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Lunch with Robert Card: The 'survivalist' charged with restoring SNC-Lavalin's reputation

Robert Card, the chief executive officer of SNC-Lavalin Group.

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

At a glance, it is easy to misjudge Robert Card, the CEO of SNC-Lavalin Group. An engineer with a slight frame, he is unassuming with his close-cut hair, dark blue suit and crisp white shirt that matches his all-American smile.

But that image is shattered long before our waiter inquires about coffee at Beaver Hall, a bustling French bistro close to the engineering firm's Montreal headquarters. "I am a bit of a survivalist," Mr. Card confides. That is an understatement.

A former undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, he has been practising archery since his parents gave him a bow and arrows at age 6. The antlers that crowd his home in the Denver suburb of Littleton attest to the skills he hones at the 50-metre range in his backyard and the 10-metre range in his basement. In the family room alone, there is a mounted red stag from New Zealand, a caribou, and a moose from Alaska whose story is as big as its rack.

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It was almost dusk when Mr. Card shot that moose, which he and his wife had been tracking through the tundra thicket for two days. They and their guide had little time to carve off some meat and conceal the 700-kilogram beast, in the hope the bears would not feast on it. But on the rugged trek back to their tents, a wolf pack got a whiff of their backpacks and started to follow. The three turned around to a row of piercing eyes. Nancy Card fired her .44 Magnum over their heads, but the wolves barely blinked. "They followed us all the way back. It was pretty scary," he says.

Most people's survival instincts would tell them to pick up the satellite phone and get the first plane out of there. But Mr. Card and his wife went back for the carcass the following day. Little wonder the American executive took the top job at the embattled SNC-Lavalin: If there is a lion's den, Mr. Card will walk into it.

"I'm an experience junkie, and it doesn't get any better than this," he says.

Mr. Card actually has some experience in a situation as explosive as SNC's. From 1995 to 2001, he oversaw the decommissioning of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. The facility manufactured all of the triggers for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but ceased operations in 1989 after the FBI raided it for environmental violations. Afterwards, thousands of idle workers were kept on for years until someone figured out how to get rid of 21 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium.

"The place was totally dysfunctional," recalls Nancy Tuor, former vice-chair and president of governmental division of CH2M Hill, who had known Mr. Card since 1984 and was invited by him to work on the Rocky Flats project.

The U.S. government projected it would take 70 years and $36-billion (U.S.) to dismantle the nuclear plant. Mr. Card brought together a dozen experts in a "skunk-work" group, and asked if the job could be done in five. They came back with a $7-billion, 10-year plan. He then sold it to the employees who were about to lose their jobs. But first, he gained their trust by suiting up in full protective gear and spending a day a week in the nuclear plant, figuring out how things worked.

"He is a forward thinker and would prefer not to get into the details. But if the task requires it, he will be right there on the floor," Ms. Tuor says. "He is one of the most relentless people I have ever seen."

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The FBI raid, the anti-nuclear protests, the environmental concerns of the Colorado citizens, all made headline news across the country. "The Rocky Flats media coverage made what is happening to [SNC] look like small potatoes," Mr. Card says.

Yet, one year into his new job, the SNC president is visibly exasperated with the attention the bribery scandal continues to draw. "Every time a new aspect pops out, it is reported as if it were a new event. … I'm not saying it shouldn't be reported. I'm just saying it's a challenge to run fast enough to keep up with it."

And Robert Card can run. Three to four times a week, the 60-year-old executive cycles or jogs about six kilometres along the Lachine canal. Running is how he met his wife, who was an elite long-distance runner when they started dating in their early 20s. To stay slim, Mr. Card also counts his calories; he skips the appetizer and the dessert, and looks longingly at the crisp baguette on the table. He orders, in accented French, the grilled mahi-mahi served over a Romanesco cauliflower purée, which he washes down with water.

Restoring SNC's reputation will take the endurance of a marathon. By December, Mr. Card hopes to finish the firm's internal investigations into what he calls "high risk" countries and clients – "no stone is left unturned," he says. But putting the controversy behind it will be a drawn-out process given the list of former executives who will undergo trials, including his predecessor, Pierre Duhaime.

"These trials will take years, so we have to find a way for this to become non-news," Mr. Card says.

A soaring share price may help soothe shareholder wounds. "When we transform into a top-performing company, that will take care of the vast majority of it," Mr. Card says, adding that he won't "feel good" about SNC's shares until they return to the $55-60 range.

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To get there, Mr. Card is reshaping SNC. The firm is pulling away from its infrastructure concession investments such as AltaLink, putting an unspecified stake in Alberta's main electricity distributor up for sale. SNC wants to redeploy the proceeds into its core engineering business.

Mr. Card comes from a family of engineers: His father (who still practises at 86), his brother, his wife and his two children are all engineers. It's something that permeates all of Mr. Card's thinking as he wonders aloud how Beaver Hall's chef, Jérôme Ferrer, manages to put away the odd-shaped tableware at his signature restaurant Europea. And yet, selling SNC's lucrative assets to invest in engineering seems counterintuitive, given the company's lacklustre results in that business.

Mr. Card argues that, historically, returns are 4 to 6 per cent higher in engineering and construction than in infrastructure. "The E&C business needs to be performing for that to happen – and we are not there yet. But there is no reason to think it shouldn't be."

Adapting the firm's business strategy and maintaining its "diversified portfolio" is critical, he says. "With this global platform, we can get enough scale to stay relevant in a rapidly consolidating industry. We can say to Montreal and to Canada: Your company is going to be there 10 years from now. But if we don't do this … maybe we won't."

The question is, will investors wait long enough? Activist investor West Face Capital acquired SNC shares last winter with an eye to "unlocking" value at the company. (The Toronto firm declined to comment on SNC's new strategy, and Mr. Card refused to discuss his talks with West Face principals.)

Some analysts believe SNC is vulnerable to a takeover given its low valuation. SNC has no controlling shareholder, although the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, with 10.2 per cent of the outstanding shares, endorses the company's management.

But Mr. Card shrugs at the idea. "While you can never rule it out, it is not my worry. We are a complicated organization, and it would take quite a large and diverse acquirer to sort that out." What he doesn't volunteer is that the same bribery scandals that hinder SNC's ability to make acquisitions might also deter predators.

Asked about this poison pill, Mr. Card shoots straight back. "It's the wrong kind," he says, but acknowledges that "it would take an incredibly sporty investor to want to [buy SNC]."

And given the cards Mr. Card was dealt, he'll play whatever trump he can find.

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CURRICULUM VITAE

Personal

Born in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1953. Married to Nancy; father of Christopher and Allison. Hobbies include running, cycling, hunting fishing.

Education

Bachelor's degree in civil engineering from University of Washington; master's in environmental engineering from Stanford University; executive MBA from Harvard Business School.

Career

1996-2001: CEO of Kaiser-Hill; oversaw decommissioning of Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.

2001-2004: Undersecretary, U.S. Department of Energy.

2004-2009: President and chairman of CH2M Hill International. Also served as deputy program manager of the CLM consortia, delivery partner for 2012 London Olympics.

2009-2012: President of the energy, water and facilities division of CH2M Hill.

August, 2012: Named CEO of SNC-Lavalin, effective Oct. 1

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On growing up on a farm: "I worked nights and summers pruning trees, spreading insecticides, driving heavy equipment. I was a workaholic even back then."

On his career: "The DOE was a one-in-a-lifetime, pinnacle-type job. … Since then I have nothing to prove.So my ego isn't tied up in this. It allows me to be vulnerable. I don't have to be the smartest guy in the room."

On the yet-to-come decision on allowing SNC to bid on public works contracts in Quebec: "All the bad people that caused this are gone, so who is the system going to punish, when the only obvious recipients for the punishment are the 34,000 employees and the shareholders who are already victims?"

On being SNC's first English-speaking American president: "I expected more of a cold shoulder, 'You are not from the inside' type remarks. But I am impressed: Everybody is focused on the outcomes and not on the petty details."

On learning French: "Speaking French was on my bucket list before I came to SNC. But it is very frustrating. I am making some progress in vocabulary and grammar, not so much in conversation. I am still at a point where I need to translate and it slows me down."

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About the Author
Chief Quebec correspondent

Sophie Cousineau is The Globe and Mail’s chief Quebec correspondent. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years, and was La Presse’s business columnist prior to joining the Globe in 2012. Ms. Cousineau earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from McGill University. More

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