Taking the podium on a February evening, Serge Godin braced himself to launch the biggest charm offensive of his 40-year career. For the co-founder of CGI Group Inc., the pre-dinner mission was to finesse an enormous corporate speed-dating session. Most of the faces staring up at him from tables arrayed like lily pads across the Montreal Marriott ballroom were complete strangers—newcomers to Montreal-based CGI from a spree of recent acquisitions. And yet these were some of his top managers—a hand-picked hundred-odd from 400 offices in 40 countries. The dinner was a highlight of a “CGI 101” orientation session.
Godin’s opening gambit was direct: “Please stand up if you’ve ever been acquired.” After most of the room lurched to their feet, Godin delivered his punchline: “It won’t happen to you any more.”
Over the course of the next hour and a quarter, CGI’s down-to-earth executive chairman hammered on with a set of similarly emphatic pledges, warnings and strictures. Godin, who is 63, has logged decades travelling around the world in pursuit of more than 70 acquisitions—including the purchase, just over a year ago, of Logica PLC, a European rival that more than doubled CGI’s footprint—and made it Canada’s largest technology company.
Speaking to his newly acquired managers, Godin’s central theme was that with the Logica deal, CGI is now positioned to be a world champion—albeit one powered by exactly the same model he crafted for his first big contracts, like the 1982 job processing data for the Alcan smelter in his home town of Shipshaw in the Saguenay. That model, Godin emphasized, is based on getting to know clients’ businesses well enough to become all but indispensable to their survival and growth. In the rapidly evolving IT industry, Godin added, you have to be in a position to weather every storm and economic cycle—not just for survival, but in order to acquire stumbling competitors: “It’s like when the stewardess says: If something happens, get your own oxygen mask on first. I like to be in a position to read the menu—not being the menu.”
Godin co-founded CGI (short for Conseillers en Gestion et Informatique, later freely translated as Consulting to Government and Industry) in 1976 with André Imbeau, who has kept a relatively low profile during his career at the company (the long-time CFO is now vice-chairman). By 1980, Godin reminisced at the dinner, he had 222 employees. In 1992 the head count reached 1,200. By 2010, after a tumultuous decade of acquisitions including the absorption of stateside firms American Management Systems and Stanley Inc., CGI employed 31,000. Last year, following the Logica deal, the payroll exploded to 72,000, a number that has been cut to 69,000. The steady growth in head count has been mirrored in a stock price that has made CGI one of the top performers on the Toronto Stock Exchange, gaining an average of 25% annually for 25 years. “There is no limit for you to grow within this company if you have the competence,” Godin vowed. “We are in the services business. There is no risk,” he continued. “It is amazing how strong you are together. I’m never scared.”
The message would have verged on cultish triumphalism had it not been delivered with Godin’s rustic charm. “Always keep it very, very simple,” he instructed his audience of highly successful players in the global economy’s most complex, information-rich, technologically sophisticated industry. And then, with the quiet delivery of a profoundly proud man (and a man with a controlling stake), he delivered his own verdict on CGI: “It’s getting there, eh, gradually?”
With annualized revenue OF more than $10 billion with Logica in the fold, CGI is Quebec’s homegrown tech giant, landing at 119th on this year’s Top 1000 list. It is among the world’s five largest companies dedicated to computer services, alongside Computer Sciences Corp., Accenture, Capgemini and Atos. With a market capitalization of $8.9 billion, CGI is worth a billion more than Research In Motion, whose tribulations are followed by many Canadians as religiously as if it represented the country’s only pony in the tech race. But mention CGI to most people and the first thing that comes to mind—or appears on-screen in a Google search—is computer-generated imagery.