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Pedestrians walk past a sign for the head office of SNC Lavalin in downtown Montreal March 26, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
Pedestrians walk past a sign for the head office of SNC Lavalin in downtown Montreal March 26, 2012. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

ENGINEERING

SNC choice ignites Quebec language debate Add to ...

The board of Quebec corporate titan SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. interviewed – and passed over – at least two francophone contenders for the company’s top job before deciding to hire American Robert Card as its chief executive officer, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The naming of Mr. Card, who does not speak French, to lead one of Quebec’s most successful companies has became an issue in the provincial election campaign. PQ leader Pauline Marois, pushing to toughen Quebec’s controversial French language laws, seized on the appointment Monday, saying during a campaign stop in Montreal: “I am asking SNC-Lavalin that it make sure that he follow courses in French so that he could at least become bilingual.”

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Mr. Card, a departing senior executive with Denver-based engineering firm CH2M Hill Cos. Ltd., has pledged to learn French and to move to Montreal. But the revelation that SNC rejected francophone candidates may stoke the political fires again in a campaign that is too close to call.

Other executives from the U.S. have led major Montreal-based companies. But the arrival of an American to lead a firm that grew from its roots as a bastion of the French Canadian business community to become a global leader in engineering and construction comes at a time when tensions between the forces of economic nationalism in the province and the realities of global business are at their highest in years.

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec recently parted ways with an English-speaking executive whose appointment to a senior role sparked criticism in the province, while regional politicians have reacted with hostility to the news that U.S. home improvement giant Lowe’s Cos. is preparing a hostile run at home-grown Rona Inc.

Sources familiar with the situation say the board of SNC tried to strike a balance in its search to replace Pierre Duhaime, who was ousted as CEO in March amid a string of scandals that erupted on his watch. The RCMP has raided two company locations in Canada and two former company officials have been arrested and faced corruption charges, while an SNC internal probe found $56-million in improper payments were made to commercial agents to help secure contracts. In addition, the World Bank has banned an SNC subsidiary from bidding on contracts in Bangladesh over concerns bribes were paid to local officials.

The board felt its ideal candidate would have been a francophone Quebecker or at least someone who spoke French fluently, sources said. But it also needed to attract a veteran senior executive from the industry who had handled large-scale contracts - and had an unimpeachable reputation for upholding ethical standards.

The board decided early on to look outside the company after determining that the most qualified internal candidates were either unseasoned or otherwise occupied in their current roles, a source close to the company said. SNC directors also felt that hiring a seasoned outside candidate would send a message that they took seriously the need to confront and solve the company’s challenges.

Sources say the board conducted a global search, resulting in a short-list with two francophones, including one who was Canadian-born but had worked abroad for much of his career.

But Mr. Card emerged as the clear winner. His experience at a company that derives 75 per cent of its revenues from the U.S. – compared to just 3 per cent for SNC – outweighed his deficiency in French. The appointment was applauded by market observers Monday. “There’s no way in my view they could have gotten someone of that pedigree if they kept the search in Canada or Quebec,” said Raymond James analyst Frederic Bastien said.

In Mr. Card, SNC has hired the second-highest paid and arguably most experienced person at CH2M, after CEO Lee McIntire, with about 35 years of experience at the firm, including a stint running the consortium that oversaw the design and construction of the facilities for the 2012 Olympics in London. He has a reputation for being tough, focused and ethical leader who is familiar with Canada.

His success in the late 1990s heading the effort to decommission a nuclear weapons facility in Colorado led to his appointment by the George W. Bush administration to the third highest post in the U.S. Department of Energy, a job he held for three years in the early 2000s, overseeing 65,000 employees and a budget of $14-billion (U.S.). “He was an extremely able administrator and viewed as someone who had been productive,” former U.S. Energy secretary Spencer Abraham said in an interview. “He didn’t come to the job because of his Republican affiliation, but because he’d done such a great job at Rocky Flats.”

He added Mr. Card effectively and creatively tackled a broad array of issues, including recommending a controversial decision to move ahead on the establishment of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada. But he wasn’t a career political player “nor did he want to be, and he left when he felt he’d done the things he needed to do.”

However, after running all three divisions of CH2M, a company with 23,500 employees and $6-billion in revenue last year, Mr. Card found himself, at 59, working for a CEO “who is here and present and not leaving any time soon,” CH2M spokesman John Corsi said. “An opportunity came and Bob took it,” resigning last Friday. “He’s done a lot for the firm, we wish him well and he’ll be missed. “

With files from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec and Barrie McKenna in Ottawa

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THE FRENCH CONNECTION

Appointing an anglophone to almost any prominent position in Quebec is a loaded decision. A look at some moves that have made waves:

George Cope, CEO, BCE Inc.

Mr. Cope’s lack of French has reared its head in recent weeks as a growing chorus of those opposing BCE’s deal to acquire Astral Media Inc. includes more Quebeckers. Last week, the PQ came out against the BCE-Astral deal, with one PQ candidate calling it a “takeover by Toronto of our broadcasting industry,” the Montreal Gazette reported. Also last week, sovereigntist group the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste criticized Mr. Cope as “a unilingual anglophone living in Toronto” who makes speeches and conducts business in Quebec only in English. It also criticized BCE for being Montreal-based in name only, pointing out that “its executive team primarily works in Toronto … [and] the major business decisions are made outside of Quebec.”

Michael Sabia, CEO, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec

When Premier Jean Charest appointed Mr. Sabia, an Ontario native, to his current post in 2009, former premier Bernard Landry called the decision “a fault that comes close to being a provocation.” While Mr. Sabia speaks French, he has come under fire for hiring executives whose language skills are weak. But he has managed to turn around the Quebec pension fund.

Randy Cunneyworth, former interim coach and assistant coach, Montreal Canadiens

Talk radio in Quebec lit up in late 2011 when Ontario native Mr. Cunneyworth became the first unilingual anglophone to be named coach of the Habs in almost three decades. It’s not the first time local fans have struggled with the notion that the team of Maurice Richard is losing its Quebec identity. Former captain Saku Koivu was also criticized for not speaking French. Mr. Cunneyworth was dismissed in June, along with assistant coach Randy Ladouceur.

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