Marc Tellier’s career so far has been dramatic—from Internet boy wonder, to income-trust darling to midlife crisis. As CEO of Yellow Media Inc. for 12 years, he piloted the telephone directory publisher through an LBO bonanza, but then loaded it up with print properties—and debt. At which point the world went digital in a hurry, and red ink spilled across Yellow’s bottom line. Having pulled the company through a wrenching recapitalization, Tellier, 45, will leave soon with, he insists, his head held high. Was he the agent of his own undoing or a victim of the startling speed of the shift from print to digital media?
What will you do next?
I’ve been fortunate to have many successes early on, but also I’ve navigated some very humbling experiences. Now I look forward to engaging in a dynamic environment, where I can apply the lessons learned.
So you want another CEO job?
Not necessarily. I haven’t done a lot of reflection, but it is important to identify what you don’t want to do. I don’t want to be a professional director, I don’t want to teach and I am not interested in politics at this stage in my life. I quite like businesses that transform and I have a unique perspective in digital businesses.
What is your biggest lesson from Yellow Pages?
Change doesn’t happen as quickly as people originally predict, but when it does come, it moves much faster than expected. The whole industry wasn’t ready for the speed of change. For many years, our company defied all odds by continuing to grow its print business, but then things started to slide—and then slide rapidly.
Will you get to run a public company again, given shareholders’ anger at being almost wiped out in the recapitalization?
It was a disappointment to a lot of stakeholders and I can understand that from a capital-structure perspective. But this was a seismic secular shift in the industry, and we are further ahead of anyone else in the world in terms of our transformation [to online media]. Yes, [the recapitalization] was difficult, but necessary. And I won’t shy away from the fact that from a strategy and execution perspective, we delivered.
Did you go to your father [Paul Tellier, the star former federal civil servant and CEO] for advice?
Given the profile of my father, there is a fascination with our relationship that probably goes beyond the reality. Just as I did with my mother and others with whom I have built relationships, of course I went to him for guidance.
Is it a burden to carry your family name?
Early on, I made a conscious decision not to work for the government of Canada for the simple fact that I didn’t want to be constantly compared to him. By the time my father entered the private sector, my career was well under way. I’m very proud of his accomplishments, like any son would be.
Was there a nugget of advice from him?
It was the same feedback I got from a number of people whose careers have spanned multiple business cycles, through highs and lows: Until someone lives through a low, you never know how that person will react and get through it. An argument could be made that I am a proven commodity in the good and bad times.
What decision would you reverse if you could?
In 2002, we were the largest leveraged buyout in Canadian history, and we were, for many, the poster child for income trusts. But after the changes in trust legislation announced in 2006, we could have retrenched the dividend a little more quickly than we did in order to de-lever the company a little more rapidly.
Were you pushed out or did you jump?
It was a mutual decision. I agreed to assist in a four-month transition. If there had been bitterness and animosity, I don’t know of too many public company CEOs who would stick around to do that.
What will be your legacy?
This company was a one-trick pony for 100 years in the directory business and now we have 19 per cent of our customers buying three products or more, and 40 per cent of our revenue coming from online products. I am proud of the team and sure it will build on that momentum.
This interview has been condensed and edited.