“There is no doubt that in the awakening of public opinion and government opinion [about the debt and deficit] he was certainly one of the people who understood and played a very important contributing role to the understanding of the whole issue,” says Paul Martin, who led the charge to address the government’s fiscal challenges as finance minister in the 1990s.
That didn’t mean Mr. Desautels eschewed the usual gotcha-style audits of government spending – his audit of spending controls in the human resources department dominated headlines in 2000.
Mr. Desautels’s exit in 2001 was well-timed. Accounting scandals at Enron and Worldcom were shining an unflattering light on public corporations and leading to sweeping regulatory changes. Corporate boards were casting about for fresh faces to upgrade their tainted images as accomplices to greedy CEOs.
With his track record and experience, Mr. Desautels was an obvious choice. Then-Laurentian Bank CEO Henri-Paul Rousseau was the first to call.
“The day I saw he resigned, I talked to the other people around the board table,” recalls Mr. Rousseau, now vice-chairman at Power Corp. of Canada. “We knew that we would need a person like him down the road to be chairman of the board, and he had the capacity, no doubt in our minds.”
Mr. Desautels’s appointment was quickly followed by invitations to join the boards of Alcan, Bombardier and Jean Coutu. Until recently, he was also chair of the Accounting Standards Oversight Council and a director of CARE Canada.
He’s still on the Board of Governors of the University of Ottawa and International Development Research Centre and serves on the finance council of the Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa.
Mr. Desautels digs into his seared wild B.C. salmon with champagne tarragon vinaigrette and sides of fennel, endives and arugula. He notes me watching as he scrapes back the skin and deposits it in the corner of his white rectangular plate. My sable fish – seared and served with fiddleheads, cherry tomatoes, roasted corn and crab – is excellent, but I’ve put it aside to take notes. “Now you have to eat yours, too,” Mr. Desautels says.
As a corporate director, Mr. Desautels wins praise as a capable, actively involved board member who improved financial reporting and internal controls, and helped corporations make the transition to international reporting standards.
“He was very willing to ask questions others might not ask because it might show they didn’t know something,” former Alcan chief executive Richard Evans says.
Mr. Desautels says he’s content with the performance of Laurentian, Canada’s seventh-largest bank, even though its stock has chronically lagged its larger peers.
“It’s a small bank and obviously we cannot match the returns of the larger banks. But we built a good organization and are delivering very respectable results,” he says.
Mr. Desautels is still busy, but he’s winding down his commitments, spending more time in his garden and planning to write a family history to leave to his descendants.
For now, he’s looking forward to a vacation with his wife to Alberta and B.C. at the end of summer. “I’ve done a lot of interesting trips, but you always seem to be pressed for time,” he says. “This time I’m not scheduling anything before, during or after. It will be one trip where I’m really not taking the office with me.”
Hometown: St-Bruno, Que.
Personal: Married to Shirley Leuthold for 47 years. They have three sons and eight grandchildren
Education: Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University, 1964; became a chartered accountant in 1966.
Pastimes: Golf, gardening, skiing, history, spending time with family.
1964-1991: Worked for Ernst & Young in Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City. Made partner in 1973 at age 29. Served in various positions, including senior partner of the Montreal office and regional director of consulting services.
1991-2001: Served as auditor-general of Canada
2001-present: Former chairman, Laurentian Bank of Canada (retired 2013), chair of the audit committees of Bombardier Inc., Alcan Inc. (2003 until 2007 sale to Rio Tinto PLC) and Jean Coutu Group (PJC) Inc. boards. Member of Board of Governors of the University of Ottawa and International Development Research Centre.
2001-2012: Member of Accounting Standards Oversight Council of Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.
2001: Invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
2013: Winner, Institute of Corporate Directors Fellowship Award.
Current appointments: Serves as chair of the selection committee of the Prime Minister of Canada’s Outstanding Achievement Award and as a member of the Expert Panel on Securities Regulation in Canada, the governance committee of the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat, and Parliamentary Precinct Oversight Advisory Committee.