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Humble beginnings led Monique Leroux to become a financial powerhouse

When Monique Leroux, former Desjardins Group president and CEO, was growing up in Montreal, two transformational events happened that laid the foundation for a life of financial leadership and innovation.

Her father, an accountant in a financial firm, fell ill. He was unable to work for two years. Leroux’s mother became the family breadwinner — a challenge for any woman in the 1960s. Unable to afford a car, her mother would take the bus in the evening to her part- time job at Canada Post. The Leroux family eventually opened a small shoe store, and everyone chipped in, including 12-year-old Leroux, who came up with the company logo, name, and marketing plan.

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Family finances, however, remained strained. “My mother had three jobs: the family, the store, and the work she did at night,” says Leroux, who pitched in further. A talented musician, she began playing the piano at a local dance studio and the organ at Sunday church services, helping ensure the family didn’t lose their home. By the time she was 15 the family was back on track with “a reasonable way of living,” says Leroux. Yet the precarious daily finances left a permanent mark, emphasizing the “importance of being financially independent and making sure to be very careful on savings and credit.”

There was another early, key lesson. Desjardins had introduced children to financial cooperatives by bringing caisses scolaires into Quebec classrooms. Students learned about economic basics like savings and managing finances. The caisses required students to work in a team, introducing Leroux, then in Grade 4, to the concepts of collaboration and cooperation — “about values and principles.”

Such early childhood lessons followed Leroux (a trained chartered accountant) into adulthood, inspiring bold and creative but measured leadership. She steadily scaled the corporate ladder, becoming consulting partner and tax adviser with Ernst & Young before moving to RBC Royal Bank as its senior vice-president, Quebec division, and senior vice-president of finance. She then took up executive positions at Desjardins, first as CFO, and then did an eight-year stint as CEO, stepping down this past April.

“People observed that I was a little bit conservative and very prudent in managing capital and managing performance,” says Leroux, who made history when she became CEO in 2008, her leadership making Desjardins the largest company in Canada to be headed by a woman. (Desjardins is the fifth-largest financial cooperative in the world and Canada’s sixth-largest financial institution.)

As Leroux’s term as CEO at Desjardins neared an end, she began looking for other challenges, eventually throwing her hat in the ring with three other hopefuls for presidency of the 120-year-old International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). Her election at the ICA’s global conference in Turkey in November 2015 notched another first: Leroux became the first Canadian to attain this position.

Leroux had cultivated a relationship with the ICA before her bid for leadership. While at Desjardins, she founded and now chairs the non-profit International Summit of Co-operatives, which launched in 2012. This biennial gathering is co-hosted by the ICA and Desjardins. This year’s event was held last October in Montreal. Attracting more than 3,000 participants from 93 countries, this year’s Summit, themed “Cooperatives: The Power to Act,” focused on promoting and fostering the development of cooperative enterprises around the world. The theme relates to the conjoining of cooperative principles with the business world and the worldwide collaboration needed to support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which include food security, education, gender equality, and sustainable water management and energy use.

There is an opportunity for cooperatives to work better together – Monique Leroux

Globally, “there is an opportunity for cooperatives to work better together,” Leroux said in a wide-ranging discussion about the theme and focus of the third biennial Summit. There is also a “strategic advantage in making sure that we cooperate in a way that is much more proactive than now.” The Summit also explored how best to utilize the power of cooperatives to tackle modernity’s greatest planetary threat: climate change. Already cooperative organizations undertake green investing and natural disaster management, with credit unions — especially those in Europe — becoming highly advanced in terms of green financing and green bonds, says Leroux.

The Summit allowed Canada to showcase its deep-rooted expertise in the cooperative sector. “We have a lot of credibility in the world,” Leroux said. By emphasizing “The Power to Act,” discussions centred around how to support and nurture organizations “in order to influence the direction of the world and the direction of businesses in society.” ◊


Vitals

NAME: Monique Leroux

TITLE: President, International Co-operative Alliance; Chair, Quebec International Summit of Co-operatives; Chair, Investissement Québec

ORGANIZATION: International Co-operative Alliance, Investissement Québec, Quebec International Summit of Co-operatives

HOME BASE: Montreal

LEADERSHIP: Member of: Business Council of Canada; Founders’ Council of the Quebec Global 100 Network; Canadian Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service; Trilateral Commission; Asia Business Leaders Advisory Council; and B20 Financing Growth Taskforce

ON THE HORIZON: Chair, Métropolis 2017 congress; president, Board of Governors of the Society for the Celebrations of Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017