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The Globe and Mail

Hardware dealer Rona hires its Mr. Fix-It

Robert Sawyer reportedly agonized over his decision to leave Metro Inc., his employer for the past 33 years, but he didn't hesitate for long. And it is easy to understand why he is joining Rona Inc.

Since he started working for Metro in 1979, as the director of a fruit and vegetable warehouse, Mr. Sawyer landed just about every job, as he rose through the ranks of the Quebec grocer. But the corner office eluded him when Pierre Lessard announced he was leaving Metro's presidency in the fall of 2007, even though Mr. Sawyer was viewed as one of the top three contenders.

At 59, Mr. Sawyer was unlikely to succeed Eric Richer La Flèche. Metro's current CEO is nine years younger than he is.

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Moreover, Metro is now forced into the defensive role of protecting the Quebec market, on which this retailer built its remarkable success, from the latest forays from Wal-Mart Canada and Target. Rona, on the other hand, can only get better. The acquisition spree that was led by predecessor Robert Dutton left Canada's top hardware retailer and distributor in a mess, with profit margins falling for six years straight. As emotional as Mr. Sawyer's decision was, taking on this challenge was a no-brainer.

Rona had an unusually difficult time finding a new CEO after its board ousted Mr. Dutton in November. The Boucherville, Que.,-based company faced an investor revolt after it rebuffed an unsolicited $1.8-billion takeover proposal from American hardware chain Lowe's Cos. Inc. This threat was dispelled when the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec, Rona's most important shareholder, tapped a turnaround expert, Robert Chevrier, as the new chairman of Rona's board.

Yet, as Mr. Chevrier was intent on finding a seasoned operator who could speak French, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Rona would end up poaching a high-level executive from another Quebec Inc. company. Robert Coallier, the former CFO of Dollarama and of Molson Coors Brewing Co., was high on the wish list but had just landed the presidency of the Agropur Cooperative, for instance. Mr. Sawyer, on the other hand, had been waiting for his turn for a long time.

Asked about Mr. Sawyer, Mr. Chevrier was ecstatic. "He is a man of action who will take decisions without tripping over the flowers in the carpet. He just gets things done," he said in a phone interview.

Metro put a brave face on the situation, but clearly took a hit with this second high-level departure in a year. Food giant George Weston Ltd. hired Richard Dufresne, Metro's chief financial officer, as its new chief financial officer in February, 2012.

From the outside, it is hard to assess Mr. Sawyer's importance. He worked in the shadows of Mr. Lessard and Mr. La Flèche, and you would be hard pressed to find a newspaper profile of Metro's No. 2 man. But company insiders depict an executive who played a crucial role at the Quebec retailer.

While his Metro colleagues boast diplomas from Harvard or Cornell, Mr. Sawyer never attended university. He started working at Steinberg's at age 16, and he knows everything there is to know about the grocery business, first hand. This intimate knowledge, coupled with his ability to speak the plain and direct language of the independent store operators, earned him high respect within Metro's supermarket networks.

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"His tremendous command of operations and his charismatic leadership have given him a cult-like following at Metro. People would die fighting for this guy," one insider said.

Within Metro, Mr. Sawyer was the fireman who extinguished fires before they spread out of control. In 2007, for instance, he was asked to head the Ontario market when problems with the implementation of new computer systems started denting profit after the acquisition of A&P Canada. "People in Ontario were skeptical about this Montreal head office guy, but within five minutes, they were mesmerized," he said, adding that all the issues were resolved within a year.

Mr. Sawyer will move his toolbox from Metro to Rona on April 8. As a Mr. Fix-It, Mr. Sawyer will have his work cut out for him. Canada's biggest hardware retailer is retreating from Ontario and its unprofitable big box stores to concentrate on Quebec and on its distribution businesses.

On the face of it, working for a company that is now shedding businesses would appear different than working for a retailer that is always on the lookout for acquisitions, as is the case with Metro. But at the store level, an operating problem is just a problem waiting to be fixed.

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