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This article was published 13/3/2009 (4441 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TORONTO - Love him or hate him, you can't say the Caisse de depot's new CEO Michael Sabia shies away from tough jobs.
He was director-general of tax policy in the federal Finance Department while the good and services tax was being prepared for its 1991 introduction.
Sabia accompanied his civil-service mentor, Paul Tellier, when Tellier became president of Canadian National Railway, then a creaking federal Crown corporation on its way to becoming a public company.
First as vice-president of corporate development and then as chief financial officer, Sabia joined Tellier in overseeing CN's privatization in 1995 and its transformation into one of North America's most respected and profitable freight carriers.
He moved to BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE) in late 1999, when the parent company of Bell Canada under then-CEO Jean Monty was indulging in a spasm of high-priced media-convergence acquisitions ranging from the CTV network to overseas telecom carrier Teleglobe.
After Monty resigned in 2002 following the bursting of the turn-of-the-millennium tech bubble, Sabia became CEO. He refocused on Bell's core business as Canada's largest telecommunications operator, selling assets such as the Yellow Pages directory division and slashing the workforce.
In the spring of 2006, shortly after Bell announced it would eliminate 3,000 to 4,000 jobs, the company disclosed that Sabia had received a 555 per cent compensation increase to $6.7 million.
In October 2006, BCE joined the corporate stampede to convert into a tax-advantaged income trust - a move widely seen as exasperating Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who almost immediately decided to tax new income trusts like corporations, stilling the wave of conversions.
BCE, with its share price becalmed since 2002 in a range between $25 and $30, agreed in June 2007 to be taken over for $42.75 per share, a total of almost $52 billion in cash and debt, by a private equity group led by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. But the collapse of credit markets caused the deal to crumble last December.
BCE stock now is back to about $25, and Sabia has been out of full-time work since last July, when he left the company while the Teachers' takeover appeared to be in place.
Now Sabia becomes president and CEO of the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, moving in as an Ontario-born outsider to the country's largest and most politically fraught pension fund.
Once again he is boss of a troubled organization, with the Caisse racked by uncertainty after its assets shrank 25 per cent last year to $120 billion.
He was born in 1953 in St. Catharines, Ont., the son of Laura Sabia, a writer, local politician and president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. He received a bachelor's degree in economics and politics at the University of Toronto and an MA at Yale, joining the government in 1983.
He has said he thrives on pressure, which is fortunate as assessments of his capabilities and accomplishments have ranged from "off-the-scale bright," from former BCE chairman Richard Currie, to "mealy-mouthed grand weasel" from a disgruntled telephone customer.
His BCE legacy is mixed after what one analyst called a "herculean" reorganization. The corporation is leaner and more focused, but service complaints remain widespread, Bell's cellphone segment trails the competition and the share price is moribund.
His own quiet assessment, offered after shareholders approved the Teachers' deal: "In terms of accomplishing the fundamentals of what I set out to accomplish, I would say this great Canadian company is on its way."
Sabia has been married since 1983 to Hilary Pearson, a granddaughter of former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson. Also a former civil servant, she became a vice-president at the Royal Bank and now is president of Philanthropic Foundations Canada.
They have a daughter, Laura.