With Pierre Karl Péladeau's expected coronation as Parti Québécois leader as early as Friday night, never have business and politics made such blatant bedfellows in Quebec. A Liberal cabinet minister even warned this week of the party's transformation into the "Parti Québecor."
Mr. Péladeau's controlling stake in Quebecor Inc. has been the elephant in the room throughout a PQ leadership race whose outcome has seemed a fait accompli from the start. His stature as a "successful" businessman and proprietor of one of Quebec's most esteemed brands has been Mr. Péladeau's main asset and liability, raising the prospect of endless conflicts of interest and second-guessing of his political motives.
Not that it would change anything – the PQ rank and file seem too taken with PKP to care – but it's worth asking whether Mr. Péladeau truly possesses the business acumen he is widely credited with in Quebec and what his switch to politics means for the company he controls.
The closest Quebeckers came to debating his legacy as CEO came in late March, when Quebec businessman Mitch Garber criticized Quebecor's "very bad performance" during an interview on the province's top-rated television talk show. But the debate Mr. Garber started had no legs.
One reason was that his chosen benchmark – comparing Quebecor's stock-market performance against those of telecom rivals BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. – was the wrong one. When Mr. Péladeau officially became president and CEO in 1999, Quebecor was a diversified conglomerate with no telecom assets; as late as 2008, most of Quebecor's top-line revenues came from its printing division.
What's germane when debating Mr. Péladeau's record is that, between 1999 and his resignation as CEO in 2013 – he left Quebecor's board on entering politics in 2014 – Quebecor shrank from an $8-billion global corporation, with most of its business in the United States and Europe, into a regional player half that size, landlocked in slow-growing Quebec.
At his first annual meeting as CEO, Mr. Péladeau mused about adding U.S. newspapers to the Canadian titles owned by recently acquired Sun Media Corp.: "The natural evolution for [Sun] is to develop its activities internationally." A year later, he told shareholders: "I firmly believe that companies that do not have a global vision do not have a future."
But under Mr. Péladeau, Quebecor went local, not global. The overleveraged printing division was put into bankruptcy court protection in 2008.
Mr. Péladeau once sought to merge Sun Media with Postmedia Network Inc., only to watch his successor as CEO sell the Sun chain outright to Postmedia for a fraction of what the old boss paid for it in 1998.
Mr. Péladeau was in the right place at the right time when the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec came knocking, looking for a white knight to stymie Rogers's proposed 2000 takeover of Quebec cable giant Videotron Ltd. But it's worth noting that Mr. Péladeau was a notorious new-economy skeptic until then, ridiculing his brother's investments in digital startups. For all his considerable talent at cutting costs, he is not considered a visionary who anticipates the future before the competition.
One has to wonder what Quebecor would have become had Videotron not landed in its lap. The forestry and printing assets were dying businesses. Mr. Péladeau deserves credit for wringing operational efficiencies out of the bloated cable business and transforming it into a wireless contender, though he got considerable help from Ottawa with favourable (for non-incumbents) rules governing the sale of wireless spectrum.
Still, the factors that make Videotron a serious wireless player in Quebec – brand image, bundling ability and content galore from Quebecor's various French-language media properties – are of little use as it contemplates rolling out its business nationally. Outside Quebec, Videotron would likely be relegated to the least lucrative part of the wireless market – chasing low-ARPU (average revenue per user) bargain hunters – while Bell, Rogers and Telus cream off data-ravenous corporate users and sports fans who stream content insatiably. Mr. Péladeau's separatist convictions wouldn't exactly warm wireless customers to Videotron in the rest of Canada, either.
Videotron's wireless business still has room to grow in Quebec, but Quebecor is already suffering from being a big fish in a small pond. TVA and Le Journal de Montréal may dominate their respective markets, but conventional television and newspaper publishing are hardly growth industries. It's slow going in Videotron's cable business, too.
Quebecor's world got smaller under Mr. Péladeau. Would Quebec, too?