I Can Do That

by deirdre kelly

photography by sofie kirk

Nancy Sullivan went from working as a letter carrier for Canada Post to overseeing the regulatory compliance of an international bank – and all because York University gave her a chance at a post-secondary school education.

“I am the first person in my family to go to university,” says this fiftysomething Cinderella of Bay Street who comes from a blue-collar family. “It wasn’t something I was knowledgeable about,” she continues, “and, for a long time, I didn’t even know if I could go.”

But not only did Sullivan go to university – snagging three degrees (and having a baby in between) as a mature student – she eventually rose to the top of her combined legal/banking profession to become chief compliance officer and head of regulatory compliance at HSBC Bank Canada. “I do consider the function I built at HSBC to have been one of my biggest accomplishments,” Sullivan says, patting herself on the back. “I was able to hire across a broad range because of the breadth and diversity of experience I personally had been exposed to.”

What she had early on been exposed to forms the focus of a conversation that takes place at Toronto’s sprawling Yorkdale Shopping Centre, nestled alongside Highway 401 and Allen Road, and located near the working-class neighbourhood where Sullivan grew up. Sullivan has returned to her old stomping grounds on a recent afternoon for a visit, and while sipping on a $3 coffee at the swishly renovated mall’s new open-concept Starbucks, modernist lighting dangling overhead, she marvels at how upscale the place has become. The aisles are lined with designer boutiques. The floors glisten with marble. It’s a far cry from the discount Kresge’s store that occupied Yorkdale when she was a girl.

I didn’t know then what I would do. I just knew I wanted to do something 

“It’s completely transformed,” Sullivan says, her low-key voice barely heard above the din of the shopping crowd. “It’s not at all as I knew it.” Then again, everything from her past has changed, including the person she once was.

The suburban mall had once served Sullivan as a shortcut to Downsview Secondary School from where she had graduated in the 1980s after completing Grade 12, clutching only the vaguest of ambitions. “I didn’t know then what I would do,” she says, “I just knew I wanted to do something.”

Initially, that something involved taking a job with Canada Post, where, as a bit of a homebody, Sullivan delivered the mail to residences on her own turf.  She also worked part-time in a local real estate sales office, her passion for property likely stemming from delivering the mail to a great many local houses. “Real estate,” she readily reveals, “was always my first love.”

Certainly, the realtor’s office where she worked gave her a boost. She liked the people, the milieu, the excitement of closing a deal. She was a fast learner, absorbing like a sponge the backroom secrets of the trade. Encouraged, she decided to go back to school to get a professional certificate in real estate. Not wanting to jeopardize the job security she had earned at Canada Post, Sullivan applied as a mature part-time student at Atkinson College, York University’s late, great experiment in adult education whose doors closed in 2009. It continues today as the Atkinson Centre for Mature and Part-time Students, an advocacy body on behalf of mature students.

“I felt Atkinson was well-suited to my real estate interests at the time,” says Sullivan, who pursued courses for the certificate over a three-year period. “It really taught me a lot about how business is structured, particularly where finance comes in. I really didn’t know anything about how business worked before that. It was a whole different world.”

Sullivan grew increasingly comfortable in it, and when a friend from the University one day told her she could make extra cash on the side while working at Canada Post by serving as a proctor at exams, she didn’t hesitate. It was the hourly wage job that helped her get that prestigious career. One day, while monitoring the exams, Sullivan turned one over to glance at the questions. They were about the law, a subject for which Sullivan at that time had no prior training. But that didn’t faze her. “I am looking at them and I thought to myself, ‘I could do this,’” she says. And she was right.

Motivated, Sullivan wrote the next two sets of LSATs, applied to law school and was accepted. In 1998, she quit the post office and enrolled at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School where she remained three years until graduating with a doctor of jurisprudence degree in 2001. Sullivan articled at DelZotto, Zorzi LLP, a commercial real estate firm in Toronto, where she quickly rediscovered her love for the business. It’s at that point she decided to return to York once again to get an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, which she obtained in 2005.

After graduating, she took a job with a Florida-based mortgage finance company in the years immediately preceding the subprime mortgage crisis that plunged the U.S. banking system into turmoil from 2007-09. It wasn’t her best move. “All that education,” Sullivan comments dryly, “didn’t teach me how to read the writing on the wall.”

But it did teach her resilience.

From subprime mortgage financing, Sullivan moved next to GMAC, the financial arm of General Motors, where she helped launch an online bank after being hired to do compliance, which involves putting processes and systems in place to ensure a bank complies with the law. A job with JPMorgan Chase & Co., first as a compliance officer and then as a legal counsel heading up the legal department for the New York bank’s Toronto branch, followed next.

HSBC recruited her from there in 2015, giving her a staff of 100 and a $24-million budget with which to oversee fraud risk management for the 20 countries in which the global bank is located. Sullivan remained with the company until January of this year when a restructuring prompted her departure. Today, she works for QuadReal Property Group, a Canadian real estate investment, development and management company based in Vancouver, as head of risk and compliance management, a job she says she wouldn’t have if not for York pushing her forward, towards the career of her dreams.

“I got so much out of my time at the University. It made me reflect differently on things,” Sullivan beams. “It made me realize that you should never underestimate what you can accomplish.”