Vidéotron has been transformed from black sheep to North American telecom leader with an annual revenue of $2.6 billion, and a cutting-edge networks, all under the direction of Robert Dépatie. A sit-down with a man who is pass ionate about everything techno… and human!
Hi-tech cars and watches
Dépatie is in to more than just the latest electronic gadgets. He is equally passionate about high-performance cars and watches. “In fact,” he says, “My passion for technology is directly connected to my passion for human engineering. That’s why I love watches, like this fully mechanical Daniel Roth with a perpetual calendar. It took nearly a year to make, and has more than 500 handmade parts!” His enthusiasm goes up another notch when he starts talking about his recent motorized acquisitions: an MV Agusta AMG motorcycle, only 250 of which were made worldwide, and a Ferrari 488 GTB. “I am so inspired by human talent. How is it possible that a 3.9-litre engine can produce 677 hp and 561 lb-ft of torque? Especially when that 3.9-litre engine is as big as my hand!”
Robert Dépatie leads the way into his high-tech entertainment room, located in the basement of his stately home on the shores of the Mille-Îles River. The room features German speakers with crystal clear sound, highend Oracle turntables made in Quebec, a 4K projector and a 120-inch screen: it’s a setup that would make any technophile drool.
Our 57-year-old host is as giddy as a child when he talks about the complex electrical circuits he installed himself, or the cases of vinyl records he has just received. “The pleasure of cleaning a vinyl disc and placing it on the turntable… there’s nothing quite like it,” he says, as he cranks up a Miles Davis classic.
Let there be no doubt about it: two years after leaving the presidency of Vidéotron, Robert Dépatie has lost none of his passion for technology. The opposite is true, in fact. In his home theatre, Dépatie uses two iPads, one mini and one Pro, to control everything from the lighting to the TV channel. The ultimate in audio calibration–a must for this sophisticated audiophile– was achieved by a team from Kébecson.
One floor up, the living room of the light-filled Rosemère home, which he has shared with his wife, Christiane, for the past 17 years, is filled with the latest in electronic gadgets. Dépatie’s fascination with human engineering runs deep, as is evident in his collection of watches and cars. “Human beings use their talent, their imagination and their obsession to invent a never-ending series of new designs, and I am drawn to the things they create.”
“Yet, on paper, nothing seemed to indicate that technology was where Dépatie was heading. The Montreal native began his career in the food industry. For two decades, he rose through the ranks of various top-shelf corporations, including Planters and Heinz. In the mid-90s, however, while serving as executive vice-president with Heinz in Toronto, his love for technology began to occupy a more prominent place in his working life. “We began using the Internet at Heinz as soon as it became available,” he says, with his characteristic enthusiasm. “Everyone had a PC at home and we communicated using an IBM system and data lines that cost us thousands of dollars in data charges every month! But I was able to tell all my sales reps about our successes coast to coast.”
The Vidéotron adventure
Dépatie returned to Montreal at the start of the millennium and heard through the grapevine that Vidéotron was looking for a new president. At the time, the cable company was in pretty bad shape; it had been acquired not long before by Quebecor and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec for more than $6 billion. Tired of the food industry, Mr. Dépatie felt he was the right man for the job.
“I told my wife I was going to combine my passion for technology with my experience in sales and marketing, which is what the company needed,” he recalls with a smile. “They were crashing: they had no customer service and no good products. They didn’t even have HD or high-speed.”
Dépatie may have been sure he could turn Vidéotron around, but the man at the top of Québecor, Pierre Karl Péladeau, did not see it that way. Péladeau refused to meet with Mr. Dépatie several times, until finally Dépatie gave fate a little boost. He got himself invited to the birthday party for the son of his neighbour, Éric Péladeau, whose godfather is Pierre Karl. Their first conversation began at the buffet table, and continued for many long minutes. Several weeks later, in December 2001, Robert Dépatie was hired as Executive Vice-President, Sales, Marketing and Customer Service. He was also named President of Vox (now MAtv).
Dépatie became president of the group in June, 2003 and was finally able to implement the main pillars of his strategic plan. His top priorities included investing heavily to hire new employees and upgrade out-of-date networks. “We had to fight like crazy to convince management that customers wanted speed and reliability.”
The crazy years
Bit by bit, the perception of Vidéotron began to change. The company scored big when it launched low-cost telephone service in 2005. More than a million customers signed up, to the great chagrin of former monopoly, Bell Canada. More innovations–video on demand, lightning high-speed Internet, wireless phone service–followed quickly throughout the remainder of the decade. The numbers speak for themselves: customer satisfaction rates increased to over 96%, and Vidéotron was named the most admired telecom company by Quebecers eight years in a row. During Dépatie’s presidency, nearly 4,000 jobs were created, and capital investments exceeded $2.26 billion, making it possible to build a new LTE wireless network in Quebec, among other things. Sales grew from approximately $725 million to $2.6 billion, while earnings before interest, taxes and amortization–the famous EBITA of the accounting world–shot up from $275 million to $1.25 billion.
“I wanted to run the most profitable company in North America (in terms of margins) and that’s what we became. My goal had been to make Vidéotron a real telecommunications corporation, and we achieved that goal,” says a proud Dépatie, who replaced Pierre Karl Péladeau at the head of Quebecor in 2013.
Mr. Dépatie stepped down in 2014, and although he retired officially last year, he is never short of projects, remaining in demand as a consultant, coach and corporate director. It shouldn’t be long before Dépatie returns to the business spotlight.