Paul Desmarais remembered as visionary entrepreneur with great influence

Paul Desmarais, one of Canada's most powerful businessmen and a self-made billionaire who befriended prime ministers and presidents, has died at the age of 86.

Influential businessman who started out at family firm in Sudbury and built Power Corp. has died at age 86

Paul Desmarais dies

9 years ago
Duration 2:02
A look back at the life and influence of one of Canada’s wealthiest men

Paul Desmarais, one of Canada's most powerful businessmen and a self-made billionaire who befriended prime ministers and presidents, has died.

Desmarais, who transformed an ailing family-owned Sudbury bus company into a $33-billion conglomerate that straddled the world, was 86.

His family said in a statement that he "died peacefully surrounded by his loved ones" at Domaine Laforest, the family's sprawling estate in Quebec's Charlevoix region.

The family said it will hold a private funeral and that a public memorial service will be organized at a later date.

Listen to Paul Martin discuss his friendship with Paul Desmarais on As It Happens at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBC Radio One.

A shrewd entrepreneur and acquisitor, Desmarais was the long-standing CEO and chairman of Montreal-based Power Corp., the industrial and financial juggernaut, from when he took control in 1968 until well after he handed over its day-to-day management to his two sons, Paul Jr. and André, in 1996.

With an estimated personal net worth of around $4.4 billion, he was ranked the seventh-richest Canadian by Canadian Business magazine in 2012 and continued to draw a salary as chairman of Power Corp.'s executive committee.

A key member of Canada's financial elite, Desmarais was a friend and patron of a series of Quebec premiers and at least four Canadian prime ministers, namely, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Martin recalls man of 'incredible integrity'

Both Mulroney and Martin worked for Power Corp. in the early stages of their business careers, and Desmarais's son André is married to Chrétien's daughter France.

On Wednesday, Martin told CBC Montreal's Radio Noon program that Desmarais taught him a lot in his years at Power Corp.

He was a visionary, but he was also a personof such incredible integrity … and he was actually very, very nice to be with.- Paul Martin, former prime minister of Canada

"All of us who were very young at the time working for him learned an enormous amount from him," Martin said.

"He was a visionary, but he was also a person  of such incredible integrity … and he was actually very, very nice to be with."

The announcement soon after his death that Quebec's legislature, the national assembly, would pass a motion honouring Desmarais on Wednesday morning underlined the clout he had among the political elite and his importance in Quebec society.

Members from all parties in the legislature (except the far-left ​Québec Solidaire, which was absent and delivered its tribute later) quickly passed the motion and took turns making short speeches honouring Desmarais's contribution to Canada and Quebec.

Paul Desmarais began his business career turning around a family business in Sudbury, Ont., but became one of Canada's most influential entrepreneurs. As head of the Power Corporation of Canada, an internatinal conglomerate that owns everything from media assets to insurance companies, he had the ear of powerbrokers at home and abroad. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois recalled that while Desmarais was know primarily as a successful businessman, he was also a great lover of culture who believed strongly in the cultural vitality of Quebec and became a strong supporter of the arts after meeting his wife, Jacqueline, an admirer of opera and fine arts.

"He was a great entrepreneur. He contributed to Quebec's progress economically and in many other respects," Marois said.

The premier described Desmarais as "a great philanthropist who deeply loved culture and believed that contact with the arts makes one a better person."

Quebec pianist Alain Lefèvre and singer Robert Charlebois both paid tribute to Desmarais Wednesday.

Former Quebec premier Bernard Landry, a Parti Québécois separatist who disagreed strongly with Desmarais on questions of Quebec sovereignty and economic policy, said that despite their differences, he respected Desmarais greatly.

"I always admired his intelligence, his capacity for entrepreneurship, his influence," Landry said. "He was one of the biggest entrepreneurs to come out of the nation of Quebec, because, in fact, his life was spent in Quebec, and I was dazzled by his international influence."

Global influence

While few deny Desmarais's influence within Canada, his political and business connections also stretched to other parts of the globe.

In 2008, he was presented with France's Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour — a distinction rarely given to non-citizens — by President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Desmarais had befriended a decade earlier when Sarkozy was down on his political luck.

Martin said Wednesday that Desmarais had a keen understanding of Canada's role on the world stage. He was, for example, the founding chairman of the Canada China Business Council.

Snapshot of Power Corp. assets

Financial: Great West Life Assurance, Canada Life, London Life, Investors Group, Mackenzie Financial Corp.

Media: La Presse and six other Quebec and Ontario dailies, Workopolis, La Presse Tele, independent TV production.

Industrial: Through Pargesa holding company, large interests in cement-maker Lafarge, the Total oil and gas group, Imerys industrial minerals, GDF Suez electricity and gas

"He had very early involvement in Europe and very early involvement in Japan, very early involvement in the oil industry and in the Middle East and a very early involvement in China," Martin said.

"He was, in so many ways, a man ahead of his time. I really think that he had an understanding of where his country fitted into the world."

Landry told Radio Noon's Bernard St. Laurent that when he was once on a trade mission in China, he was told by Chinese officials that when Desmarais visited the Asian country, he was received like a head of state.

"They told me he was the first visionary — [the first] occidental businessperson to see that China was going to go up and start the fantastic growth they had. So, he was considered a little bit as a prophet."

But Desmarais was also a "strong Canadian," Martin said, and was outspoken during the 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec in favour of a united Canada.

"At the same time, he was a very strong advocate of French Canadians, whether they be Quebecers, Franco-Ontarians, of which he was one, or Acadians being involved in business," Martin told CBC Montreal. "So, he was an example for just an awful lot of people."

During the bitter period after the referendum, which the Quebec separatists narrowly lost, Desmarais made it clear he would not be moving his Power Corp. out of Montreal, Martin recalled.

"He also strongly advocated to the rest of the Montreal business community, the Quebec business community, that this is where they should stay, and I think that that helped a great deal at what was a very difficult time," Martin said.

Desmarais's achievements a 'powerful legacy': Mulroney

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney described Desmarais as "probably the most brilliant" businessman he had ever met and said Desmarais believed strongly that Canada played a key role in helping him achieve the success he did.

"Canada is the source of our prosperity and our well-being — he believed that, he promulgated it at all times," Mulroney told CBC News on Wednesday. 

Desmarais appears before the Kent Commission inquiry into the news paper industry in Ottawa in 1981. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

Mulroney said that Desmarais's personal story of coming up from humble beginnings to become one of the nation's most powerful business people was a "powerful legacy for young Canadians — to see what can be done in one generation."

François Legault, head of the Coalition Avenir Québec party, echoed that sentiment, saying reading Desmarais's autobiography when he was young helped inspire him. Desmarais's tale of punching above his weight and using limited resources but smart strategy to transform a failing company into a powerful conglomerate provided Legault with useful models that he later adopted when he co-founded Air Transat, Legault said.

Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien called Desmarais an "extraordinary person" and praised his business acumen.

"He was a businessman who had the good sense to know when to get in and when to get out. He was very astute that way," Chrétien told CBC.

Desmarais not shy about wielding influence

Throughout his career, but especially in his later years, the interview-shy Desmarais was a big supporter of charities and educational institutions. 

But it has been his close friendships with politicians that have often been the subject of media scrutiny.

In a profile in Maclean's magazine in 2006, journalist Peter C. Newman tackled the question of how Desmarais used his influence.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, right, knew Desmarais for close to 50 years and remembered him as a brilliant businessman who believed strongly in Canada. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

"To hell with people who say I do it for political favours," he told Newman during an interview in 1998.

"It has been a great advantage to say, 'I know the prime minister of Canada, and I know what he's thinking,'" Desmarais said.

At the same time, "I always thought that I couldn't impose on political figures and ask them to do something for me and still be a friend of theirs, that if I was going to render any service to my country, I could do it by giving these guys my policy positions," he said.

According to Michael Pitfield, who was the powerful Clerk of the Privy Council under Trudeau, and would later joined Desmarais' Power Corp., "most people assume Desmarais' public-policy involvements are designed to make him richer, that he tries to control people and events to get some desired and selfish result.

"In fact, he's an active participant, using his power base to press for what he thinks are desirable policies," Pitfield told Newman.

A fast riser

Desmarais was born in Sudbury on Jan. 4, 1927. His father was Jean-Noel Desmarais, and his mother Lébéa Laforest.

His sharp business sense may have been inherited, because his grandfather was Noel Desmarais, the first merchant and a successful businessman in the town of Cosby, southeast of Sudbury.

Eventually the town was renamed Noelville and is now part of the Municipality of French River.

To hell with people who say I do it for political favours. It has been a great advantage to say, "I know the prime minister of Canada, and I know what he's thinking".- Paul Desmarais

Desmarais has said he learned most of his English in the pool halls of Sudbury. He graduated from the University of Ottawa with a bachelor of commerce degree in 1949 and went on to study at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, but left without graduating.

In 1951, he returned to Sudbury to run the family-owned Sudbury Bus Lines, which was failing at the time. Getting it back on its feet, he went on to take over Gatineau Bus Lines, just across the river from Ottawa, then Quebec Autobus in Quebec City in the late 1950s.

In 1953, he married Jacqueline Maranger, and they had four children, Paul Jr. (born 1954), André (1956), Louise (1959), and Sophie (1962).

By then he had made enough money to move his family to the City of Westmount, the exclusive enclave for the well-to-do in the heart of Montreal.

In 1961, he continued his bus line acquisitions with the purchase of Provincial Transport in Quebec.

He began branching out in 1964 when he bought Gelco Enterprises, an electrical utility in Hull, Que., and in 1965, he bought his first conglomerate, Trans-Canada Corp. Fund (TCCF), which had an interest in Montreal's La Presse newspaper and would soon come to own Imperial Life Assurance.

In 1968, TCCF made a share-exchange offer with the Power Corporation of Canada, headquartered in Montreal, which led to Desmarais becoming the new chairman and CEO of Power.

The Power years

He remained CEO of Power Corporation until 1996, when he made his sons Paul Jr. and Andy (as he calls André) co-chief executive officers. But those who followed the corporation closely said there were no big decisions made without his approval.

From 1996 on, Paul Sr. was still chairman of the executive committee of Power Corp. Its principal subsidiaries now include Gesca Ltd. (publisher of daily and weekly newspapers) and Power Financial Corporation (owner of Great West Life, London Life, Canada Life, Putnam Investments, IGM Financial, Investors Group and Mackenzie Investments).

Power Corp. is also a big stakeholder in several large European holdings, many of whom are global leaders, such as Pargesa Holding S.A., an international investment group based in Geneva, Switzerland, which controls cement-maker Lafarge, the Total oil and gas group, and Imerys industrial minerals.

Until recently, Desmarais sat on the boards of several companies -- most linked to Power Corp. -- as well as Groupe Bruxelles Lambert S.A. He was founding chairman and honorary president of the Canada China Business Council and chairman of the board and managing director of Pargesa Holding S.A. for several years

I feel very sad, but I feel very happy for a life really well lived. Paul's life was unconventional because it really was a love story: for his wife, his kids and his country.- Brian Mulroney, former prime minister of Canada

Though his sons were running the day to day operations since 1996, Desmarais was still making major decisions for the company, at least until 2008 when he was slowed by a stroke. Failing health kept him from all of Power Corp.'s board and committee meetings in 2012, though according to the company he continued to monitor its activities and consult on important decisions.

He attended just two of nine board meetings in 2011 and four of six in 2010.

Since the stroke, "he would not any more be the leading light in doing anything significant at Power," said longtime friend Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold.

"From a succession point of view, this recent setback came at the right time," Munk told the Globe and Mail in 2009. "I am exceptionally impressed by those two boys — in every respect."

Mulroney said he felt confident that Desmarais died knowing he had led a productive life and made a remarkable contribution to his country.

"He was a close and intimate friend of mine for 48 years," Mulroney said. "I feel very sad, but I feel very happy for a life really well lived. Paul's life was unconventional because it really was a love story: for his wife, his kids and his country. So, he's happy. He knows he had a good life and a productive life."


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