Paul Desmarais, Power Corp. founder, dies age 86
Published Wednesday, October 9, 2013 9:30AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, October 9, 2013 8:11PM EDT
Condolences from politicians and businesspeople are pouring in following the death of Paul Desmarais, one of the richest people in Canada and founder of Power Corp.
Remembered as a self-made billionaire with ties to politicians around the world, a staunch supporter of federalism, Desmarais was well known in corridors of power but relatively little-known by the public throughout Canada and abroad.
On Wednesday morning the members of the National Assembly held a moment of silence in his honour, and Premier Pauline Marois paid him tribute.
"Mr. Desmarais was a great builder. He contributed to the advancement of Quebec's economy in many ways, and once more I salute the members of his family and I offer them, in the name of my government, my sincere condolences," Marois said.
She also noted the generosity of Desmarais and his wife Jacqueline, including funding the Opera of Montreal and the Montreal Fine Arts Museum, which has two pavilions named in his honour.
Provincial Liberal house leader Jean-Marc Fournier pointed to his roots as a Franco-Ontarian and Desmarais's strong federalist sense as proof francophones can succeed everywhere in Canada.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement about Desmarais Wednesday, saying: “One of Canada’s most successful businessmen, Mr. Desmarais was known for his leadership, integrity, global vision, and profound attachment to his country."
Former prime minister Paul Martin worked with Desmarais for years, and was named president of the Power Corp. subsidiary Canada Steamship Lines in 1974, eventually becoming co-owner in 1981.
"He had a vision of Canada. He was a very strong Canadian. He had a vision of Canada's role in the world and he basically felt that business should play a part of that role and his integrity, I think was really the foundation of his success," said Martin.
Despite his tremendous success, those close to him said he was not at all pretentious, and was a man surrounded by power players, who had the ability to make the little guys feel important.
“That really came through,” said Martin. “You couldn’t help but like him. You would recognize that the person you were dealing with was a person of tremendous honesty.”
Born in Sudbury in 1927, Desmarais obtained degrees from the University of Ottawa and McGill University before acquiring a bankrupt bus and railroad company established by his grandfather.
By 1968 he had grown the business to the point he was able to acquire enough shares to gain control of the Power Corporation holding company and be named Chairman and CEO, positions he held until 1996.
Throughout three decades Power Corp. expanded to take over Quebec newspaper La Presse, paper-maker Abitibi-Consolidated, and gain substantial shares in corporations around the world.
In 1996 Desmarais scaled back his control of Power Corp., remaining Director and chair of the Executive Committee, while handing day-to-day operations to his sons, with Paul Jr. becoming Chairman and co-CEO, and youngest son Andre named as President, Deputy Chairman and co-CEO.
Desmarais remained controlling shareholder of the $527 billion company.
Despite all his contributions to Canadian society, Desmarais maintained a relatively low-profile.
“I think the public in Canada don't know the Desmarais in the way that they would the Molsons and the Bronfmans, partly because the approach that Paul and his kids have taken is not to be in the public eye in the way that other people may be,” said McGill University business professor Karl Moore. “The Desmarais just stayed away from the media spotlight. They allowed others to be out there. They let their achievements speak for themselves.”
He died peacefully on Tuesday night at his Charlevoix estate, surrounded by family. A private funeral is scheduled to be held soon, with the date for a larger, public memorial yet to be announced.