Keeper of Quebec’s entrepreneurial faith

1 oct. 2012

“I’m 47 and I’m discovering that life is shorter than I thought,” the chief executive of building products maker Canam Group Inc. confesses as a photographer snaps portrait shots of him in rapid succession. “It’s not fun. But it is motivating. We are what we share and what we give and what we leave behind.”

It’s a revealing assessment, even for a man who spends a significant amount of time these days baring his private life and the inside stories of his family’s $210-million business for students at the École d’entrepreneurship de Beauce. It’s also, to a large extent, why he started the private institution the first place.

Two years into its mandate of training young Quebecers in the art of handling their own companies and growing them successfully, Mr. Dutil’s school southeast of Quebec City has become the reference point and meeting place for the province’s small business talent and the big minds that guide them.

This is Quebec’s temple to entrepreneurship. But the faith is in trouble.

Thirty years ago, Quebec’s entrepreneurial culture was in full bloom. Pierre Péladeau was steering Quebecor Inc. towards $1-billion in annual sales and making the first of a series of purchases of English language newspapers. The Lemaire brothers were taking tissue maker Cascades Inc. overseas and into a new stock market listing. Two street performers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix, were hatching the Cirque du Soleil.

But something happened to Quebec’s ethos of daring self-sufficiency and pioneering fire. It weakened — the victim in recent years, perhaps, of an increasingly volatile world and the psychological residue of two failed referendums on independence.

The statistics aren’t pretty. As of 2011, barely 9.5% of Quebecers owned a business compared to 16% of the population in the rest of Canada, according to the latest report by the Fondation de l’Entrepreneurship. Quebecers have lower intentions of getting into business (7% versus 11% outside the province).

Quebecers also have a lower tolerance for entrepreneurial failure than fellow Canadians and feel less competent to start a business. They’re twice as likely to create an enterprise outside Quebec than inside — suggesting there is a serious problem fostering a culture of company-building within provincial borders.

Perhaps the biggest nightmare for lawmakers hungry for the jobs and tax revenues that business creates is the attitude of the youngest Quebecers, who are gravitating towards the perceived safety of nine-to-five jobs. One in four Quebecers aged 18 to 34 has a dim view of successful business owners. More than half believe such businesses have no concern for their fellow citizens.

Finding the funds needed to start a business is a major obstacle often cited by potential venturers. But there is also a larger context at play particular to Quebec. According to some of Quebec’s most prominent business leaders, many Quebecers are conflicted about the value of making money and building wealth.

The situation is changing, but there remains a lingering sense in Quebec that it’s better to be paid by someone else than to try to carve out a profit for yourself. Business is fraught with danger. And success breeds its own set of problems.

“Unlike other Canadians, Quebecers are always a bit ill at ease with money,” says Quebec pollster Jean-Marc Léger, who teaches consumer trends at the school. “When we talk about it, it’s always with a bit of caution. And it’s the same thing when we talk about wealthy businesspeople. People are skeptical about them. They wonder where the money came from.”

Plans by the newly elected Parti Québécois government to increase taxes for people earning more than $130,000 a year strike at the heart of that discomfort with money, Mr. Léger says. “[They’re tapping the feeling] that it’s normal that rich people should pay more.”

Mr. Dutil is philosophical when asked about these matters. He knows he’s preaching to the converted when he speaks to his students, in class and in one-on-one asides. These are people who’ve already made the choice to start businesses or take them over from their parents; they don’t need to be sold on the potential rewards of that decision. Rather, they need to hone their skills and learn to reclaim their role in Quebec society as individuals who build wealth through risk-taking and who give back to their communities.

Recalling a youth strike in France 10 years ago against the government’s plans to cut job security in the public service, Mr. Dutil calls it “sad” that 25 year olds fought for more certainty in their lives.

“Look [my view is] discover the world. Discover yourself. You won’t die of starvation. You won’t end up on the street. Maybe what scared me a little bit is the media have a tendency of sometimes demonizing people who succeed. Sometimes with reason. Sometimes not.”

Asked if Quebecers’ unsettled relationship with wealth will change, Mr. Dutil gives an answer he clearly has given before: “You look at an athlete and you say his parents worked hard. He had good coaches. He succeeded and now he’s in the NHL. You look at someone in business and I don’t think people understand the path people travel to succeed. We don’t necessarily know the way. And so it’s magic, it’s luck, it’s privilege. The path to succeed needs to be demystified.”

The Beauce school is playing a significant role in that understanding.

On a quiet hillside on the edge of town in Saint-Georges, population 30,000, the École d’entrepreneurship de Beauce harbours roughly 25 students at a time who gather in the school’s pastoral setting to share their fears and troubles and grow as businesspeople. Each group meets for a five-day session 15 times over two years. That’s 75 days at a cost of about $733 a day. A few scholarships are available but most students pay their own way.

The accommodations are chic but not luxurious. Most of the classwork and meals take place in an historic inn bought and renovated for that purpose, with everything from the floors to the doors donated by local businesses. In the inn’s bar, where students often gather after evening lectures, the popular choice of beer is Stella Artois. A Steinway & Sons-designed Essex grand piano sits nearby, played most often by musician and TV host Gregory Charles when he’s teaching at the school.

Teaching, however, is not quite the right word. The school calls the businessmen and women who come here to engage the students “coaches” and the students “entrepreneur-athletes.” The vocabulary is purposeful, Mr. Dutil explains.

“It’s a little esoteric but it’s about that relationship being intimate. Because if I’m your coach, I did a good job only if you win.”

The sports language extends beyond mere words. Physical activity is a significant component of training at the school. Mr. Dutil didn’t invent the ancient Greek belief in mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body), but he has certainly embraced it.

Students and staff have climbed mountains in the winter with Quebec construction king Pierre Pomerleau, piloted snowmobiles with Bombardier Inc. chairman Laurent Beaudoin, and wakeboarded with tech M&A specialist François-Charles Sirois.

On a recent day in September, students of group No. 4 ran five kilometres before lunch.

Christian Genest, founder of Sushi Taxi, a chain of 14 Japanese restaurants based in Quebec City, was fastest with a time of 23 minutes. Mr. Genest characterizes a discussion he had at the school with Montreal fashion magnate Aldo Bensadoun as one of the highlights of his life.

“This place breaks the isolation that you can experience as an entrepreneur,” he says. “I’ve come back several times [for brief stints] when I want to feel less alone. It’s somehow comforting to see the challenges that others are living, too.”

Mr. Genest returned to the school recently for comfort and clarity after a $6-million deal with Montreal food court operator MTY Food Group Inc. to buy his company fell apart at the last minute.

Philippe Bertrand, 36, a website developer who started his first business out of university and now controls Gemini award-winning Web agency Odacia, said the school gave him perspective.

“It’s like taking a flight in a helicopter. You go thousands of feet above the ground and you see more clearly. But sometimes you’re not prepared for what you see. What it did for me is it raised a lot of issues that I was not maybe ready to deal with.”

Mr. Bertrand had his own magic moment at the school, in a discussion about a year ago with coach Robert Dutton, chief executive of hardware retailer Rona Inc. He says Mr. Dutton forced him to confront the fact he wasn’t happy with his life and needed to make a change.

The action was dramatic.

He separated from the mother of his two children, launched a new venture with partners and got back in shape, losing 35 pounds.

Mr. Dutil says doubt is creeping into the Canadian university system that its methods for teaching economic leadership are infallible.

“There is a malaise,” among established institutions, he says. “I respect the people there because I understand their motivation. But the framework of a university is such that everything we do here would be sneered at. ‘Hey dean, the teacher wants to go run a 5-k at lunch.’ It’s like, why? I think we can do things differently here.”

The Beauce model is getting attention. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and National Bank have joined 13 other big sponsors to back the non-profit school financially. Officials from the HEC, Ryerson, the University of New Brunswick and others have visited. Says Mr. Dutil: “I think they’re looking at this model and asking themselves ‘What’s happening?’ ”

Enrollment is full. There are confirmed plans for a new program for emerging entrepreneurs, ones younger than the typical crop of 30-somethings the school trains now, and maybe an expansion of the facilities later on.

But if the École d’entrepreneurship de Beauce has become a right of passage for many budding Quebec businesspeople, Mr. Dutil insists on one thing: None of it would exist without the support and the time of the province’s existing corporate giants, people such as Desjardins Group president Monique Leroux or pharmacy founder Jean Coutu, who travel to the Beauce to share their own triumphs and failures without remuneration.

Whether that can be replicated elsewhere in Canada remains to be seen. For now, the school pushes on — the brainchild of a man addressing a critical need, an entrepreneur in a line of successful entrepreneurs who’s only too aware of his mortality.

“When you grow up in a family business where the patriarch has succeeded tremendously, you look to do something as well,” Mr. Dutil concludes. “And maybe I recognized in this project a way to make my own mark. I think we’re all a little shy in wanting to admit sometimes that our egos need to be fed. Even though it’s probably the most normal thing in the world.”

Marc Dutil is the founder of the École d’entrepreneurship de Beauce, a school tailored to provide mentorship to people running their own businesses.

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