Emilio Imbriglio has a compelling story. The son of an Italian immigrant family with a tragic history, his résumé lists chartered accountant, professor, entrepreneur, and now chairman of Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton, Quebec’s largest accounting firm. As a specialist in infrastructure funding, he played a key financial procurement role in building the mega-hospital, Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal. He talks about northern development and the progress of the PQ government – and sees some silver lining in the public inquiry into collusion and corruption in the construction industry.
What is your family background?
My parents were from war-ravaged Monte Cassino. My father grew up in nearby Conca della Campania, where people lived in caves during the bombings – to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. At 14, he found the body of his mother Emilia after she had been killed by a bomb. His brother was in a concentration camp, got out, started a family but then died. My father helped raise his three young sons, and later brought two of them to Canada. My mother came in 1957, and my father in 1958. My father worked 26 years in a bottling plant and my mother was a seamstress.
What memories did they bring from the Second World War?
In 1943, because of an overnight murder of one of their soldiers, the Nazis chose 19 men from Conca della Campania – at that time, mostly old men and boys in their teens – and marched them out of town. The last guy in the line was my grandfather Benedetto. He was able to communicate with the last Nazi soldier in the group, who apparently felt remorse. In the last few metres of the walk, he let my grandfather and two other boys jump off to the side. Sixteen innocent people died by execution that day.
What was it like growing up in Montreal’s Plateau?
What my parents brought was Italy on the third floor [of the apartment building]. My only language was Italian until I started playing downstairs in French and then I went to English schools. I speak several languages fluently, and I can get in trouble in several others.
As a businessman, are you at all reassured by the signals from the Parti Québécois government?
I am reassured. Of course it is a minority government and I assume their decision-making gets filtered through that. Some of the signals on natural resources and finance are more positive.
My concern is that I’m a businessman. As a firm, we represent 40,000 businesses in Quebec; many of them have gone on to be great names and lots of them are coming up the ranks. They’re committed to Quebec, but at the same time they want to grow into something else. They need to be given ample room.
But there are also businesses at risk of being acquired by hostile takeovers. You lose head offices. We have five universities with brilliant people coming out and employment is the key. They will go where the businesses are. I’m a professional and I know what it means for my business when a head office in Montreal decides to make an acquisition in the U.S., Europe or Canada. The company solicits local accounting, legal and financial experience. We live for that work.
So you support the PQ’s measures to make it harder for hostile foreign takeovers?
I like anything that will ensure we retain as much as possible.
But isn’t this Quebec economic nationalism all over again?
If this were another province, would they say the same thing? Would it be called economic nationalism in another province? I don’t think it is any different in New Brunswick or Ontario or clearly in Calgary. You are promoting that province and trying to attract new capital and head offices.
Are you still in a wait-and-seen mode with the government?
I like when decisions get made, things are results-oriented, and business is simplified and easy to understand. That usually happens when you have a strong government in terms of depth and a majority government. And my angle is always entrepreneurship and employment.
As someone involved in infrastructure projects, do you feel all Quebec business is somehow tainted by the disclosures in the construction inquiry?
It is certainly not a good thing and it will take time to repair. Yet it is good that it has come out and I hope people pay the price they have to pay if there has been wrongdoing. Of course, the commission is not a court and we will have to wait for that part.
I am speculating here, but I wonder if the same types of things don’t happen in other major cities across North America. There are some that are documented and have gone through similar processes in the U.S.
The barriers to entry in that industry are so heavy, you need huge capital to be a real player in construction – and those capital demands include quarries and sandpits. Thus, what happens invariably in all the big cities is you have a small number of [construction] players. In all these cities, all you need is to have the small number of players talk to each other and you have a risk.
But what was your reaction to the allegations of public-sector corruption?
I can tell you I was surprised at a lot of what was said, and sorting through what’s real won’t be easy for anyone.
Does it do damage to the Quebec brand?
I came out of a recent conference, where government representatives satisfied a lot of the Canadian [infrastructure] players that it is a good thing and may actually act as a positive. It is a small world and there are a lot of big [construction] companies across Canada that hesitated to come into Quebec. This may be a reason for them to actually consider coming. These big companies probably knew it was difficult to win a job if you were coming from somewhere else.
These companies are everywhere in the world but they have done almost nothing in Quebec. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a good opportunity to pick up one of these [Quebec] companies or to consider that the slate is clean: ‘We have an equal chance.’ And I don’t believe language has been a barrier. If they go into South America, they can come into Quebec. These are not people who fear language.
At the end of the day, if you don’t want to have these traps, the only true protection is competition – especially, against collusion.
With the new government in place, is the province’s massive northern development plan, known as Plan Nord, still alive?
Absolutely. And there was a plan nord before it was called Plan Nord. I have called for an infrastructure plan, which would set priorities over 25 or 50 years in terms of geography and where we put our money – airports, roads, telecommunications or power. It’s too big a land to go all over the place. We have to be focused.
The government has renegotiated the development agreement on Highway 167, which would be the new door to the north. They wouldn’t be negotiating a deal on a road unless they were still backing a northern plan of some sort.
EMILIO IMBRIGLIO, C.V.
Title: Chairman, leader of corporate finance advisory team, Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton, Montreal
Personal: Born in Montreal; 53 years old
Education: BComm. from Concordia University; MBA from McGill University
- Joined Clarkson Gordon in 1980; worked with it and successor firm Ernst & Young until 1985.
- Ran his own accounting firm until 1997, when he merged with RSM Richter (audit and corporate finance)
- Taught at Concordia and McGill between 1983 and 1999 1983-99: Taught at Concordia and McGill.
- Joined Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton in 2002; became chairman in 2010