Besides the Governor of the Bank of Canada, no job in Canadian finance comes with a higher profile than that of the head of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. If the chief executives of most of the country’s biggest pension funds are largely unknown outside business circles, the person who runs the Caisse is constantly in the public eye in Quebec.
That puts the Caisse CEO on a permanent hot seat. Every move he – so far, they’ve all been men – makes is scrutinized, criticized and second-guessed by a long list of Caisse watchers who include economists, business leaders, activist investors, journalists and politicians.
Especially politicians. Over the weekend, for instance, the co-spokesperson for the left-wing Québec solidaire, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, called out the Caisse for choosing a consortium led by French-based transportation giant Alstom SA to build and maintain trains for Montreal’s $6.3-billion Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light-rail rapid transit system. The Alstom consortium, which will assemble the rail cars in India, was selected in 2018 over Montreal-based Bombardier, which has an underused assembly plant in La Pocatière, Que.
“We should be embarrassed that our contributions to the Caisse are being used to finance that kind of enterprise. It’s absurd, completely ridiculous,” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said after a Saturday report in Le Journal de Montréal on Alstom’s Indian facilities, where workers are paid a fraction of what Bombardier’s La Pocatière employees earn.
Michael Sabia has survived in this lion’s den longer than any of his seven predecessors. By the time he steps down as Caisse CEO in early 2020, a year before his contract is up, the Ontario-born anglophone will have served in the job for almost 11 years. He has managed to withstand regular public criticism from politicians, including the man who is now Quebec Premier, François Legault, by delivering superb results and professionalizing the institution.
That track record would intimidate any potential successor, which may explain in part why two of the presumed contenders to replace Mr. Sabia – National Bank CEO Louis Vachon and Énergir Inc. CEO Sophie Brochu – last week pulled out of the running. The decision by Ms. Brochu, who is stepping down as CEO of the natural gas distributor at the end the year, caught Caisse watchers particularly by surprise. Her name had been circulating as an ideal candidate, combining the management chops and communications talent for the job.
“I am of the opinion that this function should be assumed by a person who is able to draw on vast experience in international finance and fund management,” Ms. Brochu said.
Ironically, Mr. Sabia did not meet that job description when he was chosen by Liberal premier Jean Charest to rebuild the Caisse’s reputation after it was caught holding billions in illiquid asset-backed commercial paper in 2007 and suffered devastating losses during the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Sabia, who was a senior federal bureaucrat in the 1980s and early 1990s, had been CEO of BCE Inc. and a senior executive at Canadian National Railway Co.
Still, in part thanks to Mr. Sabia’s own doing, the job of Caisse CEO has evolved considerably since 2009 and a more sophisticated knowledge of global finance will be required of the next person to lead the institution, narrowing the field of potential candidates for the position.
One name to emerge in recent days as a potential successor to Mr. Sabia is that of André Bourbonnais, the former head of the Public Sector Pension Investment Board. The native of Trois-Rivières, Que., left PSP in early 2018 to become the head of BlackRock Long Term Private Capital in New York. His résumé also includes stints at both the Caisse and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, giving him a unique perspective on the industry.
On Monday, the Caisse announced that executive vice-president Charles Émond would assume responsibility for all domestic and global private equity operations following the departure of Stéphane Etroy, who had overseen international private equity out of London since 2015. Mr. Émond was recruited a year ago by Mr. Sabia from Bank of Nova Scotia, making him the top internal candidate to succeed his boss. His new duties reinforce that impression.
Whether Mr. Legault and Quebec Finance Minister Éric Girard agree is another matter. Mr. Girard, who was formerly a senior executive at National Bank, had applied for the Caisse job that eventually went to Mr. Émond. Last week, Mr. Sabia and Mr. Girard made light of the coincidence, but it was clearly an awkward moment for both men. That may not help Mr. Émond’s case.
Other potential candidates to succeed Mr. Sabia include Macky Tall, the head of CDPQ Infra, the division that oversees the Caisse’s infrastructure investments, and Jean Raby, the Quebec-born CEO of Paris-based Natixis Investment Managers.
Whoever gets the Caisse job will have big shoes to fill, indeed.