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Power Corporation's Paul Desmarais Sr. (right) walks to the company's annual meeting in Montreal, Wednesday, May 12, 2004 along with former federal cabinet minister Don Mazankowskiower Corporation's Paul Desmarais Sr. (right) walks to the company's annual meeting in Montreal, Wednesday, May 12, 2004 along with former federal cabinet minister Don MazankowskiIAN BARRETT/The Canadian Press

Paul Desmarais, the chairman of the executive committee of Power Corp. of Canada, one of Canada's biggest financial conglomerates, passed away last night at his Charlevoix domain. He was 86.

Mr. Desmarais remained the controlling shareholder of Power Corp. even though he handed over the reins of the company in 1996 to his two sons, Paul Desmarais Jr. and André Desmarais.

The Sudbury-born francophone who studied commerce at the University of Ottawa got into business with a bus company. He built a financial empire whose assets under management reached $527-billion at the end of 2012. He took control of Power Corp. in 1968, at which time it was a Montreal public utilities company.

"You couldn't help being inspired by working with Mr. Desmarais," said chief executive officer Jeffrey Orr of subsidiary Power Financial Corp.

"Everybody across Power is sensing that and talking about that this morning: How privileged they were to be around him."

Power is better known for its insurance and investment subsidiaries: Great West Lifeco, London Life, Investors Group, Mackenzie Financial and Putnam Investments. Power Corp. and its subsidiaries employ 30,000 people in North America.

But the company's investments also span Europe and Asia. In Europe, Mr. Desmarais partnered with Belgian businessman Albert Frère to launch Parjointco, a holding company that controls Pargesa Group, a Geneva-based company that holds significant positions in a number of European multinationals through the Groupe Bruxelles-Lambert. Among them are minerals processor Imerys, building materials giant Lafarge, energy firm Total SA, GDF Suez, Pernod Ricard and SGS.

They did many deals in Europe together over the span of three decades.

"Both Albert Frère and Paul Desmarais Sr. were self-made men," said Gérald Frère, chairman of Brussels-based Groupe Bruxelles Lambert SA and son of Albert Frère.

"They both wanted the partnership to outlast them and it will, as it is being extended to 2029 next year," he said. Albert Frère, who began as a trader in steel and scrap metal, is 87.

"His qualities as a businessman aside, what strikes me about Paul Desmarais is that he remained profoundly human because he knew human nature."

Over the years, Mr. Desmarais carved a place for himself in the exclusive world of European high finance. The partnership with Mr. Frère began in the early 1980s, with an initial small investment in an investment bank. Power Financial Corp. and the Frère family have interests in a variety of companies through Parjointco.

Mr. Desmarais' influence also extended to Asia. He visited China in the late seventies, and he held close ties with a number of Chinese leaders he visited or entertained throughout the years. As such, he was viewed as one of the Canadians who had the most guanxi, or the best connections, in the Middle Kingdom. Power has made most of its Chinese investments through Citic Pacific Ltd., a Hong Kong-listed holding that has invested in mining, in manufacturing and in real estate in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Australia. The Montreal-based company currently owns 4.3 per cent of Citic.

"Paul Desmarais understood the importance of China before even Chinese leaders were convinced that economic reform would lead to a better future. He understood the necessity of building long-term, trusted relationships with partners in China, not just for his own commercial interests, but for the larger ecosystem of Canada-China business relations," said Yuen Pau Woo, president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

But as Mr. Desmarais built a fortune of $4.5-billion according to Forbes Magazine, which ranks him the fourth richest Canadian, the businessman also knew some setbacks. In 1987, Power Corp. failed to acquire Teleglobe, the state-owned telecommunications company that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney privatized. The owner of the La Presse Montreal newspaper was also prevented from buying Télé-Métropole, the ancestor of the TVA television network, because authorities feared excessive media concentration.

Mr. Orr, who has been with Power for 12 years, said he first met Mr. Desmarais in his 20s when he was a junior member of a team working on a deal with him, more than 30 years ago, at Bay Street brokerage Nesbitt Thomson.

"I was not a senior member by any means and I remember him turning and looking me in the eye and saying, 'Well, what do you think of it?.' I was kind of in shock that he would even ask me for my opinion."

Mr. Orr said Mr. Desmarais's lasting legacy is the way he was able to contribute not only to business but also to the community at large as a major philanthropist while remaining a committed family man.

"You see people who excel in business, or giving or family. He combined it all. He had all three dimensions going for him."

Asked about old stories that Mr. Desmarais always felt slighted as an outsider by the power brokers of Bay Street, Mr. Orr replied: "Those thoughts were thoughts from back in the very early days when he tried to take over Argus Corp. [in 1975] and Bay Street rallied around to prevent it."

That was a long time ago and for decades now Mr. Desmarais has "had every door on Bay Street open to him," said Mr. Orr.

About Mr. Desmarais' feelings for Canada: "He had a genuine and heartfelt and very deep caring for Canada."

On the political scene, Mr. Desmarais was a staunch federalist. The businessman was vocal in his love for Canada and his opposition to the separation of Quebec during the referendums of 1980 and of 1995. His son André is married to France Chrétien, daughter of Jean and Aline Chrétien.

Quebec's political parties joined in unison to praise Mr. Desmarais's contribution to his adoptive province. "Mr. Desmarais is a great builder," Premier Pauline Marois told reporters in Quebec City. "He contributed to moving Quebec forward economically in many ways."

Speaking for the Liberals, MNA Julie Boulet called Mr. Desmarais "a model and source of inspiration for all of us in Quebec." François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, said Mr. Desmarais's success in business provided an example to Quebeckers. "With work, determination, know-how and boldness, you can succeed in Quebec," he said.

Mr. Desmarais and his wife Jacqueline Maranger entertained Canadian prime ministers and world leaders such as George Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy and Helmut Schmidt at his sprawling domain in the Charlevoix region.

But his behind-the-scene influence and his federalist stance made him the target of sharp criticism in Quebec, especially in the rival Journal de Montréal newspaper owned by Quebecor, which ran a great number of articles on his companies and on his Sagard domain, which became a household name. Mr. Desmarais never responded to those critics and has been largely absent from the public eye in recent years.

Mr. Desmarais is also the father of Louise and Sophie. A private family funeral is to be held in the coming days, to be followed by a memorial service at a later date.

With files from Nathan VanderKlippe