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Marcel Dutil (Will Lew)
Marcel Dutil (Will Lew)

Magazine

The slow build to success Add to ...

Marcel Dutil is a business titan from an isolated region of Quebec - the Beauce, a thriving hotbed between Quebec City and the Maine border - that makes a habit of producing towering entrepreneurs.

At 69, he has turned over to his sons the two major companies he built: Marc runs the Canam Group, a multinational fabricator of steel and construction products, and Charles oversees Manac, a major North American builder of highway semi-trailers. But Marcel insists the entrepreneurial journey will never end.My maternal grandfather, Edouard Lacroix, was involved a lot with businesses in the Beauce - he once employed more than 6,000 people in the Beauce, Maine and the Gaspé coast, and he did politics on top of that. When I was growing up, my mother would say that what my grandfather accomplished could not be repeated.

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I would think: "Why not? Why don't we try?" It was the feeling inside of me.

I started at the bottom in my father's new plant at 19 years old. As a welder in the summer of 1961, I was paid 85 cents an hour. There were about 10 to 12 guys, and in the first few years, my father's small company made sales of only $400,000 a year. It was a welding shop with assembly, a little painting and things, with a gravel floor with no heating. The bottom of the bottom.

All of its sales were in New England, and in 1962, I worked at its little sales office in Boston making plans and drawings - and it is where I learned my bad English. I went back to get my high school diploma and started full-time at my father's plant in June, 1963. I learned the business by making mistakes.

APOLOGIES TO MONTREAL

When you look at the map, the Beauce is outside the railway lines, outside the St. Lawrence River [Basin], and it is on the Maine border. If you look back five or six generations, people have always worked in the forests and other industries in the U.S. For us, it was more normal to go to Boston than Montreal. In my father's company, his partners were from Boston and the market was in Boston. We have never been afraid of going south.

While I was working in my father's business, Canam, I started my own company, called Manac, to make trailers in the barn behind my house. In 1966, we needed trailers to transport our steel products. There were a couple of big Canadian trailer makers, but it took six months for them to deliver. I went into one of their trailer-making yards in Quebec City and said, "We can do it too." We had two guys in the barn, and the first year we built 11 trailers - for ourselves, at first, but for other people too.

I had a machine shop working for me in Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, and I told the guy that one day I would make a trailer a day and 250 a year. They say, "You are crazy." But hey, that's the way it goes. We are probably the biggest in Canada. Between our Saint-Georges plant and two more in the U.S., we will make about 7,000 trailers this year. Our growth has occurred because of one thing: customer service. It is the name of the game.

IT'S ALL RELATIVE

I bought my father's company in 1972 - in fact, Manac bought Canam. The two of them were still only about $7 million to $8 million in total annual sales. You never say you are going to build a big company, but you do it by making improvements and, day by day, taking steps in the right direction. You say you will do $1 million in sales a year, and after that, you say you will do $1 million a month - if things go well, at the end of the day, you make a profit.

We had huge growth from 1970 to 1980. In fact, when I bought Canam from my father, I tripled sales that first year. I wanted to grow. My father would say, "Marcel, $50,000 in profit a year for 20 years makes you $1 million." I told him: "But $1 million a year for 20 years makes you $20 million." On the day I bought the company, I began to triple the size of the plant. I signed the contract at 11 a.m., and by 1 p.m., I had the bulldozers in the yard.

NOT DONE YET

For a few years, Montreal was my base, but I'm a guy from the Beauce.

I could be in Montreal, but the Beauce stayed in me. I came back because my sons were here, our businesses remained here, and we now have two plants in the region and each employs 600 people - along with extensive operations across Canada and the U.S.

It is a wealthy area - [business] people have low profiles, but they have a lot of money. Yet this region has no natural resources and there is no ownership by big companies. Companies in the Beauce are owned and built by people from the Beauce. You look around at someone who is successful and you say, "I can do it." And why not? After all, you played hockey against that guy and you are tougher than him.

At 69, I'm still not sure I've really made it. At one point you know the business is no longer small, but you are never finished. The trailer business and the steel business are subject to ups and downs. You need probably 30 years of experience to manage cycles. It's a tough business, and you survive because you have a good product. You make good money in the good years, and you lose a lot of money in the bad ones. You try to be better than your competitors, and you get the last look from your customers. Before they give a job to someone else, they call you and ask if you can match the price.

My two sons run the companies because they are good - good for shareholders, for the companies, and they deliver the merchandise.

Your goal is that your sons are better than yourself.

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