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Desjardins Caisse Populaire president Monique Leroux (Neil Mota/leloi.ca/Neil Mota/leloi.ca)
Desjardins Caisse Populaire president Monique Leroux (Neil Mota/leloi.ca/Neil Mota/leloi.ca)

Desjardins' quiet revolution Add to ...

Leroux's first career choice was one of her most difficult. When she was 17, her piano teacher encouraged her to study abroad so she could go professional. Although to this day she loves the "communication of emotion with the piano," Leroux didn't want to burden her family with the costs of international studies. In any case, the lonely life of a soloist was not for her. "It is really my passion to be with people," she says.

Her technical skills in music-an art that is fundamentally mathematical-drew Leroux to the complex world of finance and a career as a chartered accountant. When she was hired by accounting firm Clarkson Gordon in 1978, she was one of a handful of female accountants in its large Montreal office. Leroux earned a reputation as an adroit problem-solver who worked easily with colleagues and clients.

Clarkson Gordon named her one of its first female partners, and in 1995 she was hired as a senior manager by the Royal Bank, where she eventually oversaw its Quebec retail banking operations. A rare female in the bank's senior ranks, Leroux made a big impression on at least one director. "She stood out," says Sheelagh Whittaker, then a Royal Bank director and CEO of EDS Canada, who met Leroux during a bank strategy session in the late 1990s. "I was always on the alert for individuals of genuinely outstanding talent, people with an evident ability to get the job done, and from that day I marked Monique down in my book as one of them."

In 2000, Leroux decided to leave the demanding Royal Bank job, which entailed constant travel between Toronto and Montreal, because "sometimes in your life you have to make decisions for your family." The choice she made with her husband, Marc, a telecommunications executive, was to adopt their first and only child, Anne-Sophie. Leroux's idea of an easier career was to join Quebecor Inc. as chief operating officer-close quarters with the company's mercurial chief, Pierre Karl Péladeau. The job lasted a year, and in 2001 she accepted a position running Desjardins' insurance and trust units.

When the first financial storm hit in 2007, Leroux had been the company's chief financial officer for three years. People close to Desjardins say she voiced concern internally about danger signs in the world's financial markets. By then, Desjardins' executive team and its CEO, D'Amours, had committed to PPNs and ABCP to grow the wealth management business. When the flawed securities began to infect the financial institutions that backed them, Desjardins not only had a financial crisis, it had a management problem.

CEOs are elected every four years at Desjardins, and when the 2008 election rolled around, candidates faced a membership that was not happy. Desjardins did not tell members about its exposure to ABCP until late 2007, and even then information was so scant that it was difficult to gauge the extent of the damage. "We would have liked to have known about [ABCP earlier]" says Emanuel Linharès, chairman of a Montreal-based caisse that serves 8,000 Portuguese members (caisses are variously organized by area, profession or ethnicity). With little information, he said members feared the worst and became "preoccupied" with the ABCP meltdown. It seemed to the rank and file that Desjardins had drifted from its co-operative roots.

With D'Amours retiring, eight candidates threw their hats in the ring. Leading the pack was Bertrand Laferrière, the company's COO and president-and a favourite, according to sources, of D'Amours. Leroux seemed to be a dark-horse candidate. By the standards of Desjardins, where CEOs tend to be lifers, she was a relative newcomer, having logged a mere seven years at the co-operative.

She was also a rare female executive in an organization dominated by men in both the executive suite and the membership ranks. She joined the race because she believed she had the skills Desjardins needed at a time when there "was a strong possibility of another financial crisis." The message Leroux took to voters in early 2008 was that Desjardins' foray into higher-risk investments had diluted its core strength as a co-operative founded to create wealth for members and economic opportunities at the community level. "I wanted to get back to our foundations because I was convinced that this was the way to bring something of value to the community," she says. As well, "It positioned us better than other financial institutions."

Leroux's message, combined with her extensive financial background, hit the right note with Desjardins members. "We needed someone very strong on the financial market, someone who had their hands on the situation and who could bring a different kind of leadership," says Linharès, a supporter.

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