Paul Desmarais, one of
Canada's most powerful businessmen and a self-made billionaire who
befriended prime ministers and presidents, has died.
Demarais, 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." He died at Domaine Laforest, the family's sprawling
estate in Quebec's Charlevoix region.
The family said it will hold a private funeral and will later announce
the date of a public memorial service.
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
Andre, 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
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, from Pierre Trudeau to Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul
Snapshot of power
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
Both Mulroney and Martin worked for Power Corp. in the early stages of
their business careers, and Desmarais's son Andre is married to
Chrétien's daughter France.
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.
But Paul Desmarais's political and business connections stretched well
For example, in 2008 he was presented with France's Grand Cross of the
Legion of Honour - a distinction rarely given to outsiders - by
President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Desmarais had befriended a decade
earlier when Sarkozy was down on his political luck.
Throughout his career, but especially in his later years, the
interview-shy Desmarais was a big supporter of charities and educational
institutions. He was also the founding chairman of the Canada China
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.
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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