Jean-René Halde plays a pivotal role in the Canadian economy. He is president of the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), the federal financier of small and medium-sized companies and an institution that fills in some of the funding gaps left by conventional lenders. In the recent financial crisis, it served as what Mr. Halde calls "a shock absorber" in helping to ease capital markets back to near-normal functioning. Mr. Halde came to his job 4½ years ago not as a bureaucrat but a battle-scarred business veteran with a track record of both travails and triumphs.
As you approach a second term at the bank, do you have any thoughts on your legacy?
It is probably opening the bank to the importance of helping entrepreneurs understand the bigger picture. It means getting them to understand that, with globalization, there are very large forces at work, and making sure they build capacity to deal with the changing world. This is not just about issuing a cheque; it is also about providing advice so the entrepreneur knows how he or she is affected by what is happening around them.
Is leadership a big problem in Canadian small and medium-sized businesses?
A lot of people work in the business but they don't spend a lot of time working on the business. They are so involved in daily activity. We can help them stand back and every so often take a bigger-picture look of where the business stands in the overall context.
The other leadership issue is to get our entrepreneurs to achieve as much as they can achieve. One thing that concerns me is they slow down too early. They get happy. We're happy quite often when we are in the middle of the pack, when we should be striving to be the best, the biggest, the most innovative.
So we need to tell entrepreneurs to look at the big picture and really go for the winning - and not just an acceptable - solution.
Isn't this lack of striving a Canadian problem, not an American one?
I wish we could explain it and we can't - this DNA thing - but I think there is some truth in that concern.
Is it fear of failure?
Or maybe just the absence of enough risk taking. It's amazing the number of entrepreneurs who do well, but once they do well, they are just not prepared to risk it one more time. They become quite conservative and they will do well for themselves until they retire. And so the assumption is: Why take the extra risk? But, as a country, if too many people do this, we feel the impact.
Are you an entrepreneur?
I spent most of my career as a manager and it is only at the later stage that I put my own money at risk. So I am somewhere between an entrepreneur and a manager.
What the hardest lesson you've learned?
The need to make the tough calls early. We tend to delay the tough calls, looking for more information. But usually by the time you pull the trigger on something, you knew the answer some time before, and it is always a bit of time wasted. That may be about a person, an issue, the sale of a division - whatever.
When the Commons industry committee examined your BDC nomination in 2005, in the hearing you talked about a failed investment, Irwin Toy. Did its collapse in 2002 affect your perspective?
It's always a tough experience when something goes sideways. That was not what you were expecting, but you learn in those situations. So I can relate to entrepreneurs going through a tough patch.
I was pleased when I got to the bank and met with the special accounts group, those that deal with difficult situations. Their attitude in dealing with these accounts was very much: "Were they good managers? Did they have a good business plan?" And if they do, we're going to kind of keep helping them in writing another cheque to help them pull through. That's different than, "Let's take the safe approach and just exercise our rights and fold the business, and recover as much as we can."
So the BDC is willing to cut a little slack?
If we believe it is a good management, a good business plan and it is a temporary hiccup where we really understand the reasons - and if we can see it is temporary - we can support the business.
What other lessons did you learn at Irwin Toy?
I depended on the advice of some people, and I probably should have double-checked and triple-checked. It was a new industry for me and for others. We should have probably been more careful on some of the advice we got and moved more quickly when we saw some issues.
Are we intolerant of failure in this country?
I believe it goes both ways. People are seen as heroes very quickly when they probably are not as good as they are made out to be. Vice versa, they're seen as total zeroes overly quickly. We tend to build them up too much and shoot them down too fast.
As a Harvard MBA, do you feel that's a good entrepreneurial background, as opposed to managing from the gut?
I think [an MBA]teaches you things. But the danger for people who take too much schooling is they want to overanalyze. One of the things you learn as you get older is to trust your gut more often. The knowledge is often there but you can't rationally put it on a piece a paper. You are seeing a pattern in all the events taking place, which is telling you have to make a decision to go left or right. So I think you should listen to that gut, because there is more to it than most people say.
What's wrong with the state of venture capital in Canada?
In the 1990s, returns on venture capital were very good. But since the dot-com bubble burst, the returns have been abysmal. So you have a vicious circle, where technology companies can't get a profitable exit, which means the funds that invested in these companies are not getting good returns, which means they have a tough time attracting capital from pension funds. It's quite sad.
How do we break this circle?
We show that some of these businesses can be quite profitable and you can exit at a decent price, but that means staying with the firms a long time. It means taking them all the way to cash flow positive instead of exiting early.
Before you joined BDC, the bank was thought to be too easily swayed by political influence.
Since I've been at the BDC, there has been no influence of the kind you're talking about. So I assume everyone learned from that experience.
TITLE: President, Business Development Bank of Canada, Montreal.
Born: April 15, 1948, in Montreal
Education: 1969, MA, economics, University of Western Ontario; 1972, MBA, Harvard Business School
Career highlights: 1979: at 31, CEO of grocery wholesaler Métro-Richelieu Inc.
1984 to 1987: Ran electronics retailer Atlantique Image et Son Inc.
1987-94: CEO of food producer Culinar Inc.
1995: Invested with financier Richard Ivey in logistics firm Livingston Group.
2001: Sold Livingston to UPS Logistics. That same year, bought Irwin Toy with Mr. Ivey.
2002: Filed for plan of arrangements for Irwin Toy.
2005: Appointed president of BDC.
An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version incorrectly stated that Jean-René Halde received his MA in economics in 1960. This online version has been corrected.