Paul Desmarais Sr., the Canadian billionaire who built one of the country’s biggest insurance and money-management fortunes after inheriting a fleet of buses in a mining town, has died. He was 86.
Desmarais died last night, according to a statement today from Power Corp. of Canada, his Montreal-based holding company that also has investments in Europe and the U.S. Desmarais was the fourth-richest Canadian, with a net worth of about $5.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
“He was a great man, a classy man, who created a fantastic company from virtually nothing,” Claude Lamoureux, former Chief Executive Officer of the C$129.5 billion ($124.6 billion) Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, said today in an interview. “Of all the Canadian business people, he is probably the one who had the best global network of contacts.”
Power Corp., which had revenue last year of C$32.9 billion, controls the country’s second-largest insurer, Great-West Lifeco Inc.; IGM Financial Inc., Canada’s largest publicly traded mutual fund company; and Swiss holding company Pargesa Holding SA. Desmarais, who acquired control of Power Corp. in 1968, served as the company’s chairman and CEO until 1996, when his sons Paul Jr. and Andre became co-CEOs.
Before the financial crisis of 2008, Power Corp. outstripped Canada’s benchmark Standard & Poor’s/TSX Composite Index. Including dividends, Power Corp. returned 21-fold in the 20 years through 2007, more than six times the return of the S&P/TSX. In the five years through the end of September, Power Corp. has returned 39 percent, trailing the 52 percent gain for the benchmark index.
“Paul Desmarais is the most vital money man we have and the most essentially Canadian,” journalist Peter C. Newman wrote in his 1975 book “The Canadian Establishment.” Desmarais is “a man who can attempt any corporate foray he wants, can do it because he has the money, the energy, the imagination and no apparent guilt.”
In 1978, Desmarais was named to the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. He’s survived by his wife, Jacqueline, his two sons, and daughters Sophie and Louise.
Desmarais’s position at the apex of Quebec’s business establishment tied him to halls of power in Ottawa. According to “The Canadian Establishment,” his close friends have included former prime ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who died in September 2000, and Jean Chretien. His younger son Andre is married to Chretien’s daughter, France.
Four former prime ministers have worked for Power Corp., according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Paul Martin, who spent 15 years working for Desmarais before switching to politics and becoming prime minister, said his former boss “demonstrated that a Canadian can build a great company that can have a global imprint.”
“He made me the president of Canada Steamship Lines when I was 33,” Martin, 75, said today by telephone from Montreal. “I went to talk to him about it, and he said the two most important things are first, integrity, and the second is you have to have a global vision. That question of integrity is the reason that he was such a huge success because everybody trusted him.”
Desmarais was also a philanthropist and a patron of the arts, supporting organizations such as Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture -- home to the Paul Desmarais Theatre. A pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is named after Jean-Noel Desmarais, his father.
Legislators in Quebec’s National Assembly today observed a minute of silence in his honor.
“Today Quebec has lost one of its great builders,” Premier Pauline Marois said in the legislature in Quebec City.
Desmarais’ memory “will forever remain associated with one of the most beautiful personal success stories of our time, as well as the inspiring achievements of a great philanthropist,” Marois added. “He was respected around the world.”
Desmarais supported a unified Canada, which didn’t always endear him to Quebec separatists such as Marois. In 1970, the Front de Liberation du Quebec, a nationalist group, named Desmarais as a target in a manifesto. He was then provided with round-the-clock security.
“He was a very strong Canadian,” Martin said. “The only political discussion I ever had with him after I went into public life was on the need to win the referendum” on Quebec secession in 1995, he said.
In his home province, Desmarais is also known for his 15,000-acre (6,070-hectare) Sagard estate in the Charlevoix region, about 300 miles (482 kilometers) north of Montreal. The property covers an area larger than Manhattan. In a 2008 interview, Desmarais told France’s Le Point magazine that his chateau was inspired by the Malcontenta de Palladio villa near Venice.
Guests at Sagard have included former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Desmarais was awarded the Grand-Croix of the French Legion of Honor, the country’s highest distinction, by Sarkozy in 2008.
Paul Guy Desmarais was born on Jan. 4, 1927, to Jean-Noel and Lebea Desmarais in a French-speaking enclave of Sudbury, Ontario, a nickel mining town 250 miles north of Toronto, according to Marquis Who’s Who.
He began his corporate career in 1951, taking a break in his legal studies to run a family-owned transportation company that his grandfather started in 1916. At the time Desmarais took over the company, it had 16 buses and C$384,000 in debt, according to “The Canadian Establishment.”
Desmarais parlayed a series of transportation company takeovers into a firm that would acquire newspaper, radio and financial-services properties.
He started his foray into financial-services by buying control of insurer Imperial Life for about C$12 million in 1963. He then acquired Montreal newspaper La Presse, and by 1968, had gained control of Power Corp., at one time an electric utility, according to “Billionaires of Canada,” by Timothy Le Riche.
“He was an extraordinary personality,” Chretien told RDI television network in an interview. “He was a businessman who knew when to get in, and when to get out. We can all be proud of him.”
Over the years, Desmarais built a web of European holdings together with Albert Frere, the Belgian industrialist who is one of Europe’s richest men. Through Pargesa, the Frere and Desmarais families own stakes in companies such as BNP Paribas SA, France’s biggest bank, and Total SA, the country’s largest oil producer.
In the U.S., Power’s Great-West insurance unit completed its biggest acquisition in 2007 with the $3.9 billion purchase of Boston-based mutual-fund manager Putnam Investments.
“Canada has lost a giant and a great patriot,” Thomas d’Aquino, who served as President of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives from 1981 to 2009, said in statement. “No business leader over the better part of four decades has contributed more to the shaping of Canada than Paul Desmarais.”