Entrepreneur Bernard Lemaire was a star of the francophone business class that emerged in the 1960s, a group known informally as Quebec Inc. Starting from nothing, he cofounded Cascades, a company that specialized in recycled paper products ranging from tissues to cardboard boxes. Today, Cascades operates 70 plants in five Canadian provinces and across the United States, and ranks among the world’s most sustainable corporations. More than 80 per cent of its products are made with recycled material. Mr. Lemaire died at home in Kingsey Falls, Que., on Nov. 8 at age 87.
Jean Charest, who was premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012, says Mr. Lemaire was an iconic figure in the province. “On the environment and sustainable development he was a visionary,” he told The Globe and Mail.
In the 1960s, when he and his family started recycling materials to produce their products, consumers had not yet begun to appreciate the importance of recycling, so the company didn’t indicate on the packaging that recycled materials had been used. “He believed very strongly in recycling when no one else did,” said Paul Bannerman, who worked closely with Mr. Lemaire for more than 30 years.
Mr. Lemaire was also a staunch Quebecker. “He was very anxious to prove that there could be a francophone in the pulp and paper business,” Mr. Bannerman said. “He was interested in creating jobs for Quebeckers.” When Mr. Lemaire started, the pulp and paper business was – with the exception of Rolland Paper – dominated by American, British, and English-Canadian-run firms such as International Paper, Consolidated Bathurst and Anglo-Canadian. Mr. Lemaire became a legend in Quebec. When he died, it was a bulletin on French-language news stations and a front-page story in the province’s newspapers.
Mr. Lemaire, who never forgot his humble roots, believed strongly in profit sharing and in having an open relationship with his employees. His door was always open, and when he went to France, which traditionally had stiffer corporate hierarchies, he insisted the doors be taken off the managers’ offices.
“Bernard was an exceptional man, a larger-than-life character. Visionary, generous and charismatic, he convinced countless people and communities to participate in a huge project, the project of his life: Cascades. His career embodies the emergence of a francophone Quebec that is proud of its roots. Our big brother was a great man,” his brothers, Laurent and Alain Lemaire, said in a statement.
The company produces everything from paper towels to tissues, most of it for large retailers who sell it as their own brands. Its biggest business is making material for cardboard boxes and food containers.
Bernard Lemaire was born in May 6, 1936 in Drummondville, Que., a city about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. He was one of five children born to Bernadette and Antonio Lemaire, who collected garbage. Mr. Lemaire told a colleague he remembered when a banker came to the family house threatening to seize the property. His parents broke down in tears. Mr. Lemaire said he decided then he would never be at the mercy of a bank, and that is how he ran his businesses for the rest of his life.
Antonio Lemaire noticed a lot of material in the garbage he collected, such as paper, that could easily be recycled. During this period, Bernard was studying engineering at the University of Sherbrooke and McGill University. In 1960, Bernard and his father started a small business recycling materials, from bottles to waste paper and especially cardboard. Their company, Drummond Pulp and Fibre, had no business plan at first but soon began growing.
Four years later the company bought an abandoned pulp and paper mill in Kingsey Falls, Que. The plant started making paper from recycled fibre. They hired the old workers back, but the plant couldn’t sell its output at a profit.
“I began to understand why the plant was closed,” Bernard Lemaire told Globe and Mail reporter Harvey Enchin in 1985. Mr. Lemaire bought three books on papermaking, taught himself the techniques and worked day and night, sometimes sleeping beside the paper machines, until the plant turned a profit two years later.
They renamed the company Cascades and his brother Laurent and later Alain joined the family business. Its headquarters are still in Kingsey Falls, a town of 2,200, where it employs 1,100 people. Bernard was its chief executive officer for almost 30 years.
“He took a very small family business that was basically collecting garbage in Drummondville, and he turned it into a business that was based on sustainable development before anybody had even heard those words. He is a pioneer in that area,” said Robert Hall, chief of legal affairs and strategy at Cascades. “Cascades has always made their products with recycled paper. Even their paper mills were made of recycled assets; he would find derelict paper mills, take them apart, bring them to Kingsey Falls or elsewhere, and build them, and they are all still making money.”
Mr. Hall gave the example of a dramatic trip by Mr. Lemaire to take apart an abandoned paper mill in New Jersey and bring it back to Kingsey Falls in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
“He went down there with his team, and they took it apart, and they had to work quickly because they only had eight hours to work because when the tide came in, it was flooded. They numbered all the pieces, brought it back to Kingsey Falls, and put it all back together again; today, it still makes incredible profits.”
Mr. Lemaire was proud of his hands-on skills.
“Taking used and outdated equipment and making it run better by adding the right addition is what I’m good at and what I like to do,” he told the Pulp and Paper Journal, a trade magazine.
Bernard Lemaire was a bold businessman. In the mid-1980s, he bought five mills in three different countries: France, Belgium, and Sweden. Those particular mills made what is called boxboard, which is used in packaging such as cereal boxes. His specialty was buying mills that were in trouble and rebuilding them. Mr. Bannerman travelled the world with Mr. Lemaire and for many years ran the company’s French sales operations from an office in Paris. He guesses he crossed the Atlantic a hundred times or more over a five-year period.
During that time, Mr. Lemaire also bought two paper mills from the French government, which wanted to unload them at any price after spending hundreds of millions of francs to keep them going. He bought those plants in partnership with François Pinault, one of the richest men in France, who was also a close associate of President Jacques Chirac.
Mr. Bannerman said that Mr. Lemaire was an intensely curious person, always reading and studying. “When we were about to buy the mill in Sweden, Bernard wondered what it would be like to run a business that operated in a language other than English or French.”
Many businesspeople start negotiations by making an offer and then waiting to hear what the counteroffer might be. Mr. Lemaire was direct, a product of his early lessons in avoiding debt. He didn’t like small talk. A dramatic example was a mill owned by the American corporate giant ITT in Port Cartier, Que., on the Gulf of St. Lawrence that had been built for $500-million. Mr. Bannerman remembers being in the room in Stamford, Conn., when Mr. Lemaire made his offer.
“He told them all he could pay was $5-million. The company president asked if we could leave him alone with his team, and we left the room. I told Bernard they were probably going to throw us out. It’s lucky we’re only on the second floor. Then the president came back and said, `We’ll take your price.’ It was quite a coup. That was how Bernard did things,” Mr. Bannerman said.
Mr. Lemaire was showered with awards. When he was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1987, during his three-decade tenure as president of Cascades, the citation read: “This dynamic businessman has taken up the challenge of acquiring failing companies and transforming them into profitable enterprises. … He has won for his company an enviable place in the world of business and made it competitive in international markets.”
He was also an officer of the Ordre national du Québec, and France made him a knight of the Légion d’honneur in 2002 for his work in the French paper business. He received honorary doctorates from three Quebec universities. Mr. Lemaire played golf, enjoyed hunting, and loved cars, including a Ferrari which he eventually had to sell because it became too much for him. He switched to a Bentley.
After turning over the presidency of Cascades to his brother Laurent in 1992, Bernard created Boralex Inc., which has become a leader in the development of sustainable energy through wind farms, solar parks and hydroelectric power plants. Operating in Canada and France, it has an installed capacity of over 3000 MW.
Mr. Lemaire leaves his spouse, Irène Godbout; his siblings Laurent, Alain and Marielle; three children, Patrick, Sylvie and Richard; the mother of his children, France Lamoureux; seven grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and extended family. His sister Madeleine predeceased him.
This year, Corporate Knights ranked Cascades 20th in its list of the world’s 100 most sustainable corporations. it was the fourth consecutive year that the company was on the list. It had sales of close to $5-billion in its latest year.
Reflecting on Mr. Lemaire’s legacy, Mr. Charest said, “A whole new generation of Quebeckers could see themselves in Bernard Lemaire. He and his brothers changed Quebec and Canada. He will never be forgotten.”