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Jean de Grandpre, Chairman of BCE, demonstrates cellular radio-telephone in car application during Bell Cellular inaugural ceremonies on June 25, 1985.Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

Jean de Grandpré, who died at home in Montreal on July 24 at age 100, served as chief executive and chairman of BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada, effectively running the biggest company in Canada for more than 20 years. Mr. de Grandpré was on the vanguard as French-speaking business executives began replacing Montreal’s old anglophone elite.

Mr. de Grandpré was a staunch federalist and comfortable in both languages.

“At home, we spoke French. But otherwise, my professional life was mainly in English,” he told his biographers in Jean de Grandpré: Visionary Leader, Legacy of a Giant, From the Bell Telephone Company to BCE, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

As the title of the book suggests, his greatest corporate achievement was transforming Bell Canada from a sleepy phone company to a media giant, Bell Canada Enterprises, known to Canadians just by its initials BCE. A self-confident lawyer, Mr. de Grandpré made dramatic changes in Bell’s culture in a place once so bureaucratic and insular that an employee’s status was measured by the size of office and type of carpet on the floor.

Albert Jean de Grandpré, always known as Jean, was born in Montreal on Sept. 14, 1921. His father, Roland, was successful in the insurance business. Mr. de Grandpré remembers a life lesson his father taught him: “It’s possible for a francophone to succeed in business in an anglophone world. And being interested in money isn’t a sin.” His mother, Aline Magnan, was a strong woman who stayed home to raise her three children. She taught her children at home even before they got to a regular school so that when Jean went to school, he knew how to read, write and do simple arithmetic. He skipped Grade 2.

Jean was born into a society where the Catholic Church ran education. As a six-year-old boy, he went to a primary school run by the Sœurs de la Providence on Saint-Denis Street, close to the family home on Saint-Hubert Street. In 1931 the prosperous Roland de Grandpré moved his family to the house he built on Beloeil Avenue in the suburb of Outremont, the francophone equivalent of English-speaking Westmount but on the other side of Mount Royal.

Mr. de Grandpré went to Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, as did some of his children and grandchildren. It was a Jesuit private school in Montreal, all men, though co-ed by the time his daughters went there. Brébeuf back then was a Classical College, which meant four years of high school followed by four years of college.

“Jean had a love for work well done, the courage of his convictions, and the respect of his colleagues. Even if, at times, we found him overly studious,” said the late Gilles Lamontagne in the de Grandpré biography. A federal politician and mayor of Quebec City, Mr. Lamontagne was a friend of Jean de Grandpré in his college years.

At Brébeuf, Mr. de Grandpré was class president in the graduating year 1940. The vice-president was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the future prime minister. Like his classmate Mr. Trudeau, Mr. de Grandpré disliked Quebec nationalism.

“Not only am I not a separatist – very few French-Canadians in corporations are – I am not even a nationalist. I think nationalism is destructive,” Mr. de Grandpré told Globe and Mail reporter Joanne Strong in February, 1982. “I am an internationalist.”

He went to law school at McGill University, where he was one of two francophones in a class of 30. He obviously made an impression. After two months, he was elected class president and he graduated with the gold medal in law.

Mr. de Grandpré began practising law in 1943, specializing in insurance, labour relations and administrative law, which helped him when he joined Bell Canada on Jan. 1, 1966, as general counsel. He was marked for bigger things.

Mr. de Grandpré rose quickly from one vice-presidency to the next and became president of Bell Canada in 1973 and added the title of chief executive officer in 1976.

There was some bitterness inside the company from Bell Canada lifers who couldn’t understand how an outsider had risen to the top. But the outsider was about to change the company forever, something the insiders probably could not have done.

In 1977 Bell Canada landed a huge contract to help modernize the phone system in Saudi Arabia. It meant 300 to 1,000 Bell employees worked in Saudi Arabia for a 10-year period. It was highly profitable.

“The CRTC thought the profit from the contract should go to telephone customers. Mr. de Grandpré thought it should go to shareholders. It was the impetus to form Bell Canada Enterprises,” says Lawrence Surtees, author of Pa Bell: A. Jean de Grandpré and the Meteoric Rise of Bell Canada Enterprises.

“He wanted to get Bell Canada away from the tentacles of the CRTC. With BCE, the subsidiary [company] became the parent [company] and an unregulated parent.”

In 1983 Bell Canada Enterprises became the parent not only of Bell Canada, but Northern Telecom (Nortel) and some 80 other companies. Mr. de Grandpré went on an acquisition spree, and not all of his acquisitions were successful. What was successful was selling Nortel, then a Bell Canada subsidiary, and allowing it to become a world-beating telecom manufacturer. “His legacy is not only freeing up Bell but also freeing up Nortel,” Mr. Surtees said.

Mr. de Grandpré was less stuffy than the old-school Bell executives. His biographers record that he liked to make his own phone calls at a time when many executives asked their secretaries to let their fingers do the dialling.

“It was so much faster and simpler. When I’m at the office, I still work like that,” he said. He also picked up the phone when it rang.

One of the people he spoke to often was his wife, Hélène Choquet.

Jean De Grandpre during an annual meeting in Toronto on April 28, 1983.TIBOR KOLLEY/The Globe and Mail

“I remember my discussions with her when I had to make crucial decisions. She had excellent judgment. So every time we had to appoint a new associate, I invited the candidate out to dinner to see them in another light,” Mr. de Grandpré said in his biography. “When we got home, if she had the slightest doubt, she’d ask me one question: “Are you sure?” I knew then that I had to take time to think about it.”

Mr. de Grandpré was at the top of the business world in Canada in the 1970s and 80s. He was in demand to sit on boards of directors and stayed on many of them after his retirement from BCE. A partial list from Canada: Toronto Dominion Bank, Sun Life Assurance, Cadillac Fairview and Northern Telecom and all the other Bell subsidiaries. In the United States he was on the board of E.I. du Pont de Nemours, Chrysler and Seagram as well as being on the advisory board of Chemical Bank and Goldman Sachs and the board of directors of The Conference Board.

One of the jobs of a CEO is to preside over the annual general meeting, where the boss has to become a politician for a day and sometimes placate angry shareholders. At his final AGM as CEO in 1988, there was a shareholder who showed up at every meeting complaining about executive pay.

“I’ve listened to you for 15 years and I’ve had enough,” said Mr. de Grandpré and had the shareholder’s microphone turned off. In later years, however, his daughter Lilli de Grandpré says, he disagreed with executive pay that stretched into the tens of millions of dollars.

He was generous with his own money supporting large charities, but he had a special interest in charities that supported the homeless, such as the Old Brewery Mission, Maison Bon Accueil, Moisson Montréal, Maison du Père, and the Welcome Hall Mission. “He supported those missions every month until the end of his life,” Ms. de Grandpré said.

Mr. de Grandpré remained chairman of the company for five more years. He became chancellor of McGill University. At McGill he disagreed with the decision to move the university’s agricultural faculty from Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, where it had barns and some farmland, to McGill’s main campus in downtown Montreal. He won that battle and the Macdonald campus remains in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.

Mr. de Grandpré was a companion of the Order of Canada, the highest level of the order.

“Papa was a fabulous tennis player and he played golf until he was 96 and hockey into his 40s. He walked until this year, even in the winter,” his daughter Lilli said. “He did the crossword puzzle from La Presse on his iPad until the last week of his life. And he did the hard version.”

Mr. de Grandpré was an avid reader, in particular biographies of politicians and business people.

He leaves his children, Jean-François, Lili, Suzanne and Louise; nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. His wife, Hélène, died in 2012. Pauline Godin was his companion for the past nine years.