The son of a doctor, Ben Aïssa was one of three siblings who enrolled at Canadian universities in the 1980s. (His sister went to McGill for architecture, his brother to the University of Ottawa medical school.) Ben Aïssa was fluent in French, and proficiency in English was not a requirement in either of the universities he attended. Yet by the time most students were sleepily stumbling into their first lecture of the morning, Ben Aïssa had already finished a private English lesson. He knew nothing about hockey, but he cheered wildly for the New York Islanders when they won the Stanley Cup in 1982—because, he explained to his roommate, he preferred winners.
After leaving the University of Ottawa with two undergraduate degrees and an MBA, Ben Aïssa launched his own consulting firm, specializing in studies of emerging markets. It soon became clear that this chosen specialty—and Ben Aïssa’s background—were a neat fit with the strategic needs of Lavalin Inc. Quebec’s largest engineering firm was bent on growing in francophone Africa and the Middle East.
Ben Aïssa joined Lavalin in 1985, and soon made his mark. One former executive says it was a $600-million contract for a passenger rail system in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, that first earned the young graduate accolades within the company. And it boded well for Ben Aïssa’s career that the overseer on the project was Jacques Lamarre, one of the four founding shareholders at Lavalin.
Lamarre, who retired from SNC-Lavalin in 2009, is a titan of the Quebec business community. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, he sits on the boards of the Royal Bank of Canada and Suncor Energy, and is a strategic adviser to law firm Heenan Blaikie. From the mid-1980s, the trajectories of Lamarre’s and Ben Aïssa’s respective careers were highly correlated: When Lamarre served as an executive vice-president with territorial responsibility for the Middle East, Ben Aïssa was one of his charges; during Lamarre’s tenure as CEO, which began in 1996, Ben Aïssa was elevated to Lamarre’s “Office of the President.” In a book published to commemorate SNC’s centennial, the men earn the sobriquet of “firemen”—company parlance for the sort of executives who could be relied on to extract SNC from trouble.
The book cites a specific example of a young Ben Aïssa jetting off to his native Tunisia to talk down a disgruntled client who was threatening to sue for $3 million. “Within a couple days, [Ben Aïssa] had managed to convince them that it was in their best interests to drop the lawsuit and give Lavalin an extension to finish the work.” (Lamarre, citing the ongoing investigations into Ben Aïssa’s more recent actions, declined via a spokesperson to be interviewed or to answer e-mailed questions.)
Although SNC-Lavalin is one of Canada’s few true international champions, its many successes have obscured the fact that it has suffered from the modern corporate malaise of housing rival internal cultures following a merger.
SNC’s chief executive in 1991, Guy Saint-Pierre, deliberately used the word “merger” in all of his public statements, but his language could not mask what everyone knew: Lavalin, privately owned by four engineers—brothers Jacques and Bernard Lamarre, Marcel Dufour and Armand Couture—had leapt into some foolish deals. The first blow was the 1986 purchase of a Montreal petrochemical plant that was hemorrhaging money. But the knockout punch came when Lavalin experimented with playing airplane broker for a Soviet airline, which backed out of the deal in 1990, resulting in Lavalin losing a $45-million deposit.
Potential purchasers of Lavalin had reason to be wary. The firm had operations in some of the world’s most unstable regions, including a crumbling Soviet Union and coup-prone African countries. As a private firm, its books were like a black box.
But Quebec Inc.—that fusion of state and corporate interests that gives the province its distinct business culture—does not like to see its celebrated indigenous companies disappear. The union of Lavalin and SNC is widely believed to have involved government pressure. SNC, the smaller company, acquired Lavalin’s still-profitable engineering assets, and, in the process, created a juggernaut. Head counts at the time were put at 2,500 for SNC and 4,000 for Lavalin, according to a retired vice-president.