Sitting with Bob McCann in his impressive office in Weehawken, New Jersey, facing a panoramic view of the Hudson and the New York skyline, it’s hard to argue with this statement. The chief executive officer of UBS Wealth Management Americas (WMA) and a member of the group executive board of UBS AG, McCann has a résumé that would intimidate many established professionals, not to mention a recent college graduate with a ballpoint pen and a Dictaphone.
This considered, I’m amazed at how down-to-earth Bob McCann is. When he walks into a room, you’re put at ease. Our photographer, Kit DeFever, mentioned his surprise when McCann greeted a security guard by name, and the guard called him Bob. He’s straightforward and open when discussing his views, political or philosophical, and downright tender when he talks about his two daughters, 20 and 22, and their hopes for the future. He is deeply committed to his philanthropic work and speaks passionately about his focus on education.
Before taking his current post at UBS, McCann spent twenty-six years at Merrill Lynch, where he was most recently vice chairman of Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., and president of Global Wealth Management. When I speak with him on July 6, it’s the 28th anniversary of when he began working on Wall Street. “It was a Tuesday in 1982,” McCann remembers. “When I came to New York, I started to hear more about the Irish community, started having more interest ... A couple of my aunts have indicated that we were a family that didn’t talk a lot about our Irish heritage. When I pressed [family members] on that, it seems to be the conclusion that it was a family where it was thought, ‘We’re now American.’ So I can tell you that growing up, my Irish ancestry wasn’t mentioned a lot or talked much about.
“My involvement in Ireland didn’t really start until 1997, 1998, and it started for the most New York of all reasons. It was about business. A friend of mine [and fellow Wall Street 50 honoree] Kip Condron asked me to buy a table at The American Ireland Fund dinner in New York, and I did because he was a friend and a good client. But through that, I started to develop friendships in the Irish-American community, with Loretta Brennan Glucksman and [Ambassador] Dan Rooney, who’s from my hometown of Pittsburgh.”
McCann’s great-great-grandfather came to Scotland from outside of Belfast around 1850. Family research suggests that he heard of work in Western Pennsylvania when mills were being built in Pittsburgh, and immigrated to America. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that McCann visited Ireland on a golfing trip. “I remember it perfectly. It sounds like it’s out of a travelogue or something, but what I remember first is just how green it was. It really does strike you. I had no idea. From the sky, I remember wanting to understand all the walls that were up and what they represented. I couldn’t get over the value, in a host of ways, an Irishman puts on owning property.”
Through his involvement in The American Ireland Fund since 1998, McCann has found an excellent outlet for his philanthropic focus on education and intercultural communication. “At one board meeting for the Ireland Fund, they made a comment that religious prejudice shows up in people as young as six. It became clear to me after I did a little bit more research that we have to get the kids young. So one year that I was the honoree at The American Ireland Fund dinner in New York, I wanted the proceeds of the dinner to go towards educational activities. It was great; it was the biggest dinner we ever had and we raised $4 million. We built a grade school in the North dedicated to integrated education. I’m just fascinated with the topic of integrated education because to me, it hits on all the things I care about. It touches on education and it also touches on understanding differences and learning to appreciate differences.
“Through another contact that I had at another time of my life, I met Gary Knell, the president and CEO of the Sesame Workshop. Having two children, I remember Sesame Street being on TV in our house all the time, and I found out through Gary that it’s a lot more than just keeping your kids entertained; it’s about education. Sesame Street had been in about 106 different countries but they never could crack Northern Ireland. So I introduced Gary to Loretta Brennan Glucksman [Chairman of AIF] and we thought that that could be a good project. We filmed 20 episodes of Sesame Street in Northern Ireland. They created two Muppets in addition to the ones that are more well-known, a Catholic and a Protestant Muppet, and they tell stories of understanding and respect and forgiveness through the Muppets to the kids. It’s good stuff.”
A member of the executive committee of the board of directors of The American Ireland Fund, McCann is also involved with the Northern Ireland Mentorship Programme, along with U.S. Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland Declan Kelly. The Programme aims to develop Northern Ireland’s promising future business leaders and entrepreneurs while strengthening the links between Northern Ireland and U.S. business. “I have a lot of respect for Declan. He’s likeable, he’s smart, he’s energetic. He and Dan Rooney, and [President] Mary McAleese’s husband, Martin, started talking about the need for programs that would give people focus, show people that the world is a big place and there’s a way to be – I don’t want to say a way out, because that sounds like the only alternative is to leave, but the world’s a big place and there are opportunities out there, and you can go off and learn and then come back to Ireland. Although I’ve spent more of my time in the last year or so working on issues in the North, I care about all of Ireland. I kind of sit silent when people from the North position themselves as a better place for business than the South. I don’t disagree, but they know how I feel and how I feel is that I want to see all of Ireland succeed. I thought that we could create an opportunity for successful young people who have shown potential to come to the U.S. and work for a great company with the idea and commitment that they would go back, whether they start their own company or work at a big one. And I also think that if we pick the right 30 people, they’ll all touch other people’s lives.”