Business

The networking CEO

Brenda Branswell October 4 1999
Business

The networking CEO

Brenda Branswell October 4 1999

The networking CEO

Business

Brenda Branswell

Micheline Bouchard cuts a striking figure in her Montreal office—dressed to the hilt in a cream suit, shoes with a shimmer and ample gold jewelry. The 52-year-old engineer clearly isn’t a female executive hiding her femininity. Almost two years ago, Motorola Inc., the American electronics pioneer best known for its cellular phones and pagers, named her president and chief executive of Motorola Canada Ltd. Bouchard acknowledges that at a company filled with engineers, the CEO’s appearance may jolt some—but that’s fine with her. “I rather prefer to be underestimated,” she says. “I prefer to surprise them in a positive manner.”

Trailblazing in male territory is nothing new for Bouchard, who enrolled in engineering physics at university in the mid1960s. Since then, the Montreal native has carved out a career that has made her one of a small elite of women executives heading big Canadian subsidiaries of U.S. companies—a group that includes Maureen Kemp-

Micheline Bouchard leads the charge to win back Motorola’s customers

ston Darkes, president and general manager of General Motors of Canada Ltd. and Bobbie Gaunt, president of Ford of Canada.

In January, 1998, Motorola plucked Bouchard from Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd., where she was vice-president of business development. While the Motorola job put her on the top executive rungs, it was no easy ascension—and there was no honeymoon period.

It was a tumultuous year for Motorola, and Bouchard and company executives around the globe faced slumping sales (due in part to the Asian economic crisis), aggressive cellular rivals and a share price that slid to $38 (U.S.) last October from a high of $73 (U.S.) a year earlier. Canadian sales also fell to $838 million last year from $1 billion in 1997.

Motorola fought its way back, restructuring global operations—amalgamating divisions and refocusing marketing efforts. “It was a very ambitious program,” says Bouchard, who almost immediately implemented a new strategic plan for the Canadian division. “We had to make painful decisions, but we knew they were the right decisions.” Job cuts were part of

the pain: in 1998, Motorola slashed 17,000 positions from its global workforce of 150,000. In Canada, 200 of 1,000 jobs were cut, but Bouchard says that, as the firm’s fortunes have rebounded, domestic staffing has returned to 1997 levels. And she projects double-digit sales growth over 1998.

One of Motorola’s problems was its tardiness to embrace digital technology, an innovation that has swept the wireless industry. The company ruled the North American cellular phone market in the mid-1990s, the days of analog frequency, but started to get clobbered by rivals who were developing fancy new phones with digital technology and features such as voice mail. Nokia Corp. of Finland is now the industry leader, ahead of Motorola and growing Swedish rival, Ericsson Telephone Co. Inc. “[Motorola] gave the market away,” says Eamon Hoey, a Toronto telecommunications consultant. “They had the dominant position in the market by far.” Bouchard concedes that not enough attention was paid to trends. Customers, she says, told Motorola: “It’s not enough to have the best technology, you’ve got to look at our needs.” Restructuring and product innovations appear to be working. Motorola is faring well with small, new cellular models that have “more sexiness,” says Luke Szymczak, an analyst with Prudential Securities in New York City. Its semiconductor business has surged and its stock has soared, closing last week at an impressive $83 (U.S.). Second-quarter sales of $7.5 billion are also a sevenper-cent improvement over last year. “It’s making good headway,” S2ymczak says. And the firm is moving into new endeavours—recently announcing that it will buy General Instrument Corp., the leading manufacturer of cable set-top boxes for TVs. The $ 16-billion merger would give Motorola a foothold in technology aimed at linking homes and businesses to phone networks and the Internet by cable. Bouchard has ambitious goals for the Canadian operation, with a target of tripling sales in five years. In their strategic plan, she and her management team pitched Canada as a research and development hub for the company. Motorola has three R and D software centres in the Toronto area and one in Vancouver. “We were able to demonstrate to our parent company that we have an abundance of engineering talent,” says Bouchard. She competed against Motorola executives in other countries to land the company’s new software development centre for Montreal. Backed by generous subsidies from the Quebec government,

Motorola will invest up to $300 million in the centre— which started up in a temporary location in May—and create as many as 500 jobs over 10 years.

While some may think Bouchard doesn’t look the part of the engineering CEO, the truth is she was almost born to the role. As a child, she built cranes with a Meccano set—and became smitten with her future profession at 14, when she organized a class trip to the Ecole polytechnique, the University of Montreal’s engineering school. Fascinated by what she saw, especially a large hydraulic crane, Bouchard vowed to study there. Her parents, a blue-collar worker and a seamstress, supported the idea. Being the only woman in her graduating class wasn’t difficult, she says; the guys in the program treated her like a sister.

Job hunting after graduation in 1969 was a different story. In a booming economy, companies swamped her male classmates with job offers. She went to 15 interviews and didn’t receive a single offer. “I had not experienced during my engineering years—and therefore I couldn’t understand,” she says, “that the workplace would reject women engineers.” An offer finally came from Hydro-Quebec, which was paying low salaries and hadn’t attracted enough engineers. “I was very happy to accept the job, any job,” Bouchard says, laughing.

It took 10 years to get a promotion. Once, she competed for a supervisor’s job with her fiancé, now husband, Jean-Paul Sardin, who is also an engineer. “We wanted to test the system,” says Bouchard. Although Sardin told her that she was the best candidate for the position, he got the job. “What I learned when I didn’t get those promotions early in my career is that I was not smart enough to develop a network of support,” says Bouchard. “I thought being competent would suffice. What I didn’t understand is that you have to be visibly competent.”

She rectified the problem. “She’s a networker par excellence,” says friend Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, a fellow engineer and head of the United Way for the Montreal area. Bouchard has done stints as president of the Quebec Order of Engineers and the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers. She is now vice-president of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. Beyond professional associations, Bouchard has led charitable fundraising and has served as a vice-president of both the Montreal Chamber of Commerce and the Montreal Board of Trade. In 1995, she was awarded the Order of Canada. Currently, she sits on the boards of Alliance Forest Products, Corby Distilleries and Sears Canada Inc.

Bouchard stayed at Hydro-Quebec until 1987, having obtained a master’s degree in electrical engineering by 1978 and continuing to rise through management. After leaving the utility, she worked at two Montreal-based information technology firms, before joining HewlettPackard in 1996.

Not surprisingly, the December, 1989, massacre of

Business

14 women at her alma mater, the Ecole polytechnique, left Bouchard shaken. She heard the news on her way to give a speech at a fund-raiser for troubled youth. “I had a lot of anger against that guy,” says Bouchard, fist clenched as she speaks of killer Marc Lépine. “I wanted to beat him.” In her speech, Bouchard asked for understanding of troubled youth, while carrying this rage against Lépine, himself a young man who had failed to fit in. Bouchard helped to organize the turnout for the students’ funeral— and 700 women engineers paid their respects, wearing white scarves in solidarity with the dead.

One of Bouchard’s causes is encouraging women in business. She heads the International Women’s Forum of Canada, part of a global network of women leaders in all fields. “She’s a strong believer that there has to be visibility of women in high positions,” says Monette Malewski, a vice-president at the Board ofTrade. Bouchard thinks the glass ceiling is rising a bit, especially in the high-tech sector.

She may have reached the top of the ladder, but neither Bouchard nor her company can rest on past accomplishments. At Motorola, she has seen the dangers of shifting market trends. George Karidis, an associate director at the Yankee Group in Canada, a technology consulting firm, says: “The issue they have is how to make sure they don’t fall into the same trap: they produce a product the world loves and sit back and say, now we can milk this.’ ”

Bouchard relishes such challenges —and thrives on the hectic pace of her job. She spends most weeks at Motorola Canada’s head office in Toronto, commuting to her suburban Montreal home in affluent St-Bruno on weekends. Her husband works as an executive at a high-tech company and their young-adult son and daughter are students. While some women lament the difficulties in balancing work and family life, Bouchard is not among them. “I was thinking this morning that I’m so privileged,” she says. “I said: ‘I think I have it all.’ ” CD