Antonio Accurso has finally started testifying about his rise as a construction magnate, pointing to a 1980 meeting with legendary union boss Louis Laberge as a key moment in the birth of the business empire that has become the focal point of a series of scandals.
Mr. Accurso waged a long but losing legal battle to avoid appearing in front of the Charbonneau Commission into Quebec’s construction industry. On Tuesday, he failed in his bid to have his testimony shielded by a publication ban, after arguing his appearance would hurt his right to a fair trial in ongoing criminal cases.
After his swearing in, Mr. Accurso said he had no qualms – “none at all” – about speaking in public. It marked the first time the public has heard from the 62-year-old entrepreneur, except for police wiretaps that were previously played at the commission.
Mr. Accurso looked at prepared notes as he described his career from his days as a six-year-old, working in his father’s construction firm in the 1950s, all the way to a series of acquisitions in the 1990s and 2000s.
He quickly laid out the business philosophy that guided his growth as an entrepreneur, saying his main goal was to build a self-sufficient empire in which his firms provided most goods and services on a construction site.
“To succeed, you can’t do like the others,” he said.
He said he inherited a company with about 100 employees and annual sales of $15-million in 1980, and transformed it into a giant with annual sales of more than $1-billion and 3,500 employees by 2009.
He was charming throughout the first half-day of testimony, appearing uncomfortable only when he was asked about a legal dispute with his brother-in-law and a bid-rigging case involving his father in 1964.
Mr. Accurso was all smiles as he discussed a 12-hour-long meeting with Mr. Laberge in 1980, shortly after his father’s death. It was the start of a long partnership between Mr. Accurso and Mr. Laberge’s union, the Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL).
There were long nights playing cards and eating pizza, but also a series of deals in which the QFL’s venture capital arm, the Solidarity Fund, invested in the growth of Mr. Accurso’s empire.
Mr. Accurso acknowledged he was “scared” before he met Mr. Laberge, saying Quebec unions had a bad reputation after a public inquiry into strong-arm tactics in the 1970s. Mr. Accurso said that as an employer, such a meeting “went against our culture,” but he explained that one of his business partners convinced him it was worth the time.
He said he quickly became convinced that Mr. Laberge wanted to create jobs in Quebec and help his firm to grow.
“It was the end of an era, and the start of a new one,” Mr. Accurso said.
He said he could have gone to Toronto for access to venture capital over the years, but added he was a proud Quebecker and was happy to work with his “friends” at the Solidarity Fund.
“I wanted to keep the money here,” he said, adding that he got better rates in the province.
Mr. Accurso said the Fund was more rigorous than banks when it came to lending money, stating he had to demonstrate that he had good relations with his workers before signing any deal. He added that over the years, he paid $95-million to the Fund, for a return on investment of 13 per cent.
“The Fund is the best institution in Quebec to help Quebeckers,” he said.
He described the Fund as Mr. Laberge’s baby, adding people laughed when his friend predicted it would one day be worth $100-million. Today, the Fund manages $9-billion in assets.
Mr. Accurso’s testimony will continue on Wednesday, and he will face questions in coming days about his donations to political officials and his decision to bring a number of QFL officials and politicians on his luxury yacht, called Touch, among other topics.
His lawyer argued that his right to fair trial in ongoing criminal cases could be jeopardized by his appearance. However, Mr. Accurso will not be asked to discuss his role in contracts that are linked to criminal charges laid against him in 2012 and 2013 by the RCMP and Quebec’s anti-corruption squad.