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New CEO Stéphane Lefebvre at Cirque du Soleil offices in Montreal on Nov. 29.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

A soft-spoken bookkeeper with a low-key profile will now take the spotlight at Cirque du soleil Entertainment Group as the circus giant tries to reconstruct a business shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The famed troupe said Tuesday it is naming Stéphane Lefebvre, a chartered accountant who has been Cirque’s operations chief for the past year, as its chief executive officer, effective Dec. 1. He replaces communications specialist Daniel Lamarre, who is taking a step back into an executive vice-chairman role after two decades at the helm.

“The two of us went to war together” to pull Cirque out of the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Lamarre said in an interview ahead of the official announcement. “And now we’re looking for Stéphane to bring the company to the next level.”

Montreal-based Cirque du soleil is slowly rebuilding its business, which was pulverized nearly overnight in the spring of 2020 after it was forced to shut down 44 productions and lay off about 4,600 employees to comply with government-mandated bans on public gatherings. The company filed for bankruptcy protection three months later and is now controlled by its creditors, which bought Cirque in a transaction valued at about US$1.2-billion.

Mr. Lefebvre and Mr. Lamarre worked closely together during that time, meeting every morning to plot a trajectory toward revival. They’ll maintain that teamwork now, with Mr. Lefebvre, 54, in charge of daily management while Mr. Lamarre focuses on business development and relationships with key partners such as casino operator MGM Resorts and Disney.

Recapturing revenues and clawing back profitability remain colossal challenges for Cirque. The company has reopened several of its permanent shows in Las Vegas and just premiered a show called Drawn to Life at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, which was delayed by the pandemic. Openings have been staggered until now but the company plans a more aggressive schedule of touring show relaunches starting next year.

Ticket sales have been stronger than expected, with pent-up demand fuelling an initial surge, the two senior Cirque executives said. Still, they acknowledged the fragility of the global health situation and said they are pushing cautiously, going only into countries and cities with high vaccination rates and rigorous sanitary measures.

“Financially, we’re in really good shape right now,” Mr. Lefebvre said. He said Cirque started the year with about US$180-million in cash for operations and also has access to untapped credit. The owners, led by controlling shareholder Catalyst Capital Group Inc., are supportive and would likely inject emergency capital if it was ever needed, he said.

Credit ratings agencies such as Moody’s have expressed concern about the extent to which Cirque’s business is centred on Las Vegas, where its partnership with MGM counted for an estimated 35 per cent of its US$950-million in annual prepandemic revenue. But Mr. Lefebvre sees it as a steady source of cash flow, a financial anchor of sorts that the company can build out from as it relaunches shows in other cities in the months ahead.

Mr. Lefebvre joined Cirque du soleil from aircraft simulator maker CAE Inc. in 2016 in the wake of a change in ownership as Cirque founder Guy Laliberté sold control of the company to private equity firm TPG Capital and China’s Fosun International Ltd. He was finance chief for four years at Cirque, leading three acquisitions as well as its postbankruptcy recapitalization.

The soon-to-be-CEO is a known quantity at Cirque and liked by its creative teams because he has an appreciation for the value of their work, Mr. Lamarre said. Other colleagues describe him as a sweet and easygoing person with a sharp mind.

The decision to keep Mr. Lamarre as executive chairman is a reassuring one given he’s been at the heart of Cirque’s international expansion, said Louis Patrick Leroux, an English professor at Concordia University who co-edited a book on Quebec’s circus companies. Mr. Lefebvre’s appointment, meanwhile, also sends a signal.

“That, in itself, indicates the direction one expects Cirque du soleil to follow: Financial responsibility, stability and growth as we tippy toe out of the COVID pandemic,” Mr. Leroux said. “Cirque du soleil needs to rebuild, refinance and relaunch its otherwise successful brand.”

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