Montreal

Former BCE chief takes helm of Caisse

Former Bell Canada boss Michael Sabia is taking over management of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, promising more transparency and risk management on his first day on the job.

Sabia takes over after $39.8-billion loss at Quebec pension fund manager

Former Bell Canada boss Michael Sabia is taking over management of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, promising more transparency and risk management on his first day on the job.

Former Bell Canada CEO Michael Sabia has been appointed to head the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. ((Ian Barrett/Canadian Press))

Sabia, 55, was appointed president and CEO Friday after the  Caisse's board of directors and the Quebec government agreed he is the best choice to lead the province's public pension fund through one of the toughest periods in its history.

Sabia takes over on the heels of the fund's $39.8-billion loss in assets last year, the largest annual recorded drop in the Caisse's 43 years of existence. As of Dec. 31, 2008, the Caisse held $120.1 billion of net assets, 25 per cent less than the year before.

Sabia said his approach to guiding the fund out of its current mess will be simple.

"This is about making risk management a deep part of the day to day culture of La Caisse. There are no quick fixes here, but I don't think either that they are overly complicated," said Sabia.

Sabia takes over from Fernand Perreault, who has been acting as president and CEO for several months.

Sabia previously held the top jobs at Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), stepping down last year when the company was in the midst of a $52-billion takeover by a group led by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan.

The deal collapsed midway through December 2008, when auditor KPMG determined that the new entity would not pass a solvency test required as a condition of closing the deal.

Sabia has also held leadership roles with CN Rail and within the federal Finance Department. He also served as deputy secretary with the Privy Council Office.

"We're very pleased that Mr. Sabia has accepted this challenge and that we can draw on his financial acumen and experience as a senior corporate executive," said Robert Tessier, chairman of the Caisse.

Sabia outlines priorities

In addition to changing the way the fund approaches risk, Sabia wants to review the entire investment strategy of the fund, given the current turbulence in the markets.

"[The market situation] is both a challenge and an opportunity. There are two sides to that and we cannot ignore the opportunity side of that either," said Sabia.

He also committed to improving communication with depositors and the public in general.

The Caisse has an important role to play in the economic future of the province by both investing locally in companies and training future financial leaders, Sabia also said.

Ontario-born boss defends loyalty to Quebec

Sabia took questions from reporters Friday about everything from his economic philosophy to his French-language skills.

Answering comfortably in French, Sabia said for him and his family, Quebec feels like home.

'I supposed there will be some that will say if he's not a native French speaker, then he shouldn't be in the leadership of La Caisse.'— Michael Sabia, new Caisse president and CEO

Later, in English, Sabia answered critics, including former Quebec premier Bernard Landry, who said Friday that only a native Quebecer who understands the "social culture" of the province can effectively run the Caisse.

Sabia said the fact that he has chosen to live in Quebec for the last 16 years, even when there were other offers on the table, demonstrates his loyalty.

"I supposed there will be some that will say if he's not a native French speaker, then he shouldn't be in the leadership of La Caisse," said Sabia.

"The Quebec that I think about is a Quebec that accepts people who have worked hard to learn the language, to work in the language, to be part of the culture … people who do those things even when they have other options."

Sabia's appointment is effective immediately.

now