Business

SNC-Lavalin says CEO Neil Bruce is retiring

Neil Bruce, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.'s chief executive, is stepping down from the beleaguered engineering giant after a nearly four-year tenure that saw its stock fall by roughly half and its projects overshadowed by a political controversy tied to an ongoing corruption case.

COO Ian Edwards named interim CEO of Montreal-based company

Neil Bruce is retiring as CEO of engineering company SNC-Lavalin. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Neil Bruce, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.'s chief executive, is stepping down from the beleaguered engineering giant after a nearly four-year tenure that saw its stock fall by roughly half and its projects overshadowed by a political controversy tied to an ongoing corruption case.

Ian Edwards, the company's chief operating officer, has been named interim chief executive effective Tuesday.

SNC-Lavalin said the board of directors has asked Edwards to review "the strategic direction of the company on an expedited basis" and develop a new plan "for sustainable success."

After hitting successive 10-year lows since late January, the company's stock jumped more than five per cent to $25.35 by end of trading Tuesday. At the end of May, it was above $27.

The company said Bruce is retiring and returning to his family in the U.K. He is expected to remain an adviser to the board until the end of the year.

French-language media in Quebec reported in March that Bruce had sold his Montreal home, though he indicated at the time that he had no intention of leaving the country. 

SNC-Lavalin's reputation taking a beating

Bruce, who took the helm in October 2015 and steered the company through its purchase of WS Atkins in 2017, has struggled to move beyond a difficult period in the company's history.

Its reputation has taken a beating over fraud and corruption charges related to its work in Libya, and the company has found itself ensnared in political controversies, both at home and abroad.

The firm slashed its 2018 guidance twice in three weeks, more than halving its profit forecast and halting all bidding on future mining projects amid an ongoing diplomatic feud between Canada and Saudi Arabia — a key source of oil and gas revenue — and delays on SNC's project with Codelco, Chile's state-owned copper mining company, which has since cancelled the contract.

Last month, the company announced plans to wind down its operations in 15 countries and reported a $17-million loss in its latest quarter.

The strategic review announced Tuesday could fuel speculation about SNC seeking to effect a "Plan B" that would see it decamp to the United States and redirect its efforts away from bids on home soil.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has argued a criminal trial could trigger the company's exit to the U.S. and the loss of thousands of jobs, a sentiment that was supported by an internal SNC-Lavalin document obtained by The Canadian Press.

The Quebec government has said it is prepared to offer financial support to the Montreal-based company to keep it from moving its headquarters. 

Threat of decamping from Canada

SNC-Lavalin warned federal prosecutors last fall about a possible plan to split the company in two, move its offices south of the border and chop its Canadian workforce to 3,500 from 8,700 before eventually shuttering its domestic operations if it didn't get a deal to avoid criminal prosecution.

Bruce stirred controversy by suggesting publicly that 9,000 jobs might be at stake if the company is banned from bidding on government contracts because of its legal struggles. That statement was later walked back by SNC-Lavalin.

A Quebec judge ruled last month there was enough evidence to send SNC-Lavalin to trial over charges of fraud and corruption. The company has pleaded not guilty.

The firm has been at the centre of a political controversy following accusations by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould that top government officials pressured her to overrule federal prosecutors and negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement with the company.

Bruce has said all the executives in charge at the time of the corruption allegation have since left the company. Last year, he signed a letter — printed in Canada's major newspapers — that apologized for the company's past misdeeds.

"The management team at SNC-Lavalin is entirely new, and I apologize to all for the shortcomings during that period," he wrote.

"In the years since, we have worked tirelessly to achieve excellence in governance and integrity because we want to regain the confidence of all our stakeholders and employees, and mostly that of all Canadians." 

With files from CBC News

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