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Robert Card, the chief executive officer of SNC-Lavalin Group. (Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail)
Robert Card, the chief executive officer of SNC-Lavalin Group. (Anthony Jenkins for The Globe and Mail)


Lunch with Robert Card: The 'survivalist' charged with restoring SNC-Lavalin's reputation Add to ...

At a glance, it is easy to misjudge Robert Card, the CEO of SNC-Lavalin Group. An engineer with a slight frame, he is unassuming with his close-cut hair, dark blue suit and crisp white shirt that matches his all-American smile.

But that image is shattered long before our waiter inquires about coffee at Beaver Hall, a bustling French bistro close to the engineering firm’s Montreal headquarters. “I am a bit of a survivalist,” Mr. Card confides. That is an understatement.

A former undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, he has been practising archery since his parents gave him a bow and arrows at age 6. The antlers that crowd his home in the Denver suburb of Littleton attest to the skills he hones at the 50-metre range in his backyard and the 10-metre range in his basement. In the family room alone, there is a mounted red stag from New Zealand, a caribou, and a moose from Alaska whose story is as big as its rack.

It was almost dusk when Mr. Card shot that moose, which he and his wife had been tracking through the tundra thicket for two days. They and their guide had little time to carve off some meat and conceal the 700-kilogram beast, in the hope the bears would not feast on it. But on the rugged trek back to their tents, a wolf pack got a whiff of their backpacks and started to follow. The three turned around to a row of piercing eyes. Nancy Card fired her .44 Magnum over their heads, but the wolves barely blinked. “They followed us all the way back. It was pretty scary,” he says.

Most people’s survival instincts would tell them to pick up the satellite phone and get the first plane out of there. But Mr. Card and his wife went back for the carcass the following day. Little wonder the American executive took the top job at the embattled SNC-Lavalin: If there is a lion’s den, Mr. Card will walk into it.

“I’m an experience junkie, and it doesn’t get any better than this,” he says.

Mr. Card actually has some experience in a situation as explosive as SNC’s. From 1995 to 2001, he oversaw the decommissioning of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. The facility manufactured all of the triggers for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but ceased operations in 1989 after the FBI raided it for environmental violations. Afterwards, thousands of idle workers were kept on for years until someone figured out how to get rid of 21 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium.

“The place was totally dysfunctional,” recalls Nancy Tuor, former vice-chair and president of governmental division of CH2M Hill, who had known Mr. Card since 1984 and was invited by him to work on the Rocky Flats project.

The U.S. government projected it would take 70 years and $36-billion (U.S.) to dismantle the nuclear plant. Mr. Card brought together a dozen experts in a “skunk-work” group, and asked if the job could be done in five. They came back with a $7-billion, 10-year plan. He then sold it to the employees who were about to lose their jobs. But first, he gained their trust by suiting up in full protective gear and spending a day a week in the nuclear plant, figuring out how things worked.

“He is a forward thinker and would prefer not to get into the details. But if the task requires it, he will be right there on the floor,” Ms. Tuor says. “He is one of the most relentless people I have ever seen.”

The FBI raid, the anti-nuclear protests, the environmental concerns of the Colorado citizens, all made headline news across the country. “The Rocky Flats media coverage made what is happening to [SNC] look like small potatoes,” Mr. Card says.

Yet, one year into his new job, the SNC president is visibly exasperated with the attention the bribery scandal continues to draw. “Every time a new aspect pops out, it is reported as if it were a new event. … I’m not saying it shouldn’t be reported. I’m just saying it’s a challenge to run fast enough to keep up with it.”

And Robert Card can run. Three to four times a week, the 60-year-old executive cycles or jogs about six kilometres along the Lachine canal. Running is how he met his wife, who was an elite long-distance runner when they started dating in their early 20s. To stay slim, Mr. Card also counts his calories; he skips the appetizer and the dessert, and looks longingly at the crisp baguette on the table. He orders, in accented French, the grilled mahi-mahi served over a Romanesco cauliflower purée, which he washes down with water.

Restoring SNC’s reputation will take the endurance of a marathon. By December, Mr. Card hopes to finish the firm’s internal investigations into what he calls “high risk” countries and clients – “no stone is left unturned,” he says. But putting the controversy behind it will be a drawn-out process given the list of former executives who will undergo trials, including his predecessor, Pierre Duhaime.

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