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Paul Desmarais, the controlling shareholder of Power Corp., is pictured in 2008. He passed away Oct. 8, 2013, at the age of 86.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press


Paul Desmarais was born on Jan. 4, 1927, in Sudbury, Ont., to prominent lawyer Jean-Noël Desmarais and Lébéa Laforest, the daughter of a well-established family in the Northern Ontario city. He attended his father's alma mater, the University of Ottawa, where he earned a BA in commerce in 1949. He married Jacqueline Maranger, whom he met in high school, in 1953. They would have four children: Paul Jr., André, Louise and Sophie. He eventually moved them to the City of Westmount, an exclusive and affluent suburb of Montreal. He and Jacqueline celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in September.


Mr. Desmarais dropped out of law school in 1951 to take over Sudbury Bus Lines, an unprofitable family venture that he purchased for a dollar and turned into a stable operation. This marked the beginning of his illustrious career in business. He went on to take over Gatineau Bus Lines, Quebec Autobus and Provincial Transport, the biggest intercity bus operator in Ontario and Quebec. Mr. Desmarais diversified his holdings with the purchase of insurer Imperial Life in 1963, followed by the acquisition of Gelco Enterprises, an electrical utility in Hull, Que. In 1965, he purchased Trans-Canada Corp. Fund, his first conglomerate.


TCCF made a share-exchange offer with Power Corp. of Canada in 1968, paving the way for Mr. Desmarais to take control of the Montreal-based company as its chairman and CEO. He built the electrical utility holding company into a massive conglomerate whose assets under management reached $527-billion at the end of 2012. His personal wealth also skyrocketed, reaching $4.4-billion in 2012, according to Canadian Business magazine. After nearly three decades in power, Mr. Desmarais handed the reins to his sons in 1996, but remained chairman of the executive committee and the controlling shareholder. By all accounts, Mr. Desmarais remained a key decision-maker at Power Corp. for several years after his succession.


Over the past decade, Mr. Desmarais soaked up the accolades befitting an accomplished life. In 2007, he received the University of Ottawa's Distinguished Canadian Leadership Award. (He holds honorary degrees or distinctions from 13 Canadian universities, according to his Power Corp. biography.) The following year, then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy awarded Mr. Desmarais with France's highest order of merit, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, something rarely awarded to non-French citizens. Mr. Desmarais was slowed in 2005 by a stroke, and in subsequent years, his attendance at Power Corp. meetings was spotty. Last year, he missed all of the conglomerate's meetings, the company disclosed in securities documents.


Mr. Desmarais had a reputation for befriending the political elite, but those personal connections ran deeper: His family was connected to heads of state through work and marriage. Mr. Desmarais' son André married the daughter of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, and the couple have four children together. Mr. Desmarais was also close with former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin, both of whom worked for Power Corp. before entering politics. (Mr. Chrétien also sat on the board of a Power Corp. subsidiary.) A former adviser to Mr. Sarkozy was once married to Mr. Desmarais' daughter, Sophie. Mr. Sarkozy said in 2008: "If I am the President of France today, it is thanks in part to the advice, the friendship and the loyalty of Paul Desmarais."