Once the poultry puns ran out, last week's sale of St-Hubert Group, the cock-of-the-block rotisserie chicken chain, had Quebeckers worrying about a lot more than whether the restaurant's double leg or creamy coleslaw would ever taste as juicy again.
The $537-million purchase by Ontario-based Cara Operations Ltd. came the same day that Rona Inc. shareholders approved the Quebec-based home-renovation chain's $3.2-billion takeover by Lowe's Cos. Inc. of Mooresville, N.C., adding a pallet-load of two-by-fours to a fiery debate that has been raging in Quebec for months: Is Quebec Inc. a spent force?
The generation of visionary francophone business leaders that wrested control of the province's economy from the anglophone establishment decades ago is either dying off (a reality driven home by last week's death of Lavalin patriarch Bernard Lamarre) or reaching retirement age. St-Hubert owner Jean-Pierre Léger's decision to sell his iconic chain to an outsider, rather than pass the reins to his daughter or settle on a Quebec buyer, has once more raised questions about whether a new set of tools is needed to prevent a further hollowing-out of Quebec Inc.
Existing institutions, starting with the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, are increasingly seen as being unable or unwilling to play the gatekeeper role that prevented key businesses from falling into outside hands in the past. The Caisse, which manages investments for the Quebec Pension Plan and other provincial retirement regimes, is much more focused on global opportunities as it seeks the returns it needs to prepare for an onslaught of pensioners.
For former Rona chief executive officer Robert Dutton, that became painfully clear in 2012 when Lowe's first tabled a hostile bid for the Quebec chain. Speaking out for the first time last week, Mr. Dutton told Radio-Canada that Caisse chief Michael Sabia had always favoured Rona's sale, but was forced by then Liberal finance minister Raymond Bachand to block the Lowe's bid in 2012. Mr. Dutton's ouster and subsequent board changes, he said, were engineered by the Caisse to pave the way for a much richer bid by Lowe's, a premium made possible by a weak Canadian dollar.
Mr. Sabia has offered a different version of events. In 2012, the Caisse, which owned about 17 per cent of Rona, believed that the Quebec chain could still be a consolidator in the North American home-renovation sector if it boosted its competitiveness. By early 2016, that plan no longer seemed feasible. "Rona was improving, but it was still not well-positioned," Mr. Sabia said in February.
That made March 31, when the St-Hubert sale was announced and Rona shareholders voted to approve the Lowe's offer, a "dark day" in the history of Quebec Inc. Or at least that's what the tabloid Journal de Montréal called it, in giant letters on its front page, fuelling a round of opposition party recrimination toward the provincial Liberal government for its failure to intervene to prevent the sales.
Former top provincial bureaucrat and bank executive Louis Bernard has suggested amassing a public-private pool of capital that would act similar to a private equity fund to keep local firms, many which have no succession plans in place, in local hands. In St-Hubert's case, such a fund could have taken control of the chain as it groomed new managers and prepared for an initial public offering on the stock market.
Montreal's head office count has been declining relative to that of other Canadian cities in recent years, following the acquisitions by non-Quebec buyers of Alcan Inc., Cirque du Soleil, Provigo Inc. and others. Reports suggesting that Quebec companies bought more assets abroad than foreign companies bought in Quebec do not provide a complete portrait of the situation, since many transactions are private and real estate purchases inflate the numbers.
Meanwhile, players such as Quebecor Inc. and Jean Coutu Group Inc. that used to have continental or global ambitions have had retreated to the Quebec market. Bombardier Inc. and SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. have seen their stars burn out.
To be sure, there are still some bright lights. Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. is still a global consolidator in the convenience-store sector, as Saputo Inc. is in the dairy business. Dollarama is building a national empire one bargain-priced household item at a time. La Maison Simons is embarking on a gutsy cross-country expansion just as U.S. department-store giants invade Canada. WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff is helping Quebeckers forget about SNC-Lavalin's woes.
Still, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business's Entrepreneurial Communities index ranks Montreal dead last out of 121 cities when it comes to the best places to start and grow a business. It's not just because of an onerous tax and regulatory burden – the entrepreneurial energy, flare and confidence that characterized Quebec Inc. in the 1980s has waned.
Economic nationalism, which has a negative connotation in the context of protectionism, can be a positive force if it motivates a desire for success and risk-taking. Over six decades, a simple barbecue chicken chain proved that. That's why, for many Quebeckers, all those poultry puns leave a bitter taste.