His name does not immediately ring a bell for most. And yet, Pierre Simard and his partners are behind a number of transactions that have shaped Québec Inc. in recent years. Working with energetic managers and visionary founders, Simard oversaw the creation of MUST, a new leader in high-end furniture, while simultaneously orchestrating the relaunch of Kanuk, which is preparing to take the world by storm. Meeting with the president of Corporation financière Champlain.
Pierre Simard welcomes us into his elegant office on the 16th floor of an office tower in downtown Montreal. Champlain Financial Corporation (CFC) may manage investments of $120M, and operate in the high-end furniture industry, but the atmosphere in these offices is as understated as it gets.
The premises is a perfect reflection of the president: efficient and unfussy. After a solid career with some of the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street, Pierre Simard founded the private equity firm in 2004, and proceeded to embark on strategic transactions in Quebec. He and his partners worked their quiet wizardry, investing without fanfare in a dozen businesses, supporting them, reorganizing them, and occasionally selling them. For example, CFC bought Ogilvy, the luxury department store, in 2010, and sold it for a tidy profit a year later.
“We really like to associate ourselves with consumer brands, even dipping our toes into fashion,” says 52-year-old Simard. “We gained valuable experience in the industry as co-owners of Ogilvy.”
The quick resale of Ogilvy is not exactly in keeping with the CFC business model. The group prefers to make medium- or long-term investments in companies that they then grow by injecting capital and involving themselves in strategic management. In the case of Ogilvy, however, Selfridges, which owns Holt Renfrew, made CFC an offer they couldn’t refuse. “We realized a 40% return on our investment in one year,” confirms Simard.
It didn’t take Simard long to find another great investment. In 2013, CFC orchestrated the merger of two leaders in the high-end furniture market in Quebec—Maison Corbeil and La Galerie du Meuble—under the name G2MC. Jardin de Ville joined the newly formed group last year. This joint venture by CFC and members of the founding families, specifically brothers Eric and Stéphane Corbeil of Maison Corbeil, and Johanne Bourque of Jardin de Ville, served as a launching pad for the new brand, MUST, which opened its first concept store 6 months ago in Griffintown. “This is a concept we hope to bring to other major cities across Canada,” says Simard. “It’s an urban strategy: a single space of 10–15,000 square feet, featuring high-end brands like Ligne Roset.”
“MUST in Griffintown has become a total success,” adds Simard. The airy, light-filled space with its post-industrial accents offers clients a variety of brands and services, such as flowers by Prune, bread and other baked goods from La Bête à pain. MUST sales have exceeded initial forecasts to such an extent that CFC is planning to accelerate the brand rollout across Canada, with new stores opening in Quebec City and Toronto in 2017 and 2018. The alliance of Maison Corbeil, La Galerie du Meuble and Jardin de Ville has turned out to be profitable for all. Simard confirms the merged enterprise will exceed $100M in sales by the end of its first fiscal year.
THE FAMILY MODEL
Pierre Simard was born in Quebec City and studied engineering at Laval University. He went on to specialize in finance at the Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium, and earned his MBA from Cornell. He and his wife, Nancy Spafford, have four children, aged 17 to 24, three of whom are studying outside of Quebec.
The businessman appreciates the family history of the three companies behind G2MC. All three were being run by a second generation of entrepreneurs who needed a little spark to help them reach the next stage of growth. “We acted as a catalyst to bring them together, providing the financial cushion that could help them work together to create something bigger, while diversifying their risks.”v
Simard sees huge potential for high-end furniture in Quebec, particularly in Montreal. He highlights the number of local chains dominating the market: Maison Corbeil, JC Perreault, Germain Larivière, Mariette Clermont and Maison Ethier, all of which are meeting the specific needs of a Quebec clientele. “People in Quebec are more fashion-oriented and less conservative when it comes to furniture,” he notes. “They are very up on the latest trends, which sees them redecorating more oftem. Montrealers may pay less for their homes than people do in Toronto or Vancouver, but they spend a lot on furniture.”
CFC’s other major investment includes Kanuk, the outerwear manufacturer the company purchased almost 2 years ago. The Champlain group made serious changes to Kanuk, hiring a new CEO, Richard Laniel, and a new designer, Philippe Dubuc. Simard believes that the brand can be returned to its glory days of the 1990s. In fact, a new store just opened at DIX30, in Brossard. “This year, we’re making forays into the wholesale market, where Kanuk has not ventured before. We’ll be selling to Sports Experts, SAIL and similar stores, and already have some sizeable pre-orders for Europe next year,” he adds.
CFC is currently juggling investments in eight Quebec-based companies—from maple syrup bottlers to medical equipment manufacturers. The companies have sales of $20M-$200M, and CFC has invested $5M-$20M in each. Simard proudly commends the contribution of his partners: Jean-Stéphane Yansouni, Scott Jackson, and Philippe St-Cyr Adam, to whom he attributes CFC’s success.
In addition to his work at CFC, Simard sits on the board of the Montreal Children’s Hospital and serves as president of the foundation at À Pas de Géant school, where his youngest son Charles, who is autistic, was a student. The 17-year-old is currently at Dawson College.
“We take it one day at a time, but Charles has made enormous strides, and we are very hopeful.”
Photo: André Ryder