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Jean-Guy Desjardins by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Jean-Guy Desjardins by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Jean-Guy Desjardins: A tough negotiator with big ambitions Add to ...

Jean-Guy Desjardins has built a career on negotiations. He has created not one but two of Canada’s biggest money management companies from scratch. He was the point man in the choice of Mark Carney for Governor of the Bank of Canada.

His four decades in finance can be broken down into a series of deals, each one consisting of days, weeks, months of gruelling back and forth talks. But at the end, he usually gets what he wants, whether it’s convincing Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to pay the “crazy” price he asked for his first firm, TAL Global Asset Management, or prying Mr. Carney away from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which had other plans for him.

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Over three decades, starting in the 1970s, he built TAL Global Asset Management from just $35-million in assets into a power with $55-billion under management, before finally selling in 2001 to CIBC.

Then he started again, with Fiera Capital Corp., which in only nine years has soared up the rankings of independent asset managers, capped by a hard-won deal earlier this year with National Bank of Canada that put Fiera in the top five. Mr. Desjardins dreams of taking it to $150-billion, which would make it a big player on the North American scene.

TAL and Fiera may not be household names, but they run money for many of the pension plans and investment funds that people across the country count on for their retirement. His career has been out of sight to most Canadians, yet the deals he drives have an effect on many lives.

So when the waitress at Toronto Italian haunt La Bettola di Terroni informs him that he cannot have a Diet Coke, that there’s only regular Coke, there’s a moment where it appears the debonair Montrealer might try to convince her otherwise. Then he acquiesces. Next, he is warned he cannot have cheese on his spaghetti with lobster – no cheese with fish, house rules. There’s another beat of tension. “You don’t serve cheese?”

There’s a Gallic sigh, and a graceful exit: “I don’t want cheese. It doesn’t go with fish.”

Mr. Desjardins is tall and fit, dapper in a blue suit and Hermès tie, with his silver hair swept back from a tall forehead. In person, he looks younger than his 67 years, despite decades of the road-warrior lifestyle.

Maybe his reputation as a general who doesn’t retreat is overblown, one begins to think. But the man does have a history of winning the deals, even when the person on the other side of the table is the prime minister.

Mr. Desjardins faced off with the federal government when he was lead director at the Bank of Canada, in charge of the search group tasked with finding a replacement for David Dodge, whose term was ending in early 2008. Mr. Carney was then a senior official in the finance department, and Mr. Desjardins wanted the Harvard– and Oxford-educated former Goldman Sachs banker.

“I had fantastic chemistry with the guy,” Mr. Desjardins said. “He speaks my language because he’s a capital markets guy, [and is] exceedingly intelligent, so well-educated.”

It was a perfect fit, except for one thing.

“The Prime Minister had a different game plan for him,” Mr. Desjardins says, choosing his words carefully, because the situation is obviously still sensitive even more than four years later. “The government’s response was ‘great choice,’” he recalls. “‘We think very highly of him too.’”

Mr. Desjardins didn’t back down. A few days later, the government gave the okay. Mr. Carney was in as Bank of Canada Governor.

Mr. Desjardins has obviously heard the talk that he is a tough negotiator. As the spaghetti arrives, along with a salad for me, he suggests he can’t be all that hard on his partners, since in every case the deals have been win-win.

“I’m probably not very tough. If I was tougher it would be more win here and less there,” he says.

Indeed, one executive who has faced off with him calls him “tough, but not unreasonable.”

The sale of Mr. Desjardin’s stake in TAL to CIBC a decade ago provides clues to how he got that reputation.

CIBC and TAL had partnered for years, but new management at CIBC didn’t like partnerships. The bank wanted the shares owned by him and his partners – a stake that stood at 35 per cent.

He held out for two years as the sides dickered back and forth. Finally, pressed to name his price, Mr. Desjardins did. He recalls that it prompted then-head of CIBC John Hunkin to call him “crazy.”

“It took another six months, but ultimately he [Mr. Hunkin] said ‘Okay, okay, okay.’”

(The price was never disclosed.)

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