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North of the border, a 'global champion' born

TORONTO -- The D'Alessandros -- Manulife Financial Corp. chief executive Dominic and his newest employee, John Hancock Financial Services Inc. chief executive David -- entered a packed conference room here to near rock-star treatment yesterday, with flash bulbs popping and a half-dozen television crews jousting for position in front of them. Manulife's acquisition of one of America's most recognizable brands was big news north of the border, where Canadians tend to feel overshadowed by their larger, richer neighbor.

Dominic D'Alessandro wasted no time addressing the impact he believes the merger, which still needs shareholder and regulatory approvals, will have on the Canadian business community. It will go down as the biggest corporate takeover in Canadian history, he said, made all the more symbolic by the fact that Manulife is taking over a company named after a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

"In Canada, this creates a global champion of a company," he said. If the merger is approved, Manulife would become Canada's second-largest publicly traded company, behind only Royal Bank of Canada. "Canada is a small country, and it needs companies like this, deals like this."

For the most part, the chief executives spent the morning reiterating what they had said Sunday night, when the acquisition was unveiled. It gives the combined company powerful size and scope, they said, allows it to trim overhead costs by at least 10 percent, combines the sales forces into one of the industry's largest, and diversifies the business lines over what either one would have on its own.

Plus, Dominic D'Alessandro joked after ducking into a quiet conference room for an interview following the press conference, the fact the chief executives share a surname and that Manulife already has its US headquarters in Boston, made a deal between the two companies inevitable.

"We had to do this deal, it's obvious," he said. "But it really would be difficult to find a more suitable partner than John Hancock. We looked at a lot of possibilities, and none of them would have done for Manulife what Hancock will."

Manulife attempted a hostile takeover bid for smaller rival Canada Life Financial Corp. last year, but eventually lost a bruising public takeover fight to Great-West Lifeco. The company was also widely reported to be in merger talks with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

In Canada, especially, much of the media coverage of the aborted mergers focused on the company's chief executive, and on the increasing pressure he was under to consummate a deal.

"I understand that the press has to add some emotions around these bloodless events," he said yesterday. "But we don't run this business for the headlines. . . If I was as distressed as people believe by these things, I'd be suicidal by now."

David D'Alessandro also acknowledged that Hancock had been searching hard for a merger partner in recent years. The Boston Globe reported this spring that the Boston insurer considered a hometown deal with cross-town bank FleetBoston Financial Corp., and held much more substantial negotiations with Prudential Financial.

"Dating and falling in love are quite different things," he said. "It's no secret that we looked around for suitors, and that we had talks with a number of companies over time."

The Manulife chief praised Hancock's strong brand name, and said it was one of the biggest reasons for the acquisition. But he said Manulife will have to take a close look in the long run at whether it wants to continue all the marketing efforts -- such as sponsorship of the Boston Marathon and the Olympic Games -- that helped create that widely known image.

"We've never spent the money to build a Manulife brand name, particularly in the US," he said. "Those are things we'd have to analyze in the future, to see if that's something we'd like to continue."

Both D'Alessandros went out of their way to downplay a personal difference when it comes to managerial style. David D'Alessandro is a former public relations and marketing executive known for being flashy and creative, while Dominic D'Alessandro is a numbers guy, a chartered accountant and career financial services executive, not known for being particularly showy.

"As I'm supposed to be designated president, I expect to be running this company for a long time," Hancock's D'Alessandro said. "Under Dominic, of course."

"The truth is, I think we're more alike than different," Manulife's D'Alessandro said. "I think he's a substantial executive. With me, he's been very substantive."

Scott Bernard Nelson can be reached at nelson@globe.com.

Hancock sold

(Globe Staff Graphic / John Bohn)
Video NECN: Manulife Purchases John Hancock
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