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Ten Canadian executives or directors sold $100-million worth of shares or more in 2021, according to a Globe and Mail analysis of insider stock sales in collaboration with INK Research.Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press

Canada’s top executives reaped windfall gains from selling shares in their companies last year, taking well-timed advantage of soaring market valuations before the recent selloff.

A Globe and Mail analysis of insider stock sales in collaboration with INK Research found 10 Canadian executives or directors sold $100-million worth of shares or more in 2021. Four of those sold shares worth $250-million or more – led by Shopify founder Tobi Lutke at $623.3-million.

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The research found 37 insiders at 23 companies sold $25-million worth of stock or more, earning total proceeds of nearly $3.6-billion. About 100 executives and directors sold $10-million or more.

The sales bonanza reflects years of rising stock prices, coupled with heavy equity ownership by company leaders. Stock markets were buoyed by low interest rates and generous government supports throughout the pandemic, allowing executives to reap large profits from selling shares in 2021 while many lower-income workers did not share in the gains.

The sales also proved to be timely: The 23 companies that employ the top sellers have seen the prices of their shares fall by an average of 22 per cent since Nov. 16, the high point for the S&P/TSX Composite index of major Canadian stocks. Since that date, three of the companies are among the 10 worst performers of the 241-member index, which has fallen only about 3 per cent over that period.

The biggest sales numbers come from founders of companies. Some have led their enterprises to years of gains, such as the four founders of Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., all of whom sold between $50-million and $300-million of stock in 2021. Others are founders cashing in part of their stake upon successful debuts in public markets, such as Nuvei Corp. CEO Philip Fayer, who sold $455.8-million worth of shares as part of two stock offerings not long after a 2020 initial public offering.

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The list also includes CEOs who illustrate how large share awards, coupled with a rising stock price over multiple years, create immense wealth: José Boisjoli, a long-time Bombardier employee who became the first CEO of BRP Inc. when it was spun off by its parent, grossed $122.9-million from exercising stock options in 2021.

In the waning days of 2021, Patrick Dovigi exercised some of the stock options he has received as chief executive officer of GFL Environmental Inc. and sold the shares, bringing in just under $8.9-million. It capped a lucrative year for the company founder: The transaction took his total sales of GFL stock to $101.1-million.

The figures in this story are based on gross sales proceeds, and do not reflect the cost of the insiders’ shares. In some cases, the cost of exercising stock options, then the taxes owed on the gains, mean the executives pocketed millions less than the gross number.

Executive sell-off

The buoyant stock market of 2021 provided an opportunity for Canadian executives to sell millions of dollars in company shares on the open market or through company offerings. Here are the biggest sellers:

RankExecutivePositionCompanyAmount sold
($ millions)
1Tobias LutkeFounder/CEOShopify$623.3
2Philip FayerFounder/CEONuvei$455.8
3Alain BouchardFounder/Executive ChairAlimentation Couche-Tard$300.0
4Jay HennickFounder and CEOFirstService and Colliers International Group$276.3
5Carl HansenFounder/CEOAbCellera$175.1
6Jacques D'AmoursFounder/directorAlimentation Couche-Tard$166.1
7David OssipCEOCeridian HCM Holding$162.7
8John PhillipsDirectorShopify$153.4
9José BoisjoliCEOBRP$122.9
10Patrick DovigiFounder/CEOGFL Environmental$101.1
11Richard FortinFounder/directorAlimentation Couche-Tard$96.4
12Harley FinkelsteinPresidentShopify$64.5
13Réal PlourdeFounder/directorAlimentation Couche-Tard$58.7
14Amy ShaperoChief financial officerShopify$53.5
15Daniel SchwartzCo-chair/former CEORestaurant Brands International$50.4

Source: INK Research and Globe and Mail research. 

Sales figures are gross and do not reflect cost of shares or taxes on gains.
Figures in Canadian dollars; U.S. sales converted to CAD using Bank of Canada rate on day of sale.

INK Research, a company that tracks insider buying and selling in order to generate investment ideas, provided a list of insider sales at Toronto Stock Exchange-listed companies. The Globe supplemented INK Research’s work by looking at records of stock sales by Canadian executives at large companies listed on U.S. exchanges. All U.S. stock sales were converted to Canadian dollars using rates on the day of the transaction.

The Globe contacted every company with an insider who sold $25-million or more in stock. Many declined to comment, while others wanted to provide background information, not to be attributed, on how to view their executives’ selling.

Common themes ran through those conversations, including the observation that option costs and taxes mean the realized proceeds were smaller than these numbers. Companies noted their executives and directors still have a significant amount of company stock, and the sales were just a fraction of their holdings – making the 2021 proceeds seem all the more remarkable.

Some of the insiders had been in their roles for many years, so estate planning and diversification were often cited as a reason for the sales.

Contacted for this story, Couche-Tard pointed to past announcements and disclosures, such as the one in October, when the company bought $300-million in shares directly from Alain Bouchard, one of the four founders. The founders remain on the board, expressed confidence in the future and still own 22 per cent of the company.

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Billionaire Jay Hennick, the founder and chair of FirstService Corp., as well as the chair and chief executive of Colliers International Group Inc., sold a total of $276.3-million of shares in the two companies. Mr. Hennick started the predecessor to FirstService in 1972, renamed it in 1989 and took it public in 1993. Colliers spun off in 2015. He is the largest shareholder of both companies.

Mr. Lutke makes an unsurprising appearance at the top of the list. The billionaire founder of Shopify is one of the richest people in Canada, depending on how the company’s high-flying stock is doing. (While the shares are down 55 per cent from their record high set last year, they are still up more than 4,500 per cent from their 2015 IPO).

Mr. Lutke has been selling Shopify shares for more than two years through an automatic sales plan under which he disposes of several million dollars’ worth of stock nearly every week. But others have also cashed out: Six other executives or directors have sold at least $25-million in stock, led by director John Phillips, an early funder of the company who sold $153.4-million; president Harley Finkelstein at $64.5-million; and chief financial officer Amy Shapero at $53.5-million.

The fabulous performance of tech stocks for most of 2021 – which has unravelled in the past three months – provided opportunities for other leaders of high-growth companies to cash in some of their holdings. In addition to Mr. Fayer, Nuvei North American president Mark Pyke sold $30.2-million in shares. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

Carl Hansen, CEO of U.S.-listed biotech AbCellera Biologics Inc., sold $175.1-million of stock, while four other executives sold between $30-million and $37-million apiece in a transaction in June.

The company said at the time that institutional investors that already held AbCellera stock approached the company to buy more, and the insiders sold their shares to them in a private sale. AbCellera said the insiders who sold retained about 89 per cent of their equity, which made up about 30 per cent of the company’s outstanding shares. (Asked for comment for this story, AbCellera pointed to the announcement of the June transaction.)

John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry Ltd., sold $30.7-million in stock, a small portion of the hundreds of millions in share awards the company has given him over his tenure. Prices for the company’s shares spiked in early 2021 thanks to retail investor enthusiasm during a “meme stocks” craze. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

OpenText CEO Mark Barrenechea sold $44.1-million in stock in the software company. Jennifer Bell, the company’s chief communications officer, said Mr. Barrenechea was using stock options that had been held for more than five years and were expiring in less than two years. The shares were sold “as part of estate and tax planning,” and Mr. Barrenechea’s share ownership was higher at the end of 2021 than at the beginning, she said. “Mr. Barrenechea has grown his share ownership in OpenText annually year over year and plans on continuing to grow ownership,” she said.

And Lightspeed Commerce Inc. founder and CEO Dax Dasilva, who said this week he would leave the CEO role, sold $42.8-million of stock in 2021. Natasha Koifman, an outside spokesperson for the company, said Mr. Dasilva sold during a company stock offering, but only as part of an “overallotment” to satisfy extra demand after the company sold all the shares it planned to offer. Proceeds from the sale, which represented about 3 per cent of his holdings, helped satisfy charitable pledges to environmental conservation groups and projects, she said.

The list of tech sellers also includes less-prominent companies: Stephen Ehrlich, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Digital Ltd., sold $39.3-million in shares, while Galaxy Digital Holdings Ltd. co-founder Sam Englebardt sold $25-million. Both are New York-based cryptocurrency companies that list on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Two executives of Magnet Forensics – CEO Adam Belsher and founder and chief technology officer Jad Saliba – each sold $27.3-million of shares in a company offering in December. The digital-security company said in a statement that the sale represented less than 10 per cent of their holdings, and they continue to own more than 55 per cent of the company.

Through Thursday, Galaxy Digital, Lightspeed, Voyager Digital and Shopify have all lost at least half their value since mid-November; Nuvei and AbCellera have lost more than 40 per cent; and Ceridian, BlackBerry and Magnet Forensics have lost at least 25 per cent.

However, leading a tech company was not a requirement to profit in the market environment of 2022.

Mr. Boisjoli has been with BRP since 1989 and has been its CEO since 2003, when it became a stand-alone company from Bombardier. BRP has granted him stock options each year, but he also invested personally in the business in 2003 and again in the 2008-09 financial crisis, according to BRP spokeswoman Sandy Vassiadis.

BRP stock hit a $129.98 high in September last year – representing a gain of 600 per cent from the $21.50 share price at the time of the IPO. The 2021 sales – only Mr. Boisjoli’s second as CEO – represented about one-third of his holdings, Ms. Vassiadis said. “He remains fully invested in BRP and confident in the company’s outlook.”

Brian Porter, CEO of Bank of Nova Scotia, is the only executive from Canada’s big banks or insurers to have sold more than $25-million in stock in 2021. Mr. Porter, who has been in the CEO job for more than eight years, sold $38.2-million of stock, all from exercising options granted from 2013 to 2015, and still owns hundreds of thousands of shares and options.

Daniel Schwartz, former CEO of Restaurant Brands International Inc., the parent of Tim Hortons, had already sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shares before 2021. His $50.4-million in proceeds last year came from exercising 666,153 options, selling 600,153 and retaining 66,000 shares.

Company spokesperson Mary Lowe estimates that Mr. Schwartz realized US$7.3-million in cash from the stock sales after tax. “The sale represents a small percent of his total RBI holdings … [he] continues to directly and indirectly hold more than 1.5 million shares in the company, even after the sale you noted.”

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