Live & Learn: François Joly

Eleven years and one successful national expansion later, the Desjardins Financial Security president is leaving on a high note--to play piano.

If you had asked me at the beginning of my career if I was going to finish in insurance, I would have said, “No thanks, that doesn't sound very interesting.” But after 11 years, I like it, because it covers all of the cycles of people's lives.

I'm not a big seller. I just think we have to be secure in our life for every responsibility we are taking. You are there in the life of the people, and I like people. I was not very aware before that insurance was so close to the people.

What am I most proud of? In 2005, we became the best company in insurance in terms of return on equity. Ten years ago we were in a bad position financially. But with the 2001 merger between our two life-insurance companies, Desjardins-Laurentian Life Assurance and Imperial Life Financial, we saw things that we had never seen before. The merger signalled that Desjardins will do business across Canada.

If we needed to develop Desjardins across the country with two or three names, it's not a question of name, but of credibility. Our competitors at the time used to hammer at us that we were not national. One system, one name is easier.

I've been in this job for 11 years, and in the last two years we've done very well, so I need a new challenge now. When you look at my resumé, you'll see that I have never done a job for more than eight years. I always need a challenge.

Five years ago, some people told me you should go out of your job by yourself, rather than be guided out, so I made my choice. I am now 59, so I have around 15 years to do what I want to do, and manage my agenda.

When I was young I wanted to be an engineer, but when I saw what I had to do, it was too complex for me. You needed physics and chemistry, so I changed my mind.

I didn't plan anything in my career. It was very important to me to learn anything and everything. To keep passionate about your job, you have to learn and you have to meet as many people as possible. That's why I am always changing my jobs.

When I became an auditor [at Raymond Chabot], I didn't like it. An auditor is always working with last year. That's too passive, and it's not very active or interesting to work in the past. So I became a specialist, a manager in charge of human relations.

Human resources is very important to me. In French, we have a saying, écoute mais n'entends pas, meaning you can listen to people, but you're not really understanding. So we should listen and understand people–and respect them.

I am a guy who has a lot of limits. I did not know insurance 10 years ago. I don't know technology. I don't speak English very well, but I understand it. So you need a lot of good people around you and accept that they are more competent in some things than you.

I can say after 25 years that I saw lots of heroes 20 years ago, but now they are zeros.

It's not a bad thing to be ambitious, but it has to be after the ambition of the company. If you put your own position before the company's, well, you will be a short-term hero.

Since 1985, I have not slept seven nights straight in my own bed. I've had enough. I want to spend more time first with my wife and also with my hobbies. I'm not stopping work, just leaving a job with those responsibilities. I'm leaving with three nice years of results behind me, so it's like leaving with three Stanley Cups.

I want to learn piano. That's a dream for, I don't know, 50 years. I will take lessons starting in January. My father played piano, but he never learned. He played by ear. I was so involved in sport that I forgot to learn the piano. Everywhere you go you see a piano. I'm going to give some concerts, like at seniors' homes. I will be good, for sure.

The second thing of which I'm most proud of is that Desjardins is now present outside of Quebec. Ten years ago we were so shy to expose the name Desjardins outside Quebec. We tried to use everything except Desjardins. The president of the Mouvement at the time worked very hard with [then Finance Minister Jean] Campeau about the independence of Quebec, so that's why we were so shy about using the name Desjardins across Canada.

Why? The complex of the French-Canadian. The former CEO was involved in the Belanger camp, which was nationalist. The English people, especially in Quebec, had a bad image of Desjardins because it seemed we were too much into politics. We used Imperial Life in the rest of Canada instead of Desjardins because we were so unsure about the name Desjardins.

What happens if Quebec becomes independent now? The answer is very simple. We are everywhere in Canada, not just one province.

Last year we sold more than $75 million in premiums to the employees of the government of Newfoundland. Our own development growth has let us continue to get bigger, but to be a real alternative to the big three we need to make a big acquisition.

The one area I didn't succeed in very well was in making that big acquisition. The past 1 1/2 years we have had a plan to buy a company about the size of us, but we didn't succeed-yet. It's not all my fault. When you buy a company, the seller has to agree, too.

François Joly


Born Aug. 27, 1947, in Montreal

Insurance executive; wannabe piano player


After graduating from École des hautes études commerciales (HEC), joins accounting firm Raymond Chabot Martin Paré.


Joins La Confédération des caisses populaires et d'économie Desjardins du Québec as vice-president of networks.


Becomes senior vice-president of Desjardins-Laurentian Life Group. Promoted to president and COO a year later.


Desjardins merges its two life insurance companies as Desjardins Financial Security, with Joly as president and COO.


Named “Personnalité financière de l'année au Québec” by Montreal mag Finance et Investissement. Retired Aug. 31.