Canada’s lord of the Olympic rings

Marcel Aubut is a man who takes no guff and has no filter – and no doubt, he’s the key to the country’s Olympic success
Alec Castonguay
Mathieu Rivard
Mathieu Rivard

Marcel Aubut is giving me the rundown on his new speed machine, a black Camaro convertible parked in the underground lot at the downtown offices of his Montreal law firm, Heenan Blaikie. “Climb aboard,” he calls out, sliding behind the wheel. His private chauffeur is nowhere to be seen and we have to get to the office of the Canadian Olympic Committee a few streets away on René-Lévesque Boulevard. “This is rare, you’re going to see me drive,” he says.

Aubut turns the key, hits the gas and revs the motor. His face lights ups. He backs up, shoots me a look and barrels out of the parking spot, wheels screeching. “Marcel Villeneuve!” he shouts, just before jamming on the brakes and screeching to a halt at the parking booth 50 m away. “What a feeling! I need that,” he says.

Marcel Aubut runs the Canadian Olympic Committee like he lives his life: pedal to the floor, a head full of ideas, consumed by ambition and unnerving bluntness. People call him self-absorbed, a brute, a megalomaniac, a traitor to hockey. Others praise him as a determined builder, and a loyal and generous friend.

Either you love him, or you hate him, says Quebec sports journalist Réjean Tremblay, a close friend for the last 35 years.

Aubut is one of the rare Canadians to have crossed the borders of amateur sports, professional sports, business and politics. He hosts ministers at his hunting estate north of Quebec City and recently helped the disgraced Quebec engineering firm Dessau get new government contracts. He’s even working to bring the Nordiques, which he once owned, back to Quebec City. And at the moment, he has his eye on the most coveted position in amateur sports: a seat on the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Since 2010, under Aubut’s presidency, the COC has increased its personnel from 38 to 90 employees. And it’s still hiring. The COC closed its Ottawa office and expanded into brand new quarters in downtown Montreal—a welcome change from the gloomy digs the COC used to have in the basement of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

All the preparations for the Games now take place in the Montreal office. Sponsorship, administration and marketing are handled in the COC’s Toronto office, or, as Aubut says, “COC’s head is in Toronto and its heart is in Montreal. Montreal is an Olympic city, and Quebec really encourages amateur sports. Having three offices, with one in Ottawa, just wasn’t efficient.”

Strengthening the COC’s presence in Montreal has also boosted the presence of French in what was basically a unilingual organization. “French hasn’t been spoken at the COC for the last hundred years. Changing that was a huge job,” says Aubut.

When the young Marcel was growing up on a dairy farm in Saint-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup, Que., he never imagined he’d work his way into to the upper echelons of the sports world, either amateur or professional.

The second of four children, he was already manning a chainsaw in the family’s woods when he was seven. He learned to drive tractors on his father Roland’s lap. “I started driving my Dad’s car in secret when I was eight.” Already a hockey fan as a young child, Aubut would also slip out to buy newspapers in secret so he could follow his favourite team, the Chicago Blackhawks. “I’ve always loved hockey, even though I was never a good player,” he admits.

As a boy at the strict Saint-François Xavier boarding school he attended in L’Islet, Que., Aubut’s ambition was obvious. When one of his teachers asked him if he wanted to be a priest, he said, “No way, cardinal.”

Now Marcel Aubut is a business in himself. He has one full-time driver (also a handyman), another part-time driver, a cook and four assistants at his law firm—two in Montreal and two in Quebec City, including one whose job is to track down bills for his expenses, which he leaves behind him everywhere he goes.

To coordinate his complicated schedule of meetings at the COC, with clients at Heenan-Blaikie, and for the numerous boards he sits on—the Quebec Bar Association, University of Laval Foundation, Century Iron Mines, Whole Foods Market Canada, and more—Aubut hired Jean-Philippe Arseneau, who worked at the Quebec government office in New York City until 2013.

Aubut gets up at 6 a.m., glances at the press dossiers the COC and his own office put together for him—he reads the entire week’s papers on Saturdays so he doesn’t miss anything—then gets on the phone. If he’s not in a meeting or on an airplane, he’s on his cellphone until late in the evening.

At 66, Aubut has no intention of slowing down. “I’m built like a Caterpillar work boot. I’m an unusually high performer. I think I was born to make a difference in the world,” he says on his way to another meeting.

Caterpillar, it should be noted, also builds bulldozers. Every other month, on average, one of Aubut’s assistants quits, often in tears. “It looks like we have a huge turnover,” he says. “All I can say is, it’s hard to find the right person for the job. The requirements are high. You have to be efficient and available.”

Working with Marcel Aubut is like ascribing to a religion. Either you believe, or you’re out. His projects and his schedules completely dominate your life, explains a former employee. “He has absolutely no notion of time management,” says another former employee. Life is one emergency after another. Back when he owned the Nordiques, he’d call up his trainers or his general directors at one o’clock in the morning. “He had some idea and had to share it with me, even though we were playing the next day and I needed my sleep,” recalls Jacques Demers, who was coaching the Nordiques when they joined the NHL in 1979.

Aubut is known to call members of his team at 8 p.m. and order them back to the office. “It doesn’t matter if you are doing your groceries, or at a restaurant. He doesn’t care. If you refuse, you hear about it for days,” recalls a former employee. To take the pressure off his troops, they agreed to have one person on call 24/7. “Everyone takes turns for the sake of efficiency,” says Aubut.

He has no filter. He says exactly what he thinks, says Réjean Tremblay.

Aubut is the same when it comes to women. He’s known for commenting on the looks or figures of waitresses, or even women who work in his law office. “He has zero manners,” says one woman who asked to remain anonymous.

Aubut has the same table reserved for him for lunch every day at Deca 77, the restaurant on the ground floor of Heenan Blaikie’s office building. If there isn’t a glass of pinot grigio waiting on the table when he arrives, he goes off at the manager or the waiter.

Among his other rituals, he always uses the exact mix of felt pens and markers to write—but never a ballpoint pen. He’s been known to refuse to take notes if he doesn’t have his pen of choice at hand.

In his Montreal office, he has a private room set aside for meetings with clients and friends. The walls are decorated with photos of him with former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr., and former Quebec premier Pierre-Marc Johnson, along with Nordiques hockey jerseys—the original pale blue ones—and Olympic jackets signed by medal winners.

Long glass shelves hold his collection of miniature model cars. “I have 1,500 of them, but the shelves here can only hold 300 so I rotate them every six months,” he explains.

Back in 1980, after he rolled his Corvette while driving at 220 km/h along a Quebec highway, O’Keefe Breweries, who owned the Nordiques at the time, forbade him from driving a car. Thirty years later, he only gets behind the wheel to drive short distances. Then his drivers or friends take over. “I’m dangerous, I admit it. Speed is part of my DNA,” he says.

But that hasn’t stopped him from collecting motor vehicles. He has 30 cars and seven motorcycles along with speedboats, Sea-Doos, Ski-Doos and more. The only vintage cars he owns are Cadillacs, a 1957 pale green one like his idol, Elvis Presley, owned. The other is 1959 black one like his favourite uncle, Joseph—a mechanic who refurbished cars—owned. “That’s really where I got my love of cars,” he says.

To store his cars, Aubut had a brand new warehouse built in Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, close to one of his country homes on Lac-Saint-Joseph—or one of them. Aubut owns a total of 11 properties, including a condo in Florida, one in Montreal, one at Mont-Tremblant, a family house in Sillery, and an eight-sq.-km hunting and fishing estate north of Quebec City. In 1994, Forbes magazine estimated his personal fortune to be $12 million. And that was before Aubut sold the Nordiques the next year for around $75 million. His CV is 48 pages long, including an introduction and table of contents. He refuses to write a three-pager for clients or event organizers. Yet Aubut believes he has his ego under control: “I haven’t changed. People call me by my first name.” That notoriety pays off when he’s trying to get business leaders across the country to open their wallets. The Canadian Olympic Committee has never had as much money as it does now, five years after Aubut was elected president. For the 2013-16 period he pulled together the tidy sum of $111 million in sponsorships. That’s a 70 per cent increase over the last cycle for the Vancouver Games. It’s also 270 per cent more than the $41 million of the COC’s budget during the strong economic years of 2005-08.

“It’s amazing what Marcel has managed to do. The economy is weak, and sponsors are hard to find, but the COC finds them,” says Sylvie Bernier, a diver who won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and was assistant chef de mission for the 2012 London Games.

Major sponsors did come through, including the Royal Bank, Bell, Canadian Tire, the Hudson’s Bay Company, Air Canada and BMW. Aubut negotiated agreements directly with their presidents. “The hard part is getting past the marketing department. I’m lucky I have a good network. When I call, they pick up the phone,” he says.

“My pitch brought tears to their eyes. I told them, ‘Let’s improve Canada. Follow us and we’ll do more than improve sports, we’ll improve the country.’ ” He wrapped up his spiel by rubbing in the fact that he was doing this as a volunteer. “I asked them, “So what are you willing to do for your country?” ’

Aubut’s success ruffled feathers among amateur sports federations, many of whom struggle to find sponsors in the best of times. Even though the COC hands over 39 per cent of its budget to athletes and federations, some federations feel like the COC is taking too big a piece of a small pie. Aubut doesn’t buy it. “What are they talking about? We didn’t go near a company that was already sponsoring another federation.”

Aside from the COC, the only other thing keeping elite amateur sports afloat in Canada is Own the Podium, a non-profit organization that supports high-potential athletes and sports. Aubut consistently lobbied the Harper government, along with other leaders of sports federations, to keep funding in place for amateur sports after the successful Games in Vancouver, where Canada won a record 14 gold medals. Along with the government, the Canadian Olympic Committee is principal donor to the program, managed by an independent organization. Between 2013-16, the COC spent $37 million, or 50 per cent more than in 2009-12.

Marcel Aubut stops in front of the 26-storey skyscraper on the corner of Montreal’s René-Lévesque and Beaver Hall boulevards, and lifts his arms over his head to demonstrate the enormous scale of his latest project. “We managed to get the ground floor and the first floor, here, right downtown, right in Montreal’s Golden Mile. We can do anything now,” he says.

Montreal’s Olympic House will be part of Marcel Aubut’s legacy. It will also be key in his strategy to increase the visibility of the COC and of amateur sports in general. It will be opened with great pomp at the end of April.

Aubut will be negotiating directly with the International Olympic Committee to get the right to put the Olympic rings on the four corners of the roof. “I think I can convince them. The new president, Thomas Bach, and I get along well,” he says. “They will be visible from any bridge in Montreal.”

On the facade of the building, 10 m above the sidewalk, a screen will broadcast results of amateur sports competitions. Inside, one entire wall was turned into a giant screen. The entrance hall will be an interactive sports museum with a souvenir shop. The store will be managed by Kevin Gilmore, chief operating officer of the Montreal Canadiens, whom Aubut brought onto the board of the COC.

The Olympic House will also house dozens of COC employees—they were still opening boxes when we toured the second floor. “The best part is that we didn’t pay a penny for it,” Aubut says. Computers, phones, television, tables, chairs—sponsors picked up the bill for it all.

Aubut is already thinking of his next move, and it won’t be in Montreal. Rumours are circulating when his second mandate as president of the COC finishes in 2017, Aubut has his eye on a prestigious seat at the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland.

Is that his plan? “Yes, but I’m not thinking about it every day,” he says. “Like my father said, “Work hard at what you’re doing and the rest will follow.”

Excerpted from the full feature in the issue of L’Actualité, on newsstands Feb. 7.