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Cogeco CEO Louise St-Pierre

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

It's Friday and Louise St-Pierre is in the mood for a little indulgence. In a break from tradition, the CEO of Cogeco Cable Canada had decided to swap her usual chicken or shrimp for steak in her salad.

"I always go for salad," she says with a grin. "Bon appétit!" she adds, when our food arrives.

Ms. St-Pierre's lunch order aligns with her approach to life. She's diligent about her routine – waking at 4 a.m. every work day and arriving at the office no later than 6:30 – but she's also serious about taking time to enjoy.

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"Getting up early is my way of being on my own and getting my day organized," she says. But she rarely works on weekends and schedules regular Sunday dinners with her three adult children. "They know that 5 p.m. is cocktail hour and my husband will open a very good bottle of wine."

Over large salads at Milestones in Oakville, Ont. – the chain restaurant is close to the office and Ms. St-Pierre often brings her team here – the Montreal native does not play down the hard work that helped her climb to the upper ranks of the Canadian telecom industry.

Ms. St-Pierre, who turned 60 in October, married at the age of 31. She had her first daughter at 32, a second girl at 34 and a son at 37. "In those days, you stopped working two weeks before you gave birth and came back after three months," she recalls. "You were still breastfeeding and back to work."

"When I went back to work after having my son, I said 'Okay, that's it. I have a nanny, we're organized, we're structured, let's go,'" she says of her decision to focus on advancing her career.

Armed with a degree in finance and marketing from McGill University in 1978, she took on engineering as well as sales and marketing jobs, first with IBM and later with IT consulting firm DMR, winning increasingly senior positions and landing at Cogeco in 1999 as chief information officer.

Ms. St-Pierre's husband, Jocelyn Lévesque, has a master's degree in computer science and worked as an IT consultant before he retired almost 10 years ago. "At one point, we agreed that my career was going really well," she says. "So he was taking care of the kids and doing a lot at home to give me the time to attend meetings and network. You have to network – you have to get out and socialize."

When Ms. St-Pierre was promoted to head of Cogeco's Ontario operations in 2007, Mr. Lévesque stayed home with the family in Montreal while she spent several nights every week in Burlington, where the company has its Ontario headquarters. (Cogeco serves residential cable, Internet and home telephone customers in parts of Ontario and Quebec, and Ms. St-Pierre is responsible for close to two million subscribers.)

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"When I give speeches, I tell women, 'Pick the right husband. Don't marry someone who doesn't promote and respect your career. Get out of that relationship. If you marry a guy who's not proud of your success, how are you going to succeed?' "

Today, Ms. St-Pierre makes a point of recognizing talented women and giving them more responsibility and says that 50 per cent of her vice-presidents are female. "I think it's part of my role to make sure that I build that succession plan."

Once or twice a year, she meets for dinner with a group of other women who have climbed to the top of corporate ranks in Quebec, a tradition she says was started by Françoise Bertrand, the former chairwoman of Quebecor Inc. and past president and CEO of Télé-Québec.

When I ask if she sees something in Quebec culture that sparked a certain ambition in herself and her peers, she replies, "I think we were so managed by the Catholic church when we were little, and now it's not present at all. It's like we're taking control of our lives and we're pushing, pushing."

As Ms. St-Pierre was winning increasingly senior roles within Cogeco's Canadian business, the parent company made an ill-fated foray into Europe. It purchased Portuguese cable operator Cabovisao for $658-million in 2006 and sold it for $59-million in 2012, staging a retreat after struggling with subscriber growth amid the global recession and subsequent European debt crisis.

Only a few months later, Louis Audet, president and chief executive officer of family-controlled Cogeco, announced he was embarking on a U.S. expansion with a $1.36-billion deal to buy Quincy, Mass.-headquartered Atlantic Broadband. Cogeco has since added to its U.S. operations with a $200-million (U.S.) acquisition this year and has also consolidated its business-focused services into one enterprise division, Cogeco Peer 1.

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"After the American purchase, it was way too much for Louis," Ms. St-Pierre recalls, explaining why Mr. Audet asked her to run the company's Canadian cable operations in August, 2013, while he remains at the helm of the overall holding company, Cogeco Cable Inc.

For his part, Mr. Audet calls Ms. St-Pierre an "agent of change." In a letter of recommendation nominating her for the Women's Executive Network's 2015 top 100 list of Canada's Most Powerful Women – a distinction she accepted last month – he wrote, "[Her] arrival at Cogeco inspired a new perspective across the organization, shifting the focus firmly onto our customers."

By the time she took over at Cogeco Cable Canada, the fundamentals of the cable-television business were already shifting and greater attention to what customers actually want was increasingly crucial. After steadily adding new subscribers for years, growth was slowing and Cogeco began to report year-over-year decreases in total television customers starting in 2012.

Cable companies were under pressure from online video-streaming services, such as Netflix Inc., as well as Internet protocol television (IPTV) offerings from telephone companies. Those offerings enticed customers with advanced PVR (personal video recorder) functions and interoperability between the TV set and smartphones and tablets.

Like other cable operators around the world, Cogeco investigated moving to an IPTV platform of its own, but the technology shift is challenging and the company ended up writing off a $32-million investment last year. After the lead of its U.S. subsidiary, Cogeco instead started offering the TiVo PVR service, beginning with Ontario customers late last year and expanding to Quebec clients in March.

The company recently reported that it lost 9,619 cable-television customers in Canada in its fiscal fourth quarter, an improvement over the 10,666 it shed in the same quarter last year. Overall, Cogeco lost almost 32,000 TV subscribers in 2015, also better than the close to 38,000 it lost in 2014.

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"This is very nice and it's something we haven't seen since early 2013," Ms. St-Pierre says. "We can see the stickiness because we're the only one offering TiVo in Canada."

Cogeco is also working on its strategy for the "pick-and-pay" regulatory regime that will let customers choose, by the end of next year, which individual television channels they want to subscribe to. It's already well under way in Quebec, where an à la carte model has been common for some time, and Ms. St-Pierre says while the company is still crafting its approach for Ontario, it isn't resisting the move.

"You can't fight it. This is the way consumers are going. People want over-the-top [streaming services such as Netflix], they want flexibility. The risk is that they're going to completely leave us. … So, frankly, I think it's pretty important that we move in that direction."

She believes Cogeco must sell its services based on technology, emphasizing that it is no longer just a copper wire into the home but a distributor of content, whether through its television products or over high-speed Internet.

"One of the first things I did when I became president was build a product development team," she says. "It belongs to the marketing division. Engineering designs the product but marketing comes up with the proposition and they work hand in hand."

Strong product design is something she tries to inspire in some small part through her wardrobe choices, she says, explaining, "You set the tone for your employees. I think it's important to have beautiful clothes – it doesn't have to be expensive, but I want my people to think about beautiful design, the full package, how to make things nicer for customers."

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When we meet, Ms. St-Pierre, who is slim and short, is wearing a navy blue skirt suit and scarf, but says she often makes an effort to wear bright, bold colours.

And while she does care about style, she takes a pragmatic, "get it done" approach to getting dressed. "I don't shop any more; I have a stylist. She comes once a year to look through my wardrobe – she'll say 'That's out of fashion … that's too worn' – and she shops for me. She knows what I like."

"Frankly, I'm saving time and saving money. … I like shopping with my daughters, but not for me," Ms. St-Pierre says.

"Life is short. When you have kids, you have a span of five to 10 years where you can travel with them," she adds, recalling extended summer vacations in Europe when her children were younger. "You have to enjoy while they are with you."

 

Background

Age: 60

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Place of birth: Montreal, where she still lives, but commutes often to Cogeco Canada's Ontario headquarters in Burlington.

Education: Graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree in finance and marketing from McGill University in 1978

Distinctions: Included in the Women's Executive Network's 2015 top 100 list of Canada's Most Powerful Women in the corporate executives category

Family: Married to Jocelyn Lévesque for almost 30 years. They have three grown children: Justine, Constance and Victor.

How she wakes up in the morning: After rising at 4 a.m., she scans the news and her e-mails and squeezes in some yoga, following an app on her iPad, before eating breakfast and heading to work by 6:30 a.m.

Favourite winter activity: Skiing at Le Massif de Charlevoix. Ms. St-Pierre and her husband have a cottage nearby. In the summer, Mr. Lévesque, an avid sailor, takes his sailboat out on the St. Lawrence River.

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