By PAUL DELEAN - The job's a hot seat, and one dagger's already out, but Michael Sabia didn't look at all uncomfortable in his first public appearance yesterday as the new president and chief executive of the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec.
Deftly fielding questions from reporters about his experience and suitability, most of them answered in serviceable French, Sabia said it was "an honour" to be chosen to head one of Quebec and Canada's premier institutions. He said his goal is to stabilize and fortify the Caisse, with as first order of business a reassessment of its risk-management, investment and communication strategies.
Invited to dissect the pension-fund manager's disastrous $39.8-billion loss in 2008, Sabia said he preferred to look ahead.
"The past isn't particularly interesting to me," said Sabia, 55, whose curriculum vitae includes senior jobs in the federal government and at Canadian corporate titans BCE Inc. and Canadian National Railway.
"What interests me is the future and the steps we'll take to strengthen the Caisse," Sabia said.
The surprise selection of Sabia, whose name only surfaced this week as a prime candidate for the job vacated in January by Richard Guay, drew predictable flak from some quarters.
Former Parti Québécois leader and premier Bernard Landry said the choice was "more than an error." "It's a fault. It is almost a provocation," he told the RDI network.
"It has nothing to do with where he was born," Landry added. "It is his national culture, which is Canadian." Landry said Sabia presided at BCE when the Montreal-based communications company was sold - tentatively - to a group headed by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. (The blockbuster $52-billion takeover was scuttled in December.) "That's their culture," Landry said But Premier Jean Charest defended the choice of Sabia.
"He lives in Quebec, he knows Quebec very well," Charest said.
Born in Ontario, Sabia moved here in 1993.
"How long do you have to live here to be a Quebecer?" wondered the Caisse's new chairman of the board, Robert Tessier, when asked at the press conference about Sabia's background. "He has a passion for Quebec and Montreal, he learned French, can speak and work in that language. We should be happy our society has the maturity to attract and keep people (like him) here." Sabia, who stepped down as head of BCE last summer after six years at the helm, said he had other offers but wanted to stay in Quebec.
"After being here 16 years, and continuing to choose Quebec, to me that's a demonstration of my loyalty and my interest in working in this environment," he said, adding that his selection "is evidence of the fact the Quebec community is open and confident." Tessier said the headhunting firm mandated to prepare a list of candidates had narrowed the search to four names. Two on the list said they weren't interested. Of the two that were, Sabia was the standout, "a "surprising" and "exceptional" candidate who'd guided major corporations through difficult transitions and will give the Caisse the momentum it needs.
"He has all the qualities of a strong leader," Tessier said. "We have to stop the slide and restore upward movement." The Caisse's selection committee endorsed him unanimously and the Quebec government made it official.
Sabia will earn the same base salary ($505,000) as Henri-Paul Rousseau, who resigned as the Caisse's chief executive last March, but won't be eligible for the controversial departure allowance ($378,750) that Rousseau received.
"Compensation wasn't the key for me," Sabia said. "It was the challenge."
An anglo atop the Caisse
Sabia, ex-BCE chief, is surprise choice A provocation, Bernard Landry says