Skip navigation

Thursday January 24, 2013

A visionary media mogul rooted in Quebec

He believed in treating people with respect and thought business should help to better the community

Special to The Globe and Mail

Back in 1957, when most Canadians were earning less than $5,000 a year, $100,000 was a small fortune, but it was also the amount that Henri Audet, an electrical engineer with the CBC in Montreal, needed to raise somehow.

The network had got into the television business five years earlier, and now Audet, a visionary and budding entrepreneur, wanted to do the same. With the standard of living on the rise and people enjoying more leisure time than ever, the new medium had a bright future - and someone was needed to start a station just down the St. Lawrence in Trois-Rivières.

But Audet feared it was just a matter of time before others would reach the same conclusion, so he had to act quickly.

He approached everyone he could think of, including family and friends, and even sold the family's home to raise the money - a huge gamble had things gone badly. But Audet's entrepreneurial instincts were sound and the newly minted Télévision Saint-Maurice, an affiliate of the French-language Radio-Canada, was a success. The first year's profit was just $4,000, but CKTM-TV has paid a dividend every year since.

From that modest beginning with just 11 employees, the energetic Audet built Compagnie Générale de Communication, better known today as Cogeco - an international media empire that includes 13 radio stations and ranks as Canada's fourth-largest cable-television network, with a staff of about 3,500 in Ontario and Quebec. In 2011, it had revenues of $1.4-billion.

"He was the leader, obviously, but it was a family effort - one of tenacity," Cogeco chairman Jan Peeters said in a commemorative video shown last week at the company's annual meeting in Montreal. "They simply refused to give up or just take the cash and leave. They said, 'No, we're going to stick with this, from one generation to the next ... We're going to build.'"

Henri Audet died of natural causes on Nov. 3 in Ste-Anne-des-Lacs, Que. He was 94. His family retains control of the empire he launched through its holding company, Gestion Audem Inc.

At the beginning in Trois-Rivières, production values were pretty primitive and the only means of recording was with black and white film, Audet's oldest son, Louis Audet said. "All local ads and local programming were done live in a church basement."

Cogeco's president and CEO said in November, 1963, freezing rain brought down the 900-foot broadcasting tower. "I remember visiting the scene - it looked like a war-torn area." But "never giving up," he said, his father "took the insurance premium and rebuilt it to 1,000 feet."

Described as a "soft-spoken and courtly gentleman," Henri Audet was born in Montreal on Aug. 7, 1918. His father, Victor, was a salesman for Five Roses flour. After obtaining his bachelor's degree from Jean-de-Brébeuf College, Audet attended Montreal's prestigious École Polytechnique.

A grant from the provincial government sent him to Boston in 1943 for his master's degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was there that Audet first became interested in television, pioneered by Scottish engineer John Logie Baird barely two decades earlier.

"At MIT, television was the next big thing and he was captivated by its social potential. He called it the 'Agora of modern civilizations,' referring to his studies of ancient Greek civilization while at Collège Brébeuf," Louis said.

Returning to Canada in 1945, Audet found work with the CBC. Two years later, he was named the engineer in charge of its Montreal district. This meant he organized and directed the CBC's technical services in one of the largest broadcasting centres in the world.

Recognizing his potential, the CBC asked Audet and four other officials in 1949 to conduct a large-scale study of TV in the United States and Europe. By 1953, he was in charge of all technical services for CBC Radio and TV, as its regional engineer for Quebec.

One of his responsibilities in helping to make the CBC/SRC a coast-to-coast television network was to find private investors willing to launch affiliate stations in communities not served by the network, said his son. "He found the Bushnells in Ottawa [and] the Sobels in Hamilton," Louis said, but "no one wanted to take up the opportunity in Trois-Rivières, so he decided to take the challenge."

The gamble certainly paid off, but Louis said his father was in business to do more than make money: Just as he believed in treating people with respect, he thought business should contribute to better the community. "[He was involved] in numerous industry, social, cultural and community activities. In 1957, he created the first charitable televised telethon in North America, 'Le Noël du pauvre,' at a time when the social net was very thin."

"Television wasn't his only job. His right hand would be doing something entirely different from his left, he did many other things," former Cogeco director and long-time associate Robert Bonneau recalls in the memorial video.

"He was the founding chair of the board of directors of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. He played a part in creating the Orchestre symphonique de Trois-Rivières ... He was involved from the very beginning. He was president of the Association canadienne de la radio et de la télévision de langue française.

As the years went by and his empire grew, Audet received several accolades. In 1971, he was elected president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and later was inducted into its hall of fame. In 1984, he became a member of the Order of Canada.

A staunch federalist who believed in bilingualism for Canada and a strong Quebec within the federation, Audet was a reserved man, not given to displays of affection. Known as an intellectual, he worked long hours but made time for his family, said Louis Audet.

Whenever he could, Audet escaped the pressures of business by sailing - a hobby he loved.

Out on the water with his family and friends, he could forget the cares of business, contracts, labour relations, cash flow and all the million and one problems associated with running a business empire.

He became chairman and chief executive officer of Cogeco in 1976 - until then he'd hired others to fill those roles - and handed the reins to son Louis in 1993.

Three years later, he declared that, beginning with his "hunch" that French-language TV would take off, "apart from technological advances, things have worked out pretty much as I thought they would."

He made the comment to shareholders at Cogeco's annual meeting on Dec. 16, 1996, having announced that he was resigning after two decades as chairman of the board. "I've served this company for almost 40 years," he confided, "and I'd like to move on to other things - like travelling with my wife."

He remained a member of the board for another 10 years, finally resigning at 88 to become president emeritus in December, 2006. Two years later, Cogeco sold its television broadcast holdings, but the principles of business Audet believed in - respect, integrity, teamwork, commitment to service, innovation and entrepreneurship - remain central to the business he created, his son said.

"His legacy is a financially strong, innovative and socially responsible company, one of the few headquartered in Quebec, backed by a family devoted to pursuing his mission."

Audet leaves Marie, his wife of 62 years, his children Louis, François, Denise, Bernard, Geneviève, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Back to top