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the lunch

Sophie Brochu, chief executive officer, Gaz MétroRachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

In a way, Sophie Brochu owes her career steering Quebec's $6-billion energy company Gaz Métro to a plain-talking fisherman in Digby, N.S.

Today, Ms. Brochu is one of Quebec Inc.'s brightest lights, a woman who turned a sleepy natural-gas distributor into an Eastern Canadian energy powerhouse with assets in electricity, wind power and biomethane. In the summer of 1985, however, she was a fresh-faced 21-year-old from Lévis, Que., when she was hired as a liaison agent for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Her job: Travel to Nova Scotia and explain to the local fishermen why Ottawa would soon implement a quota on cod, whose numbers were rapidly dwindling.

The Québecoise had just finished her first presentation to a group of about 30 men in the local church in Digby, and asked if there were any questions. One man raised his hand – Ms. Brochu remembers he had "brick-sized hands," like most of the other men – and lumbered slowly past the cluster of plaid jackets and sea-worn salopettes to the front of the room, where she stood.

He took the felt marker she was holding and began drawing a dotted line on the map she had brought to illustrate her points.

"He said: 'Do you know what this is?'" she recalls. "I said nope. And he said: 'Well, it's the international boundary of the waters.' And he drew little fish boats on the left, which was the Canadian side, and huge fish boats with the Japanese flag on the right side. And he said: 'Well, those darned fish don't know they're crossing the line. And they're going to get to Japan if they don't get to us.'"

The young woman stood stunned. No one in Ottawa had told her the Japanese fishing fleet was at such close proximity. No one had explained until now that it likely didn't matter whether the Canadian government introduced a quota for the cod; somebody would catch them anyway.

"I felt I was kept in the dark about something very important," Ms. Brochu remembers. She phoned her bosses and told them she felt she couldn't do the job they wanted her to do. Dog and boyfriend in tow, she decamped back to Quebec.

Reflecting about this now over lunch at Le Petit Bistro, an east-end Montreal eatery near Gaz Métro headquarters, she says she wasn't angry at her bosses. Rather, she was sad she wasn't told the whole story. "And I was sad for the people there, because I didn't know what could be done."

The takeaway is you want to know what you're getting into before you do it, she says.

The comments are quintessential Sophie Brochu: equal parts pragmatic, philosophical and altruistic. The meeting with the fishermen turned out to be what shaped the next 30 years of her life. It led directly to a job that same summer at Soquip, Quebec's now-defunct state oil and gas developer, and from there to Gaz Métro, where she's been chief executive for eight years, helming a doubling of assets to $6-billion as the gas company took over Vermont's two big electric utilities. It now has more customers in the United States than Canada.

The thing is, as Ms. Brochu observes, the stats on Gaz Métro, while impressive, really aren't interesting to the average person. We chuckle about the seemingly endless parade of executives who drone on about their companies during lunchtime speeches on Montreal's rubber-chicken speaking circuit, rattling off facts easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. And she tells me she hopes my story will be about her ideas, more than about her life or the company she works for.

She's attracted plenty of attention for those ideas already.

In a rare public undressing of one Canadian company by another, Ms. Brochu took to the podium at a lunch hosted by Montreal's Board of Trade late last year and dismantled TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East pipeline project, a proposal to pump 1.1 million barrels of Western Canadian crude a day eastward to Quebec and New Brunswick.

Her critique was all the more surprising because Gaz Métro buys gas from TransCanada. But Ms. Brochu isn't one for keeping up appearances, not when she believes her customers and her home province will be hurt.

Her main beef concerned pipeline capacity: TransCanada plans to convert part of an existing gas pipeline network to oil and build a gas conduit to supply Eastern Ontario and Quebec.

Ms. Brochu argued the new line's volume as proposed was completely inadequate to meet peak demand and future industrial growth in Quebec. And she said gas customers would be subsidizing the new oil conduit.

In the end, TransCanada relented, this week announcing a deal with Gaz Métro and Ontario's two natural-gas distributors, providing the gas capacity the distributors were seeking as well as a minimum $100-million rate benefit through 2050.

"I'm super happy with the result," Ms. Brochu said. "It's weird that we had to go through this process to reach an agreement that was so obvious to us at the beginning."

Ms. Brochu's dissection of Energy East's flaws earned her scorn in some quarters, particularly in Western Canada, where news headlines painted her as opposed to the project. In fact, she recognizes the need for the pipeline and the desire of Alberta producers to get their oil to tidewater. She just doesn't think it should come at the expense of eastern Canadian gas distributors and their clients.

"Some people said, 'You're either with us 100 per cent or against us.' I say that's a very bad way of thinking. We need a little nuance … I don't see it in black and white. And I'm convinced of one thing: That those large projects, be it oil and gas, or electricity, if you think about it as black and white, nothing will happen. [They won't move forward.]"

A trained economist, Ms. Brochu went public with her critique after more than a year of trying to negotiate something privately with TransCanada and other players. It was an effort to bring "everyone in the middle."

The experience underscores another view she holds: that decisions in the public interest about things like energy cannot be left to the board of directors of a private company. They have to be made, she says, from the bottom up, with the consumer and citizen as the starting point.

That's why she champions the idea of a national energy strategy – articulating the need for a pan-Canadian vision long before the provincial premiers made it a priority this summer. And it also plays into her belief that the world needs more "slow companies" – businesses that deliberately sacrifice maximum profit to build wider societal support for their activities.

To make her point, she tells a story about when she started in the gas business in 1987. At the time, gas was selling for a cheap 99 cents per gigajoule, and every oil and gas company in Western Canada had salespeople who made a point of knowing their clients in Quebec and Ontario by name.

When the futures market started around 1990, sales could be made on a screen and producers let those one-on-one relationships wither. Talking to customers became unnecessary.

Ten years later, with natural gas at a punishing $13 per gigajoule, it was left to buyers like Gaz Métro to explain to exasperated retail customers why the commodity had become so expensive. The Quebec utility did that and more. It implemented one of the industry's first efficiency programs to help clients consume less of the stuff it sold. At the time, people thought they were nuts. Today, such programs are commonplace.

"Do we need to extract the customer's last penny all the time? I personally believe not," says Ms. Brochu, winding her way back to a concluding thought on Energy East. "If you build an infrastructure of $12-billion [as TransCanada is proposing], I personally believe it's worth letting go a few basis points of profit to build a consensus."

The server takes away our plates of sweet-and-sour risotto and skate-wing fillet, mine empty, my companion's largely untouched. Ms. Brochu makes a point of thanking her and explaining that the food was great; she's just not big on lunch.

A former amateur actor who studied as a college student under renowned director Robert Lepage and others before she quit the craft ("You meet people who really are artists. And then you realize you're not"), Ms. Brochu gets approached a lot by political kingmakers to test her interest in running for office. Her answer is always no. She doesn't believe she has the required patience, she says. Besides, she insists she can do more for society in her current role and in the significant time she gives to charities like Ruelle de l'Avenir, which encourages students in Montreal's Centre-Sud and Hochelaga neighbourhoods (among Canada's poorest) to remain in school.

Still, she does have an opinion on the political landscape. Quebec, in particular, is going through a period of meaningful budgetary cutbacks, but she argues its leaders have been largely obsessed with the process without properly explaining the reward that lies at the end of the difficult journey.

"Everybody's focused on how we need to get there. But we forget what is there. What's there is that the children will go to school with a full stomach and the guy who's worked his whole life will not die in a hospital corridor. That's the beach, [the reward]. Talk to me about the beach. That's what's lacking."

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Sophie Brochu, president and CEO, Gaz Métro

Age: 52

Birthplace: Lévis, Que., where her parents' families ran a general store and a car dealership. "Both grandmothers played a key role."

Education: Economics, Université Laval.

Jobs: All experiences have been useful, she says, including her student job as a server at Pacini Italian restaurant in Quebec City. "I realized early on that everything is about customers' satisfaction. The pay at the end of each meal depended on it."

Immediate family: She met husband John Gallagher, now a TV producer, in college. "Love at first sight."

Sanctuary: Her garden in Bromont, Que., where she grows a variety of vegetables and other plants. "It's my chapel. It's a great place to be. A veggie patch is the best management lesson you can get by yourself."

Corporate boards: BCE Inc., Bell Canada, Bank of Montreal. "I'm personally not fond of quotas for women on boards or at the C-Suite. But I am for pushing companies to make sure they build out a truly diversified leadership pipeline well in advance of when they have a need. That is what will get us to parity."

Final quote: "Unfortunately, a good part of the population sees businesspeople as disconnected. But a company is just a sum of individuals like you and I. We're sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, cousins. Sometimes we are sad, mad, sick. We should not be shy to put up that real face. People want to connect to human beings, not to just a brunch of alpha women and males."