Provigo's René Provost helped turn a family-run grocer into a corporate powerhouse

The owner-operated grocery stores benefited from the parent company's buying power and the company continued growing. By 1970, he and his two brothers, along with Mr. Turmel, were overseeing a company that was grossing more than $200-million in sales, with a net profit of $1.6-million.

The Globe and Mail
March 21, 2010

Provigo's René Provost helped turn a family-run grocer into a corporate powerhouse
It was a welcome success story at a time when Quebeckers were asserting their economic independence
Philip Fine

The Quebec grocer Provigo began as a simple business started by René Provost's brothers, who packaged flour in seven-pound bags during the Great Depression.

By the time Mr. Provost retired in the late-1980s, the brand had become a Quebec corporate powerhouse and Canada's 10th largest company.

Mr. Provost was a sober thinker, mediator and a consensus builder. He was rarely the public face of Provigo, leaving that to his various partners.

Instead, he did what he did best: dedicated himself to employees and suppliers, and helped find the best route to take for the grocery chain and corporate holding company.

While Provigo reached the status of corporate behemoth – acquiring businesses as diverse as Sports Experts to the now-defunct Consumers Distributing to a chain of American pharmacies – its value for many Quebeckers was its symbolic strength as a homegrown corporation for a province aiming to assert its economic independence. Ironically, the push to keep it in Quebec hands would lead to the company being sold to Ontario grocery giant Loblaws in 1998.

René Provost grew up in Montreal, much younger than the three other children born to Eva Jasmin and J. Omer Provost, who owned a grocery store.

In 1932, when René was six, his brother, Roland who had earlier worked for a grain and flour broker, and other brother Ernest, the two just 21 and 19 at the time, began supplying flour to grocery stores under the name La Cuisinière.

They delivered their flour by car and slowly expanded the business to include other dry goods.

They called their business Provost et Provost.

After René finished his classical studies, he joined his brothers to do the buying and selling for the bulk-food provider, which two years later significantly expanded after the bankruptcy of one of its suppliers.

By 1950, cash-and-carry was the new trend, with wholesalers using the upfront money to expand their businesses. The Provosts began to expand their reach by supplying hotels and hospitals.

By 1961, the brothers had teamed up with another long-time food supplier, Couvrette and Sauriol to become Couvrette & Provost.

René Provost worked under the more senior Bernard Couvrette, until he took over the direction of the company in 1967.

In 1969, after a meeting with an expanding grocery chain, Denault, based in Sherbrooke, Mr. Provost shared his vision of a retail network with owner Antoine Turmel. The two signed an agreement that would translate into the acquisition of grocery stores in several Quebec locations. That same year, they agreed to bring on another chain, the Lamontagne stores.

Provost's plan worked. The owner-operated grocery stores benefited from the parent company's buying power and the company continued growing. By 1970, he and his two brothers, along with Mr. Turmel, were overseeing a company that was grossing more than $200-million in sales, with a net profit of $1.6-million.

That year, Provigo was officially launched. While the name seemed to resemble the name Provost, it was mainly derived from the French word for groceries, provisions.

As the first president of the company, Mr. Provost was involved in myriad tasks including employee relations. While Mr. Turmel was the more public senior member, Mr. Provost seemed to be the one that employees most trusted, so much so that one evening he received a phone call from a distraught warehouse night watchman. The young man had taken a delivery truck for a joy ride and had gotten into an accident. The first person he phoned was Mr. Provost, begging him not to tell his father.

Mr. Provost was a big man who enjoyed many a dish that came his way, being part of a group of friends and colleagues who for many years dined out regularly to try new foods. At the same time, a child of the Depression, he remained frugal, taking lots of time to assess quality before making personal purchases and insisting on such things as mowing his own lawn.

In the spring of 1974, he took time off for a heart ailment and, on his return in the fall, employee relations had soured. Employees staged a work stoppage, which turned violent. The job was getting to him, and, in 1978, at the age of 52, he decided to step down as president and hand over the reins to Mr. Turmel's protégé, Pierre Lessard. He remained active on the board of directors, which soon oversaw huge expansions, including buying Montreal's Dominion stores.

The time was also marked by efforts of the Caisse de dépôt et placement , the province's pension fund manager, to keep the Quebec jewel from being bought out by English Canada. The Caisse became an active shareholder, much to the chagrin of Mr. Turmel, with Mr. Provost taking on a mediator role. The Caisse's move to replace Mr. Lessard with Pierre Lortie, the head of Montreal's stock exchange and a man with no grocery experience, coupled with Mr. Provost losing his wife Antonia Lyonnais, may have led to him retiring soon after.

His retirement years included the co-authoring of a book on the history of Provigo and serving as mayor of Ste Anne des Lacs, the Laurentian town where he had a second home.

René Provost was born May 1, 1926, in Montreal, where he died on Jan. 25, 2010 at 83 from complications following a fall. He leaves his wife, Madeleine Carrière, his sons François and Benoît, and daughter Dominique. He was predeceased by his first wife, Antonia, and daughter Anne-Marie.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Risks: 80 per cent of food distributed by 2 vertically-integrated groups of companies in Ontario, Canada, Must buy only through franchisor (tied buying), Canada, 20100321 He helped

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