Canadian business tycoon Paul Desmarais Sr. dead at 86, Power Corp. says

MONTREAL – Canadian business tycoon Paul Desmarais Sr. has died at the age of 86.

His family said he died “peacefully” Tuesday evening at his country estate northeast of Quebec City surrounded by his family, including his wife and four children.

Desmarais led Power Corp. (TSX:POW) as its chairman and chief executive from 1968 to 1996 before passing the reins to his sons. He remained director and chairman of the executive committee of the board.

Born in Sudbury, Ont., in 1927, Desmarais was one of Canada’s most powerful figures, straddling the worlds of business and politics.

Not only did he build Power Corp. into one of the country’s largest conglomerates, Desmarais was also a staunch defender of national unity.

He had the ear of Canadian prime ministers and world leaders regardless of political stripe and, as controlling shareholder of Power Corporation for more than 40 years, he was among Canada’s wealthiest citizens.

Desmarais’ successful business journey began modestly in 1951 with the revival of the family’s ailing bus company.

A series of smart moves resulted in the creation of a holding company that in 1968 made a share-exchange offer with Power Corp.

With his company’s diversified holdings in insurance, transportation, paper, media, and financial services, Desmarais was one of the most notable members of his province’s business elite, often referred to as Quebec Inc.

Through Gesca Ltee, Desmarais controls several daily newspapers, including La Presse, Montreal’s prestigious broadsheet, and Quebec City’s Le Soleil.

He helped to open the door to Canadian businesses in China by leading a commercial delegation there in 1978. However, it took eight years before Power Corp. launched a business venture there. It now invests in infrastructure projects in China through its stake in CITIC Pacific Ltd.

By the time he handed daily operations of the company to his sons in 1996, Desmarais had seen Power’s assets increase to $2.7 billion, from $165 million. Net earnings increased to $209 million from $3 million, and the market value of the company’s shares increased from $61 million to $2.6 billion, for a compounded annual return of 16.4 per cent.

The company’s market cap on the stock exchange now is pegged at more than $13 billion.

An art lover, Desmarais has one of Canada’s largest private art collections. Two wings of Montreal’s Fine Arts Museum are named in honour of his family.

Desmarais also used his fortune to build one of the world’s most exclusive golf courses on his sprawling, 75-square-kilometre Sagard estate in the mountainous Charlevoix region of Quebec.

A private family funeral is planned, followed by a memorial service to be announced by the Desmarais family.

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