Mr Thornton, a fellow of the Insolvency Institute of Canada and the American College of Bankruptcy, is named Lawyer of the Year in Best Lawyers in Canada (2018). Euromoney’s The Best of the Best (2018) recognised him as one of the top five insolvency and restructuring lawyers in Canada, while Chambers Global ranks him as a top-tier leading individual in restructuring. He is described as “a leading light” and “one of the most innovative in the field”.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO SPECIALISE IN RESTRUCTURING AND INSOLVENCY?
As a young professional I was torn between a career in business and a career in law. In addition, I was attracted to both barrister work in court and solicitor-style dealmaking. My career as a restructuring specialist has allowed me to explore and become proficient in all these aspects of the practice.
HOW HAS THE MARKET CHANGED SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED PRACTISING?
Back in the day, financial institutions were the primary source of capital. When loans turned bad, receivership often resulted whereby the banks would simply realise upon their collateral, often on a going-concern basis but also often in a private, non-court-supervised process. As the law evolved and created more liabilities for receivers and their appointing creditors on such matters as employer liability, environmental remediation liability and improvident realisations, court supervised processes became the norm. Further, an emphasis on restructuring and rehabilitation, as opposed to liquidation, became part of the fabric of restructuring in Canada. Today, most significant restructurings occur under the debtor in possession model embodied in the CCAA. In short, private, non-transparent sales of businesses run by senior secured creditors rarely occur. Transparent restructuring proceedings, where optionality and transparency are maximised to the benefit of all stakeholders, are the order of the day.
WHAT IMPACT IS TECHNOLOGY HAVING ON THE WAY THAT INSOLVENCY MANDATES ARE HANDLED?
On the upside, the cost of court appearances is being driven downward by the use of telephone attendance (eg, CourtCall) and multi-jurisdictional video conference attendance (as opposed to physical attendance in out-of-province locations). However, email is the predominant method of communication and negotiation, which is a turn for the worse, in my opinion. Email is tone deaf. A tendency to forgo face-to-face meetings means that a great deal of non-verbal communication is lost, making it harder to achieve the necessary compromises.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SET UP YOUR OWN FIRM?
When my partners and I analysed the high-end litigation and restructuring industries we noticed a trend away from the need to hire a “big name firm” and instead sophisticated clients were looking to hire a “big name lawyer”. We noted that the big-firm model tended to attract costs of scale, not economies of scale, and with the advent of technological change smaller firms could compete with, and even dominate over, the big-firm competitors. We saw this as an opportunity that we seized upon when we created the entrepreneurial, nimble and focused boutique known as Thornton Grout Finnigan (TGF).
HOW DOES TGF DISTINGUISH ITSELF FROM THE COMPETITION?
We have earned a reputation for being the most creative solvers of real-time, seemingly intractable problems in Canada. That can only be achieved with a deep pool of immensely talented professionals who are focused on their particular areas of practice, hard-working, and dedicated to knowing not just the statute and case law that are applicable but also the foundational principles behind them. That allows TGF to embrace the challenges of being on the forefront of change and daring to do things that have never been done before in order to overcome obstacles that others might see as insurmountable.
LOOKING BACK OVER YOUR CAREER, WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE CASE YOU HAVE BEEN A PART OF?
I’ve had the very good fortune to be involved in central roles in some of Canada’s most difficult restructurings, including Air Canada (Canada’s flagship airline), Stelco (Canada’s largest integrated steel producer – twice), AbitibiBowater (a dual plenary filer in Canada and the US and one of North America’s largest paper products manufacturer) and Pacific Exploration (a three-jurisdiction cross-border proceeding involving Canada, the US and Colombia) – as well as the Coopers & Lybrand restructurings that resolved what one judge called “the longest-running legal saga in Canadian history” and that implicated over 400 professionals, many retired or in the late stages of their career. Each case had within it, as Justice Farley (as he then was) famously said, “the seeds of its own chaos”. However, topping all of these is the case in which I am currently involved, involving the Canadian tobacco industry. It is the largest and most complicated restructuring in Canadian history and one that, for the first time, affects all industry participants at the same time and for the same reasons. Finding a resolution will be a great challenge.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR PRACTICE DEVELOPING OVER THE NEXT 10 YEARS?
I intend to be part of the team that solves the challenges arising out of the restructuring of the Canadian tobacco industry.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE LOOKING TO START THEIR OWN FIRM?
Believe in yourself; dare to be bold; and rise to the challenge – not just once, but every day and in every way.
Robert Thornton is greatly respected in the field with respondents praising him highly for his excellent work on cross-border restructurings.
The “highly sought after” Bob Thornton is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost insolvency practitioners in Canada and is a partner of the restructuring and litigation boutique, Thornton Grout Finnigan (TGF). Bob is named “Lawyer of the Year” in the 2018 edition of Best Lawyers in Canada for Toronto insolvency and financial restructuring law. The Best of the Best 2018 listed Bob as one of the top five insolvency and restructuring lawyers in Canada, and has described him as "exceptional" and "the most innovative in the field". Bob is recognised as a Band 1 "leading individual" in restructuring/insolvency by Chambers Global 2018, and has been lauded as "a leading light" and "pound for pound one of the top lawyers in town". Bob is also listed as "Most Frequently Recommended" in insolvency and financial restructuring in the 2018 Lexpert Guide to the US/Canada Cross-Border Lawyers in Canada and the 2018 Lexpert/American Lawyer Guide to the Leading 500 Lawyers in Canada.
Bob is currently acting for the monitor in the restructurings of Carillion Group in Canada and Performance Sports Group Ltd. He led the restructuring of the largest creditor of Stelco Inc (Canada’s largest integrated steel manufacturer), Coopers & Lybrand, whereby the “longest running legal saga in Canadian history” has been resolved through a powerful and creative use of the CCAA. He has acted for the monitor in the restructurings of Performance Sports Group Ltd, Pacific Exploration and Production Corporation et al, and the Mobilicity Group; and is lead restructuring counsel in the successful resolution of the Hollinger CCAA. He was also recently involved as monitor’s counsel in the restructuring of AbitibiBowater and as debtor’s counsel in the Fraser Papers restructuring. Other matters with leading role involvement include the reorganisation of Bell Canada and Calpine (in both cases acting for bondholders), and as the lead insolvency counsel for GE Capital Aviation Services, Inc, a principal stakeholder in the restructuring of Air Canada. Other files with lead involvement have included Stelco Inc, Canada 3000 and General Publishing.
Bob is a fellow of the American College of Bankruptcy and the Insolvency Institute of Canada; and member of INSOL International, the Advocates’ Society, the Toronto Lawyers’ Association, the Canadian Bar Association, the American Bankruptcy Institute, the Turnaround Management Association, the Canadian Insolvency Foundation and the Ontario Bar Association’s insolvency section.
He graduated with a BSc (Hons) in 1979 and an LLB (with distinction) in 1982, both from the University of Western Ontario. He was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1984.