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The Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte attends a press conference outside Moscow in Star City on June 4, 2009. Laliberté, 49, will voyage to the International Space Station in September 2009 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket becoming the first private Canadian space explorer to voyage into space on a philanthropic mission. (DMITRY KOSTYUKOV)
The Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberte attends a press conference outside Moscow in Star City on June 4, 2009. Laliberté, 49, will voyage to the International Space Station in September 2009 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket becoming the first private Canadian space explorer to voyage into space on a philanthropic mission. (DMITRY KOSTYUKOV)

Guy Laliberté guided by the 'goose-bump index' Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

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Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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Guy Laliberté is an unlikely business mogul. In fact, nothing about his early life hinted that he would become a billionaire. Born into a middle-class family in Quebec City, Mr. Laliberté followed his dream to be a performing artist by playing in a folk-music group. As a street entertainer in Europe during the 1970s, he added fire-breathing to his talents.

Then, in 1984, Mr. Laliberté founded Cirque du Soleil. His astonishing blend of circus acrobatics and street theatre-inspired stagecraft went on to dumbfound almost 100 million viewers, from New York to Macau.

Today, Montreal-based Cirque has 23 shows running on five continents, and Forbes magazine pegs Mr. Laliberté as the world's 374th wealthiest person, with a net worth of $2.5-billion (U.S.).

As shrewd as he may be in business, the force behind the Cirque phenomenon talks like an artist, not a suit. "We believe that if we put all our creative energies towards presenting a show that will touch people, it will touch many people," says Mr. Laliberté, 51, via e-mail. "I call it my 'goose-bump index.' If I can feel the shiver, I know it will touch people."

Cirque's current offerings range from the aquatic fantasy, O, to Dralion, an East meets West acrobatic spectacle.

"Whenever we present one of our shows anywhere in the world, the audience does not feel it is disconnected from what is onstage," says Mr. Laliberté, who was named to the Order of Canada in 2004. "The mosaic of cultural references in our creations touches people worldwide."

A high-stakes gambler - in 2007, he placed fourth in the World Poker Tour, winning $700,000 (U.S.) - Mr. Laliberté isn't afraid to take risks. Despite some artistic coups during the 1980s, Cirque started out as a struggling company plagued by infighting and money troubles. With support from patrons such as the Quebec government and Desjardins Group, it hung on until financial success arrived in the early '90s.

Mr. Laliberté, who runs Cirque with president and chief operating officer Daniel Lamarre, has retained control of his privately owned creation. But in 2008, in a bid to fund further expansion, he sold 20 per cent of his 95-per-cent stake to Dubai government investment firms Istithmar World and Nakheel.

Each year the company gives the equivalent of 1 per cent of earnings to cultural and social initiatives. The Cirque du Monde project deploys circus arts and educational programs to help at-risk youth in some 80 communities around the world, in partnership with Oxfam International and other agencies.

"I truly believe that the business 'models' have to begin thinking as a collective community," says Mr. Laliberté, who has five children. "I ask myself when the meeting of minds and the heart will happen in the worldwide business community."

In 2007, Mr. Laliberté launched the One Drop Foundation, a non-profit that funds safe water programs to fight poverty. He donated $100-million over 25 years to cover the operating costs of the foundation, whose partners include Cirque, Oxfam, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and RBC. One Drop raises awareness of water issues, while helping communities in the developing world gain access to water and other resources.

Mr. Laliberté publicized this cause in 2009 during his 12-day stay aboard the International Space Station - a trip that reportedly cost him $35-million. "Every single humanitarian issue can be trickled back to water," he explains.

Asked how optimistic he is that this country's next generation of leaders will confront the problems facing the planet, Mr. Laliberté doesn't hold back. "They are there already!" he says. "Their problem is convincing the generation before them that they have to face the music!"

Guy Laliberté on his leadership style

I am the head clown. I am a creative guide. For me, leadership is recognizing everyone's contribution to a common goal. In our case, every single one of our shows depends on everyone's contribution, both on or off the stage. Every individual contribution towards a collective effort. Without losing anyone's individual strengths. The head clown makes sure he recognizes these strengths, and celebrates them. The head clown also recognizes mistakes, learns from them and does not repeat them.

On how the boomers let him down

I still remember in my early 20s, the baby boomers were my inspiration. I laid a lot of my faith in how I would approach them and they would have an open mind to help me achieve my dream of starting Cirque du Soleil. It was a big disappointment for me that the help did not come from them. I was actually ignored, and the support came from the generation before the boomers, the 'elders' who understood that there is value putting in mentoring the young entrepreneurs, thinkers or dreamers. I made a promise to myself that I would never encourage that attitude if I became successful. I still hold that promise today.









 

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