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Risky Enterprise

Michel Turcotte, recipient of the 2012 Donald M. Stuart Award, has made his life's work getting risk under control.

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By: Angela Stelmakowich, Editor
2012-12-02

You could say Michel Turcotte’s work life has been about good timing — a risk management job requiring knowledge of insurance opens up when he is an underwriter; a cable company needs to fill a position and he has worked as a computer programmer; and he is well-versed and well-positioned during the emergence of a new media entity, allowing him to help build an enterprise risk management (ERM) program almost from scratch.

The recipient of the 2012 Donald M. Stuart Award, Canada’s highest honour in the risk management field, has constructed and implemented risk management programs for major corporations in Canada and around the world, RIMS and RIMS Canada Council noted in a release announcing the award.

NEW DIRECTION

But Turcotte’s enviable resume had to start somewhere. Armed with a Bachelor of Commerce degree — and facing a dreary economic state in about 1990 — Turcotte set out to find a job, any job. With his finance background, “it was either a bank or an insurance company,” says the current senior director of risk management and insurance at Invanhoe Cambridge Inc. in Montreal.

“I ended up in an insurance company as a health benefits underwriter,” he says. He stayed at Manulife for a few years, completing his MBA part time, before setting out to find a new job.

This time it was as a risk manager at Provigo, a grocery retailer based in Quebec. “I didn’t know anything about it, but they were looking for somebody who knew about insurance. That was me.”

In his job interview, he was asked about his experience in property and liability insurance; Turcotte responded he had none, but knew about insurance. “Insurance is a concept. Once you know how it works, it is just a question of learning the specifics of each policy,” he says.

The new position afforded the opportunity to take a wider view of things. Underwriting can be a solitary pursuit, Turcotte says, but risk management is involved in every aspect of a business.

When Provigo was bought by Loblaw Companies Limited — and risk management functions relocated to Toronto — Turcotte was off to find a job yet again. He landed a risk management position at Videotron, then independent but now a wholly owned subsidiary of Quebecor Media.

When Turcotte arrived on the scene, Videotron was mostly a cable television company, with a bit of commercial telephone service thrown in. That was in about 1999, and the company’s risk management program, having got off the ground just a few years earlier, was not especially sophisticated.

Still, Turcotte was in his element, addressing risk management issues in a tech/telecom environment, enabling him to employ the year of computer programmer experience he had gained before obtaining his degree.

He spent a year at Videotron before the company was bought by Quebecor Media Inc., today one of Canada’s largest media companies. No longer was Turcotte dealing with risks primarily associated with cable television; now there was also newspapers, magazines, telephone service, an Internet portal and Internet devices.

Everything was new at Quebecor Media. “We had to put the insurance program in place, we had to almost start from scratch,” says Turcotte, who served as director of risk management.

RIMS reports Turcotte’s work there “changed the risk culture of the organization from one of mere risk transfer to one of the most complex enterprise risk management programs in the country.”

ERM demands taking a broader view of risk with the ultimate goal being to improve the overall cost of risk. It is not a static thing; it requires adjustment whenever a new risk emerges or the size of a risk changes.

“You do two things at the same time: you work with senior management, getting them to be more involved in risk,” Turcotte says. In addition, “you work on the insurance program itself to make sure it evolves.”

To be truly effective, ERM requires buy-in across the board, starting with senior management. “If you don’t get senior management to believe in risk management, you’re going to have an insurance program and that’s it. You’re going to transfer the risk all the time,” Turcotte says.

There also needs to be staff buy-in. “You talk to employees on site on a regular basis about loss, about near-losses, about value that you need for your insurance,” he says.

“Risk management is something that everybody in a company needs to be concerned about. That’s when you can build a more adaptive and more cost-effective program because everybody is on the same page about what you’re trying to achieve,” he says. “There needs to be some risk management, some risk controls, some re-evaluation of the risk appetite of the corporation.”

CULTURE SUPPORT

For companies that view risk management positively, seeing its upside, there will likely be more related activity; a negative view likely will inspire the opposite response, Turcotte says.

It is only when an organization’s culture embraces risk management “that you can talk about ERM.”

Turcotte remained at Quebecor Media for 11 years, until 2010, before moving to his current role at Ivanhoe Cambridge.

He was actually approached and following a 15-minute meeting over coffee, was told he was the company’s choice for the job. “I don’t think this happens too often in a lifetime. I thought it must be a sign. I have to go.”

And go he did, now dealing with all manner of property-related risk for the property owner, manager, developer and real estate investor.

LIVE AND LEARN

Over the years, RIMS notes in its statement, Turcotte has made significant contributions to the field of risk management education, both as an author and as a lecturer. He is responsible for pioneering French-language risk management education in Quebec, something that is near and dear to his heart.

“I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of seasoned risk professionals to provide leadership, and mentor the next generation of risk managers,” Turcotte says in the RIMS statement.

“I always loved to write and to teach,” he says, even doing course recaps to help with studying while at university. While at Provigo, a spot opened up to teach a risk management course at a university. He was quick to give it a try, teaching for three years.

Turcotte also helped out when a distance-learning university came up with a new certificate program that included the three Canadian risk management (CRM) courses. Turcotte worked with the university for six years, translating part of a risk management book and incorporating some of the information that he had included during his lectures.

“Now, the only way someone in Quebec can get their CRM in French” is through that distance-learning program, he says. “I guess that’s part of my legacy” in risk management.

It may be that teaching and working on the French version of CRM finds its roots in his childhood. “My dad left and my mom was on welfare. We were living in like a ghetto,” Turcotte says. “For us, university was out of reach. There was no way any of us would go to university.”

But school always came easy to Turcotte. After his father, who was working as a janitor at a hospital got him a part-time job there, he saved the money to be able to go to school.

“I felt that I needed to give something back because of the chance that I got,” he says.

Perhaps what Turcotte is most proud of, however, is the novel he wrote, Malediction. “Obviously the main character is a risk manager,” he says with a laugh.

The book follows the protagonist in his quest to find the artifacts that contributed to the mysterious deaths of 15 of the 17 people who opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in the early 1920s.

Being a part-time hobby, the book took four years to write.

No matter. To a risk manager, effort over time can make for a very happy ending.

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Michel Turcotte, recipient of the 2012 Donald M. Stuart Award
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