BORN: Outremont, Quebec • 11 April 1925
I HE IDEA OF HAVING PlERRE PELADEAU FOR A BOSS, wrote the sometimes humorous Allan Fotheringham in a column in 1996, “would be too much to stomach… He is, for starters, an ex-alcoholic, a closet separatist, and has slurred Jews.” Diane Francis added in her Financial Post column: “I don’t want a separatist like Pierre Peladeau buying the Sun news¬ paper chain…
Peladeau may be able to legally buy this chain but he won’t own a single soul who works here.” No man is a hero to his valet, to be sure, but the vehemence with which Peladeau’s never-to-be consummated interest in the Sun chain was greeted was unusual for ordinarily placid Canadians. But then, so too is Pierre Peladeau.
Peladeau’s father made and lost fortunes in the lumber business but died broke, leaving a large family to be raised in debt. Peladeau nonetheless received a good education, first at the College Jean- de-Brebeuf, where he believed he was the only poor student, followed by Universite de Montreal and the McGill University law school, from which he gradu¬ ated in 1950.
That same year he purchased a small weekly newspaper with a borrowed $1500. The foun¬ dations of the empire had been laid.By 1954 he owned five weeklies and, annoyed by difficulties with his printers, he invested in presses and branched out into printing.
In 1964, when journalists at La Presse, Montreal’s biggest daily, went on strike, Peladeau seized the opportunity, pulled together a makeshift editorial and production staff from his weeklies, and established Le Journal de Montreal—an instant sucess.
When the strike ended and La Presse went back on the street, however, circulation for the upstart paper plummeted. Advised to take his money and run, Peladeau hung in, gradually rebuilt circulation, and learned to cater to the lowest common denominator with a steady diet of scandals, murder, and sports; he was also shrewd enough to get Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque as a columnist, a great boost for sales.
Le Journal de Montreal today has 320,000 readers, second only to La Presse.Peladeau continued buying newspapers and magazines. His attempts to go public with his company in 1972 to finance expansion were initially foiled when the Montreal financial houses, perhaps upset with the elfin Peladeau’s hell¬ raising flamboyance and alleged womanizing, priced his offering too low.
Undeterred, Peladeau raised his funds in New York City, and he continues to own more than 50 per cent of his holding company, Quebecor Inc. The company owns newspapers in Winnipeg, Quebec, and New Brunswick, book publishing companies, 218 printing houses that produce everything from telephone books to comic books to the Reader’s Digest, and pulp and paper plants.
Revenues in 1996 were above $6 billion, and Peladeau is now owner of one of the fastest-growing printing firms anywhere. His businesses are at the forefront of technology, he prices aggressively, and offers a high quality of service.This is raw power, in Quebec ranking only after the Caisse du depot, Hydro-Quebec, Bombardier, and the Groupe Desjardins, and almost equal in Canada to Conrad Black and Ted Rogers.
Thus, what Peladeau says has weight, and what he says sometimes disturbs. He has made contro¬ versial remarks that were widely interpreted as sexist and anti-Semitic, he has expressed admiration for Germany’s discipline under the Nazis, he voted “Oui” in 1980, and, despite wearing the Order of Canada’s pin in his lapel and chairing a Canada Day celebration in 1987, he suggested in 1990 that he had confidence in Quebec’s ability to thrive as an independent nation.
“The question now is, do we have the will?” There is a petulant bluntness about him that verges on the eccentric, though those who know him suggest he has been mellowed by his participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, his new-found belief in God, his love for Beethoven, and his affection for the works of Balzac.
Whatever he may be, Peladeau is rich. His companies have been a huge success and, as Sun columnist Peter Worthington noted, one of the reasons Peladeau is “every Sun journalist’s worst nightmare…is that he’s efficient, and any newspaper that gets an efficient proprietor has a lot of people worried.”
Likely so, and Peladeau’s efficiency— and his vast holdings—have now turned him into a well- regarded and omnipresent business force in Quebec, friendly with everyone from Claude Beland to Brian Mulroney. On the other hand, his anti-Semitic remarks were one factor that led Universite de Montreal to refuse him an honorary degree. Mavericks, even rich, influential ones, make people nervous, and Pierre Peladeau makes many Canadians very nervous indeed.