Francis Gagnon, new Vice-President of Real Estate Development
Francis Gagnon, Le Groupe Maurice’s new Vice-President of Real Estate, began his adventure with the company just a little while ago but already feels “right at home”. After having worked in the retirement residence sector for many years in Toronto and the US, Mr. Gagnon had only one desire: to experience Quebec’s legendary authenticity once again. So Le Groupe Maurice has acquired the services of an experienced businessman. But he is also a high-energy person whose enthusiasm is apparent to everyone he meets! Here is our recent interview with Francis Gagnon.
Francis, please tell us a bit about your professional background. How did you gain so much experience in the retirement residence sector?
When I was in my early 20s, I realized I was cut out for business development and engaging in direct contact with clients, rather than working by myself in an office. So I held a number of retail sales positions before working for real estate companies that specialized in residences for retirees. Among other things, I was Pepsi’s national director of sales. I was also in charge of national accounts, and then North American accounts, for Loblaw, Costco and Walmart North America. I was young and ambitious, and I worked very hard, crazy hours, up to 90-100 hours a week for many years. I got a lot out of those experiences because my work touched on so many different areas: sales, marketing, production management, operations, etc.
But I couldn’t maintain that kind of pace. It just wasn’t healthy.
Is that when you switched to the retirement residence sector?
Yes, it was. Via Quebec’s Caisse de dépôt et placement, I met the founder and owner of a company specializing in residences for retirees. At that point, I didn’t realize the importance of what I was going to be doing, the world I was about to discover. I’d been in the retail and production sectors… I thought that working for residences for retirees would be the same thing, just with a different “product”. But I soon realized it was completely different, that my job involved much more than just selling material things. Now I was in the “people serving people” business. I realized that from the outset and I’ve become an enthusiastic proponent of it!
Today, I’m very familiar with the seniors residence industry because I worked for competitors in Canada and the US. They include Revera, where I was senior vice-president of the Canadian division, and Allegro (now Chartwell), where I was senior vice-president of strategic operations in Canada.
What motivated you to come and work with us?
My wife Annie and myself, we’re each other’s best friends in the whole world. She’s my rock of Gibraltar. We do everything together and I tell her everything. She could see I was no longer happy at the last company I worked for. So I left. I even asked myself whether I should continue working in the sector. I have about 10 years to go before I retire: I want to enjoy my work! But if you want to have fun, you have to have the same values as the company you work for, it’s as simple as that.
So I saw Le Groupe Maurice had a vacancy. After meeting with Luc and the management team, I said to Annie that I felt like I was “coming home”. Not just because I was returning to Quebec, my birthplace, but also because I felt that I was going to be around people who shared my values, with whom I could be completely myself. I was going to be surrounded by Quebec’s famous authenticity! That’s when I realized I’d missed that during my entire career outside Quebec. After talking things over with Annie, we decided to leave Toronto and move here, although my wife won’t be joining me until next year.
How do you get along with seniors?
In my humble opinion, we live in the most beautiful country in the world. And the people who built this country are our seniors. In other words, our clients. The media may say they’re vulnerable, but in most cases, that’s not true. Only a minority of seniors are vulnerable. Plus seniors often have 40 years more experience than we do. They may well be faster on their feet! We should never underestimate them.
What gets on my nerves in the industry is ageism. Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of it. It’s the most tolerated form of discrimination in the world. We really have no way of understanding seniors’ reality if we don’t have regular contact with them. I’m extremely relieved to see that Le Groupe Maurice does not make residents’ decisions for them. Generally speaking, residents are consulted first. Their opinions are taken into account. We’re designing THEIR living environment, not ours. So at the very least, they have to like it and it has to be adapted to their real needs!
How do you see your contribution to Le Groupe Maurice?
Oh boy, that’s a tough one! Real estate specialists are usually quite focused on the property development side of things. But I’m a generalist. I’ve worked in all sectors of the industry, with private as well as public companies. I’ve managed and built networks across Canada and the US. So I think I can bring a broader and more holistic vision of the industry, above and beyond Quebec’s borders.
To ensure effective optimization, in my view, we need to consider three stakeholder groups: clients, employees and investors. It’s like a three-legged chair: if you make one of the legs too long, you throw things off balance, that is, to the detriment of the other legs of the chair. If you asked me to focus unduly on investment-related issues, I would end up hurting our employees and our residents. In my view, Le Groupe Maurice has struck the right balance. We can now use our business model as a springboard for growth across the province while proudly exporting it beyond Quebec’s borders as well. Our business model is one of a kind and Le Groupe Maurice is one of Quebec’s leading lights.
Drawing on your experience with international corporations, why did you choose to work for a smaller company with Quebec roots?
Luc asked me the same question and this was my answer, right off the bat: I was sick of having to ask 16 people for authorization to buy a pencil! (laughs) I’m exaggerating, of course, but that gives you a good idea of how bureaucratic my old organizational structures were.
In my “previous life”, while Le Groupe Maurice simply saw a desirable piece of land and snapped it up, I was still thinking of checking it out on Google Earth! Luc had a good laugh when I told him that one!
Le Groupe Maurice’s approach is based on agility and efficiency. Even if we end up growing, I’m convinced we’ll be able to keep our structures streamlined. The fact that Luc trusts us and allows us to manage our departments as we see fit makes a huge difference. So if there’s flexibility, agility and efficiency on top of all that, well, I’m sure I’ll enjoy the experience!
In the end, we’re back to your need for authenticity?
Absolutely! I worked for a huge company with 22,000 employees, valued at $9 billion, with a portfolio of 500 residences… That’s not what I want any more. I decided to move back to Quebec, not just because I can see the company’s development potential, but also because I feel at home. I don’t know if it’s Quebec, or Le Groupe Maurice’s business culture, but it’s a very special feeling!
What do you mean?
Usually, when I start working at a new company, I’m usually up and running by the third day because I know the industry so well. I’m eager to put my experience and knowledge to good use. Luc knows that: I told him that if he was looking to hire a “yes man”, then I wasn’t the right candidate. I need to be able to share my opinion, to put in my two cents’ worth.
The difference here is that I want to take my time because the more I learn about Le Groupe Maurice, the more I feel I shouldn’t be impatient. I have to have a clear understanding of how things work. I need to taste and smell and touch the company before I get down to action! Because the company has a secret sauce that I don’t want to ruin by adding too much salt, for example. (laughs)
So I’m in “watch and learn” mode. I want to make sure that my decisions are aligned with the Groupe’s vision. Whenever I’m not sure, I check my thinking with other members of the organization.
And when you’re not working, what do you like to do?
In the past, I really defined myself in terms of my profession. One day, a friend asked me, “Do you live to work or do you work to live?” That made a huge impression on me. It ended up changing how I live my life.
I relax by riding my motorbike. I put in 15,000 to 20,000 km per year. I recently did a tour of Gaspésie in 24 hours and covered North America in two weeks. I’m also into music. I own several guitars, my wife sings and we have two pianos at home. Other than that, I enjoy the company of my family and my friends. We’ve always bought larger houses than we needed so we could do more entertaining. We might not be able to do that right now, but we definitely will in the future!
At the same time, I love my established routine with my wife. That’s how I find my balance, in simple little pleasures.
I’ve lived a life of contradictions, when you consider the fact that when riding my motorbike, I was attacked by a grizzly and by a bison on the Prairies, I fell into a 100-foot-deep canyon, was bitten several times by copperheads and had a head-on collision with a truck. Not to mention two airplane accidents...
Are you kidding!? My goodness, you must have nine lives! Thanks for this interview, Francis. I hope you keep on being yourself... it really suits you!