BUSINESS WATCH

Engineering a unique success

Peter C. Newman November 28 1983
BUSINESS WATCH

Engineering a unique success

Peter C. Newman November 28 1983

Engineering a unique success

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

Your standard corporate tableau it’s not.

Bernard Lamarre, the enigmatic French Canadian who heads this country’s largest engineering firm, sits before a garish canvas by Guy Montpetit called The Sex Machine, animatedly explaining how much fun it was drilling 7,000 village wells on Africa’s Ivory Coast. He then regales himself by explaining that, as a typical Canadian doing business in the Third World, he never hands out any bribes without first demanding a tax receipt. “We make sure we get a signed invoice,” he says. “And payment is always in the form of a cheque and never cash, so we can claim it on our income tax. Of course, we have an advantage over the Americans—they’re forbidden by law to pay out agents’ commissions.”

The head of a private and largely unknown Montreal company named Lavalin Inc., Lamarre is an internationally minded engineer. He has spun a minor family enterprise into a world-beating conglomerate with 42 divisions. Lavalin is currently working on projects worth $3 billion in 50 countries.

An extrovert who has mastered the actor’s repertoire of gesture and body language, Lamarre revels in the role of self-made tycoon. A federalist, he considers his citizenship a plus on his personal balance sheet. “It’s a big asset to be a Canadian,” he says. “When doing business in Africa, for example, we speak both main languages and are masters of North American technology—but we don’t have any colonial past to live down. Nobody is afraid of us. We export know-how, not a way of life.”

Lamarre and three partners (his brother Jacques, Marcel Dufour and Armand Couture) own Lavalin, which last year collected engineering fees of $250 million and completed another $350 million in construction contracts. But it is Lamarre himself who runs everything. At the company’s annual autumn reception for Montreal’s industrial elite, guests are greeted by a receiving line of one: Bernard Lamarre.

His sprawling firm employs 5,000 professionals and technicians working out of 29 Canadian offices (in places as small as Bathurst, N.B., and Boucherville, Que.) and a dozen permanent locations abroad, including France, Algeria, Nigeria and Indonesia. Most international jobs are financed either by the

World Bank or the Export Development Corp., so that getting paid isn’t a problem. Lavalin specializes in something called transmigration studies and plans, which in this context determine the basic infrastructure needed to turn jungle into arable land so that Third World citizens can be moved out of crowded poor areas.

Lamarre’s empire has grown largely through takeovers and now includes such once independent giants as Warnock Hersey, Shawinigan Engi-

neering and the Canadian arm of Ralph Parsons Ltd. Among the newest ventures is a majority interest in the engineering arm of Lafarge Coppée, a giant French-Belgian cement complex. There’s also a joint venture with Solus Ocean Systems of Houston to produce unmanned submersibles for oil drilling vessel support. The company is operated as a conglomeration of nearly four dozen profit centres, all reporting ultimately to Lamarre.

“There are amazing opportunities for Canadian engineering firms abroad,”

he claims. “We have a strong international reputation as great builders, particularly for being more efficient than anyone else in the field. It’s probably because Canada itself is still in the building process—unlike the United States and Western Europe, which experienced their main construction waves a long time ago.”

Various Lavalin subsidiaries are currently constructing the Pechiney aluminum smelter in Quebec; building an upgrading facility for heavy oil for PetroCanada in Montreal; designing the world’s largest vertical access wind turbine generator for Hydro-Québec; completing an electrical substation at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; and planning major power projects in Argentina and Peru. The most unusual structure built by the company was a dramatic free-standing cement tower erected to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Algerian independence.

As well as doing the actual construction and engineering, other Lavalin companies carry out economic, social and environmental studies that estimate the effects of completed projects. Lavalin’s interests range from biotechnology, airborne geophysics and ice engineering to the redesign of municipal sewage systems and the planning of new harbors.

An art collector of international repute (and currently chairman of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), Lamarre puts aside one-quarter of one per cent of the entire budget of Lavalin to purchase the works of living Canadian painters. As well as the Montpetit canvas, the hangings in his boardroom include a magnificent Riopelle, a Jack Bush and experimental works by Claude Toussignant and Ferdinand Toupin.

Lamarre spends much of his time on the road but claims he is always happy to get back to Montreal. “I’m an optimist about this place,” he says. “We will have to change a bit and adapt our policies to modern realities. We have lost most of our head offices, but I still think we have a very good chance of becoming an international centre. We have to find our true vocation. Boston is a university town. Baltimore has its harbor. We could be the service centre of Canada, but we will first have to become a lot more tolerant. It’s true that we have been bleeding, but we can lick our wounds and get back into the mainstream. It’s not a question of years, but of a generation or two.”