teams. As a result, the team will lose trust and the person will be seen as someone in authority and not as a leader. To overcome this and project confidence, I delegate tasks for others to accomplish. Delegation is not an abdication of responsibility. Although sometimes a leader must take charge and drive change forward, the best leaders often take a back seat and build talent by delegating the team to do the driving.

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Did you find it difficult to manage your life outside of work while taking on high-level management roles at CI Global Asset Management? How have your family and friends supported you through your journey? 

In the pre-COVID world I used to take over 100 flights per year within North America, to Europe and as far as Australia. I did this for over twenty years. I have missed many birthdays and anniversaries along the way. If I didn’t have a family that understood the nature of my career and wasn’t supportive of it, this couldn’t have worked. My role involves doing a lot of presentations, and meetings, with long days and late nights. Over time it made me a professional ‘extrovert’ and personal ‘introvert.’ Which means I avoided many family gatherings on the weekends. My wife, Sue, pretty much was a single mom during my entire absence while dealing with our son, her career and our extended family for over two decades. They say to look at the positive in everything. The only good thing that came from COVID for me is that I don’t have to fly anymore — haven’t for a year. In all seriousness, I appreciate what Sue has endured and tolerated as I ascended to the top of the corporate ladder.

Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career?  If not, who would be somebody that you would want as a mentor now?

I believe effective mentorship happens organically, it happens without you realizing it — it must be natural and not forced. Yes, I do have a mentor. It’s rare to find someone in life who believes in you even more than you believe in yourself. I was so fortunate to find that in my former CEO, current Chairman of the Board, motivator, disciplinarian, friend and a cheerleader — Bill Holland. A man who taught a young, scared kid from a war-torn country that the world is not necessarily a bad place and nudged my life in better direction.

What advice would you give to young people considering a possible career in finance?

There is a message I want to get out to anyone who is pursuing a dream — if it sucks while doing it, that is how you know you are doing it correctly. That person belongs to a rich history of a long lineage of people who had to jump through crappy hoops to get to where they are today. It is good to have dreams — but not fantasies. And, if you fail, do not get bitter — but, get better. Most people make bad decisions because they are so certain that they're right — and, they don't allow themselves to see the better alternatives that exist. Be radically open-minded and come up with the right questions and consult other seasoned people to find better solutions. A career in finance will humble you — as you gain experience. You will realize how much time you have wasted on nonsense.

Be passionately productive. Put facts before feelings. Stay in touch with people who inspire you. Take advice from those who have done what you want to do. Learn to communicate better — because good communication skills are like the laws of physics — it applies everywhere. 

Do you feel like there needs to be more diversity in the C-suite and board level based on your own experience?

Recently, I have been asked for my thoughts on diversity and racism in the workplace. No doubt this is because I am a South Asian immigrant, and person of color who rose from nothing to assume an executive position within my organization and a leadership role on Bay Street. Frankly, I have thought about this issue a lot lately – but, not in the way it’s framed by modern identity politics. Coming from Sri Lanka, I’m all too familiar with bonafide discrimination and injustice. Racism does exist and there will always be deplorable people. We must always speak up loudly against injustice. It is the only position that is consistent with our own morals and democratic ideals. We must work tirelessly to ensure everyone has access to education, skill development and training, and a fair shot at opportunity. Having said that, we must create corporate cultures that are true meritocracies in hiring, promotions and compensation. We need to lower the barrier — not, the bar. When I am looking for talent, I don’t look to hire ‘X people and Y people.’ I just go out and hire the most talented people I can find. CI happens to be a very diverse workplace. I personally don’t believe diversity is a strength – but, diversity of thought is. 

Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years? 

Hopefully, above ground.

I personally view social media in a positive light. I see it as a tool that can be used for good or bad (similar to a car). Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

I agree — it can be good and bad, depends on the user’s intent. The trick is to use this medium wisely, but not to be used by it blindly.

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

Best way to build a legacy is by not actively pursuing to build one. I like to be remembered by a headstone with the following words inscribed on it, “Man who got more out of wine than wine got out of him.” 

What would be your dream job if you weren’t doing your current job?

6’ 8’’ and playing in the NBA. However, something tells me it isn’t a dream – but, a fantasy!

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What do you think you would tell 16-year Roy looking back?

Hey kid, you call that a hairstyle!

How would you describe your dream life?  

Not having nightmares or survivor’s guilt.

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?

If I’m reading too much, then I’m thinking too little. I like to listen to The Adam Carolla Show podcast to put me to sleep most nights.

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

Unshakable discipline, ruthless pragmatism, and the capacity to change.

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How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally?

Tamils are resilient, determined, hardworking and driven people. Toronto Tamils are a testament to that. Most of us crossed many oceans and nations for the betterment of our next generation. When we arrived, English was not our first language, but our hopes and dreams were recognizably Canadian. In just one generation — we have lifted ourselves out of misery into prosperity. Tamils are now well-represented in business, in academia and in the field of medicine and many other disciplines. I’m proud to say that we’ve become one of the most successful immigrant groups in Canada. I’m in awe.

Do you think affluent members of the Tamil community contribute their fair share to philanthropic initiatives outside of the community? Any changes you’d like to see?

Yes, but more can be done over time. Be a ‘covert’ philanthropist and leave the camera at home.

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Kothu roti — extra meat, gravy and onions, with no one at home to share it with.

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

Nayakan — when no one at home to see me tear up.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Ancient, rich, complex — and, at times uncompromising, unpragmatic and unforgiving. Despite all that, I’m an accidental Sri Lankan by birth, unapologetic Tamil by heritage, and a proud Canadian by choice.

 

Connect with Roy via his TC profile

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host | TamilCulture
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