This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 1, 2000
For one example of the remarkable range of acquaintances enjoyed by Jacques Ménard, the newly minted ex-chairman of the Montreal Expos, consider his role in the salvation of Felipe Alou. In the fall of 1998, Alou, the team's tremendously popular manager, appeared certain to accept a lucrative offer to move to the Los Angeles Dodgers. That would probably have been the death blow for the already struggling Expos. Alou, a Roman Catholic, conducted his own negotiations, telling reporters "God is my agent." Ménard, also a Catholic, then called his good friend, Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte - an ardent baseball fan. "I need a favour," Ménard recalls telling him. Turcotte called Alou at his home in Florida - and gave the startled manager a message to the effect that He would quite likely approve if Alou decided to stay in Montreal. Shortly after, Alou signed a new contract with the Expos. "I don't say that was the reason why," says a grinning Ménard, "but it certainly didn't hurt."
Call it divine intervention - or another successful effort by Ménard, 53, Montreal's most efficient Mr. Fix-It. Known for his high energy level, but smooth and sometimes deceptively low-key manner, he is renowned for having what one friend calls "the most impressive Rolodex most of us have ever seen." His most recent and biggest achievement came earlier this month, when major-league baseball gave the go-ahead for New York City art dealer Jeffrey Loria to take over the team, and re-capitalize it. That deal, orchestrated by Ménard - who stepped down as chairman - took place against long odds and was so complex that the closing agenda included 189 items and four hours' worth of legal documents to be signed.
While that does not yet guarantee the long-term security of the Expos (the team still needs to find full funding for the construction of a new $200-million ball park), it is, Ménard says, "a huge step in that direction." It is also, according to many observers, an achievement only someone as shrewd and well-connected as Ménard could have managed. "Without Jacques, this never could have happened," says Avie Bennett, the Toronto-based chairman of McClelland & Stewart publishing house and a minority shareholder in the team. "Every time we were about to give up, he supplied the heart to keep going."
That is no small tribute - especially since Ménard persuaded Bennett and others to dilute their share of equity in the team to attract new investors. As well, it meant winning support from an unwieldy coalition that ranges from Bennett, a pillar of the Anglo-Canadian business establishment, to the pro-sovereigntist, labour-based Quebec Solidarity Fund. Ménard also had to win support from three levels of government and soothe the ruffled feelings of Claude Brochu, the Expos managing partner, who had publicly declared his doubts that the team could remain in Montreal (he has since been bought out). And finally, Ménard unearthed Loria as the major investor. "It was," acknowledges Ménard, "a lot of balls to juggle."
That is especially true given that Ménard's baseball work is only one of several officially part-time jobs he has held in recent years. Another is chairman of Hydro Quebec, the provincially owned utility. Although Ménard is an avowed federalist, he was appointed to the post in 1996 by the sovereigntist government of Premier Lucien Bouchard, with a mandate to restore the utility's flagging image in the business community. Then there are directors' positions with several companies, and fund-raising efforts with groups including the Catholic church. And there are the titles that reflect his real day job: as president of the Bank of Montreal Group of Companies, Quebec, and deputy chairman of Nesbitt Burns, owned by BMO. Ménard is one of the bank's most senior officials. "I cannot overestimate how much trust we place in Jacques," says Tony Comper, BMO's normally reserved chief executive officer. "His responsibilities are enormous - and the more you give him, the better he does."
That helps explain Ménard's rise. He was born in Chicoutimi, a Quebec nationalist bastion, but his banker father, Joseph, moved the family to Montreal when Jacques was still a toddler. There, they settled in the largely anglophone west end area of Snowdon; as a result, Ménard, although he attended French-language elementary and secondary schools, is equally at home in both languages. After obtaining arts and commerce degrees from Collège Ste-Marie and Loyola College (now part of Concordia University), he earned a master's in business administration from the University of Western Ontario in 1970. Shortly after, he joined the investment firm of Burns Bros. & Denton, which became Burns Fry Ltd. and later Nesbitt Burns - bought by BMO in 1994. Throughout those years, Ménard's reputation and responsibilities steadily increased. "Jacques is one of those guys at the centre of things, making them happen," says David Powell, a former president of the Montreal Board of Trade. "He bridged the English and French business communities at a point when the gap was much wider than it is now."
Ménard's reputation began to extend beyond investment banking circles in 1991, when then-Expos owner Charles Bronfman decided to sell the team and could not find a local owner. Rather than sell to outsiders, Bronfman asked Ménard and Brochu for help. They set about creating a consortium with the $104 million needed to buy the team. Since Brochu had few high-level business community contacts, Ménard took charge, knitting together the consortium that held control until the arrival of Loria. Many, like Loria, were people he did not know until he called them to solicit their interest. "Cold calls," says Ménard, "are how I made my living for many years."
These days, the tables are often turned in that regard. Bouchard's invitation to Ménard to discuss the Hydro job marked the first time the two had ever met. Similarly, he says that in recent years he has received "about a dozen" overtures from different provincial and federal political parties to run for office. One of the reasons he won't, he says cheerfully, is his wife of 24 years, Marie-José, an interior designer, who "promises she'll do terrible things to me if I do." The couple have a son, Louis-Simon, 23, and a daughter, Anne-Valérie, 21, who are both students.
Ironically, Ménard, a lifelong sports fan, was not particularly interested in baseball when he first became involved with the Expos. But that has now changed. "In many ways," says Ménard, "the combinations and permutations involved are not unlike those in banking." Those passions meet in his Montreal office. It includes a credenza filled with part of his collection of autographed baseballs - including balls signed by hall-of-famers Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron and Duke Snider.
With the arrival of Loria, Ménard now holds the lesser title of co-chairman of the team's partnership committee. He acknowledges there is still much to do - such as breaking ground on a new ball park. If that happens, others suggest one small but obvious gesture. "If Jacques Ménard is not chosen to throw out the first pitch in the new stadium," says columnist Michel C. Auger of the daily newspaper Le Journal de Montréal, "every person in the place should get up, boo, and walk out." If he does receive that honour, the ball he uses will likely become an important addition to his already impressive collection.
Maclean's January 1, 2000