MONTREAL -- A job at the powerful Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is the ideal way to earn your stripes in Montreal financial circles. But it will never make you rich.
Vincent Lacroix, who started at the provincial pension fund manager fresh out of the University of Sherbrooke in 1991, knew this from the moment he was hired at an annual salary of less than $40,000.
He hung around just long enough to earn his Caisse pedigree, quitting in 1994. Less than a decade later, he could claim to have the best of both worlds: Caisse credentials and, above all, eye-popping wealth.
Mr. Lacroix, whose Norbourg Asset Management Inc. stands accused by Quebec's securities watchdog of diverting $70-million in client assets, can count among his own possessions several residences, a four-star resort in Quebec's Eastern Townships, a real estate company and a full-time chauffeur. The latter, Mr. Lacroix insisted only months ago, just looks like his bodyguard.
The 39-year-old native of Magog, Que., has cut a controversial swath through the industry in seemingly record time.
"Everyone in the industry says I'm always accompanied by a bodyguard. That, too, is false," Mr. Lacroix told a Quebec financial industry newsletter last November. "What I have is a driver. Yes, he's a six-foot-two colossus who weighs 230 pounds, but he's only there to drive me, not to protect me."
In little more than a year, between late 2003 and late 2004, Norbourg was snapping up competitors at a dizzying pace -- even buying a mutual fund manager from his former employer, the Caisse.
The acquisitions raised eyebrows.
"Vincent had no partners in these purchases," one industry insider said yesterday. "That's what no one understood. How could he make all these acquisitions without a silent partner or an institutional investor?"
From the moment he started at the Caisse as an analyst in asset allocation, Mr. Lacroix, who holds a master's degree in finance, demonstrated he was a young man in a hurry and intended to become his own boss.
While former colleagues described Norbourg's president and chief executive officer as a competent, clever and a "good number-cruncher," he was also impatient.
That led him to quit the Caisse in 1994 to join Maxima Capital. Mr. Lacroix left in 1997. Five years later, Maxima was shut down by regulators and fined $200,000.
In 1998, Mr. Lacroix founded Norbourg with the help of businessman Robert Simoneau, who was well known in horse-racing circles and a friend of Mr. Lacroix's uncle, Yves Leblanc.
Progress was slow at first. But business seemed to take off in 2003, as Mr. Lacroix started his buying spree and it was alleged that he offered eyebrow-raising retention bonuses to prevent sales representatives from defecting.
"That's completely ridiculous," Mr. Lacroix told Finance & Investissement last year when asked to address rumours Norbourg was paying out its bonuses in cash. "I don't walk around with suitcases full of money to do transactions with."
Mr. Lacroix conceded to the publication that he appeared to contravene Norbourg's own code of conduct, which forbids officers from making private placement investments in publicly traded companies. At the time, Mr. Lacroix had accumulated a large position in Dianor Resources Inc., a junior mining company involved in diamond exploration in Quebec's Abitibi region. Since then, Mr. Lacroix has increased his holding on several occasions and now owns 21.5 per cent of Dianor, which has a market capitalization of about $30-million.
"It's true I invest in private placements," Mr. Lacroix told Finance & Investissement. "But I make seven figures and I need a tax shelter as a consequence."
Industry sources described Norbourg as a "one-man show."
"Vincent did everything," one former colleague said. "He made all the decisions."
The source described Norbourg's second-in-command, Serge Beugré, as being "very honest." The Ivory Coast-born Mr. Beugré met Mr. Lacroix when they both worked at the Caisse in the early 1990s.
At the provincial pension fund manager, Mr. Lacroix never worked on the trading floor, but was rather assigned specific projects, including an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian investment brokerage industry. The study was a launching pad, a former colleague said, for Mr. Lacroix's idea of a niche-playing fund manager independent from the country's major financial institutions.
In addition to managing mutual funds sold to small investors, Mr. Lacroix said last year that he had a long list of wealthy clients for whom Norbourg offered private banking services. Mutual fund management accounted for only 15 per cent of revenue. The rest came from Norbourg's private banking and hedge fund activities.
Despite the dizzying pace of growth, Mr. Lacroix found time for charitable activities, especially in his native Eastern Townships region. Earlier this year, he announced his intention to donate $10,000 to the Fondation du Centre hospitalier de Sherbrooke, after donating $5,000 last year. He has also participated in several charity golf tournaments in the area.
Most of them were held within a stone's throw of the Auberge Étoile-sur-le-Lac, the four-star resort Mr. Lacroix and his brother purchased only this month in a triumphant homecoming.
© 2007 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.
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