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the lunch

The chief executive officer and co-founder of Canada's biggest tour operator dislikes travelling and is not a fan of flying. He doesn't drive, either.

But Jean-Marc Eustache hasn't let his homebody leanings stop him from turning Transat A.T. Inc. into a global player in the tourism business, with sights set on expanding further in the United States and Latin America.

A Quebec student organizer back in the late sixties and early seventies, Mr. Eustache's entrepreneurial drive soon trumped political agitation and he ended up building, with two partners, what is now a wholesale vacation packager that also owns or franchises about 500 travel agencies throughout Canada, runs a charter airline – Air Transat – and has a 35-per-cent interest in a joint venture with Spanish chain H10 Hotels that manages six hotels in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

Mr. Eustache chuckles as we discuss the latest wave of student protests over university tuition in Quebec, savouring the irony that he – a former rabble-rouser at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) – now occupies the venerable position of chairman of the fund-raising foundation at his alma mater.

Transat's 67-year-old chairman, president and CEO says he hasn't lost the hard-driving ethos he traces to his days as a teenager when he organized high-school dances and sugaring-off parties.

"I've always been in business," he says as an array of platters is laid out before us on the massive walnut boardroom table at corporate head office: cold cuts with wild pickles, Greek salad in a balsamic vinaigrette, grilled salmon with flying fish roe, Cajun-style chicken breast in Dijon mustard sauce, Quebec cheeses, fresh fruit and sweet caramel-crusted cake. The sixth-floor boardroom windows offer a commanding view of the city's mountain and greensward-flanked Park Avenue.

Mr. Eustache remembers deciding at the tender age of 14 to see to his financial needs – besides room and board at home – through various business ventures, such as event promotion, after quarrelling with his dad over allowance money. A self-described workaholic, he still puts in seven-day weeks, rising at 4 a.m. on weekdays to make tea and fire up a fat Havana cigar for a few hours of distraction-free prebreakfast work. He has no mobile phone or computer, preferring to pore over good old-fashioned printouts.

Although at the stage in his career when retirement or easing off might be appropriate – indeed, his two founding partners, Lina De Cesare and Philippe Sureau, took their leave in 2009, although they remain on the board and are advisers to Mr. Eustache – he has chosen to delay his departure to oversee a three-year strategic plan that includes a $100-million cost reduction and margin improvement program, a major rebranding effort, a streamlining of the corporate web presence and a big push onto mobile device platforms.

"It's not a job. It's my life," says Mr. Eustache – his napkin worn bib-like, tucked into one of the gaps between the buttons of his pink-striped shirt; he retains a continental French accent even though he's lived in Quebec ever since coming over in 1957 at the age of 9 from his native Algeria with his French father, a civil engineer, and his stepmother, a Quebecker, as the violence escalated in the bloody Algerian War of Independence.

Associates say that one of Mr. Eustache's special qualities is his ability to motivate those around him. "He's a natural leader with vision," Mr. Sureau explains. "He's had many good ideas; his first very good one being vertical integration."

In Transat's early days, Mr. Eustache ripped a page from the European leisure travel playbook, popularizing the now ubiquitous all-inclusive package to sun destinations but also adding tours to and from Europe.

Notorious for his finicky reading of every line and statistic of each document crossing his desk as well as for a phenomenal memory, Mr. Eustache is a detail man sans pareil, Mr. Sureau says. "He would tell you: I'm not very smart but I'm hard working. It's clear that you can't put one over on Jean-Marc by – let's say – telling him something was taken care of when in fact it was not."

One heavily publicized event Mr. Eustache would rather forget is the near-tragic 2001 incident when Air Transat pilot Robert Piché brought his Airbus, carrying about 300 people, to a safe but spine-chilling landing in the Azores Islands after the Lisbon-bound plane ran out of fuel. "I prefer doing without that kind of publicity," he says curtly.

Less than a month later came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The fallout led Transat to lay off 25 per cent of its staff and cut capacity by 30 per cent.

Yet another setback was the loss of about $30-million in the 2007 asset-backed commercial paper fiasco. Transat bought the securities on the advice of National Bank of Canada. Transat not only survived all the bad press and disasters but went on to thrive while other players in the sector fell by the wayside. Mr. Eustache says he has seen about 40 companies go under in his 37 years in the business. There are not enough barriers to entry, in part because of ridiculously easy financing terms for $80-million planes, he believes. Three low-cost carriers are currently launching out West, he exclaims. "Three!"

Transat went public in 1987 with an $8.25-million initial public offering after it lost its supply of planes when privatized provincial carrier Quebecair's charter operations were gobbled up by Nationair and the new owner refused to do business with Transat. The company was rebuffed by other operators, so it decided to launch its own air charter unit. It also went shopping over the years, buying up rivals in a series of smart acquisitions.

Mr. Eustache embarked on his unplanned career path in 1977 working for the Montreal-based co-operative Tourbec, an agency catering to students and young people seeking budget-conscious travel options. When Tourbec shut down in 1978, Mr. Eustache, with colleague Mr. Sureau, took it over; Ms. De Cesare joined them in 1980.The name later became Trafic Voyages and then, coinciding with the IPO, Transat. At one point, their modest office space was located above a Dunkin' Donuts shop. "It smelled like doughnuts in there. It was something else," Mr. Eustache laughs. Also part of the team was François Legault, who left suddenly in 1997 and went on to become a Parti Québécois minister and then co-founded a new centre-right, provincial political party.

A 2006 deal to acquire Thomas Cook's 190-branch Canadian travel agency network swelled Transat's size. Current rivals include Sunwing Vacations, WestJet Vacations and Air Canada's Rouge.

Mr. Eustache's pet peeve is the lack of discipline in the industry, with too many seats chasing too few passengers. "It's been 30 years that I've been seeing this and it has never changed and – unfortunately – I don't think it will ever change, at least not in Canada."

He is not concerned by the debt consumers are accumulating and the possibility people will cut back on treats, like vacations. It's too firmly ingrained now as a kind of entitlement, he believes. "It's become a habit of consumption." And the cost of travel is cheaper than it was 10 years ago, he adds. Not to mention that inhabitants of subzero countries such as Canada will always crave a sunny respite from the snow.

To fuel growth, the Chinese vacation market represents huge potential. But the priority for now is to extend Transat's tour operator territory into the United States, Mexico and even South America. "To venture into China you have to find the right partner," Mr. Eustache says.

He is a true child of Quebec's Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: He was in one of the early graduating cohorts at UQAM, created in 1969 by the provincial government in a sweeping educational reform aimed in part at making postsecondary studies more accessible to French-speaking Quebeckers. And his company benefited from the controversial Quebec Stock Savings Plan, created by then-finance minister Jacques Parizeau in 1979 to encourage Quebec companies to raise capital on the stock market by offering generous tax benefits to investors.

"Thank God for having had the QSSP in those days," Mr. Eustache says, although he allows that the program encouraged some poorly suited companies to go public, the result being several duds on the stock exchange. Among the successful, high-profile homegrown businesses besides Transat that benefited from the QSSP, Mr. Eustache cites global IT services provider CGI Group Inc., printer-publisher Transcontinental Inc. and steel components maker Canam Manac Group Inc. (now Canam Group Inc.).

Ms. De Cesare marvels at how high Transat has soared: "I've always been amazed at everything we achieved." One reason for the venture's success is Mr. Eustache's determination as well as his talent for rallying people, says Ms. De Cesare, who has a country retreat near Mr. Eustache's in the Eastern Townships and enjoys taking country walks with him and their dogs. Still, board meetings can at times be boisterous, she says. "There are vigorous exchanges."

He maintains the same high energy levels he did in the early days, she adds.

The CEO himself acknowledges he isn't going to stick around forever: "Clearly [my departure] won't be in 10 years. I won't stay until I'm 77."

A formal succession plan has been adopted and a development program for internal candidates is in place. "The shareholders can throw me out whenever they want. The day I am seen to be no longer doing my job, please be kind and tell me."

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Jean-Marc Eustache, CEO, Transat A.T.

Age: 67

Place of birth: Oran, Algeria; moved to Quebec at the age 9.

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in economics, Université du Québec à Montréal, '74.

Family: His partner, Martine Dauvet.

Book: None; he prefers to read newspapers, magazines.

Favourite vacation spot: His country house in West Bolton, Que.

Ideal lunch mates: Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel.

Wines: Bordeaux, Tuscany.

Music: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.

Pastime: Hobby farm that includes lambs, Malayan peacock-pheasants, Indian runner ducks, two donkeys (Paco and Pedro).

Food: Italian, especially pasta.

Striking childhood memory: Being driven to school in buses seated next to armed soldiers during the Algerian War of Independence.

Quote: "I don't like travelling. It means I have to fly."

"Even though it's a public company, it's as though it were my company. It's like a family. When employees retire, I'm like a father who watches his son, his children leaving home."