Jean E. Douville: Making an impact by broadening access for students to Finance education

After overcoming barriers to attending McGill in the 1950s, Jean Douville has boldly and generously supported diverse investments in business, higher education and healthcare

Jean E. Douville, BCom’58, encountered and overcame some unusual hurdles to pursue his goal of obtaining a business education at McGill. Born to a large Catholic family in the small town of St. Alban, Quebec, Douville shone as a stellar student at the private Catholic school Séminaire Saint-Joseph de Trois Rivières (STR), where other notable alumni have included former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and former Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis.

As an undergraduate at the STR’s College affiliated with Laval University, Douville was awarded the Prize of Excellence as top student in his graduating class by the Bishop of Trois Rivières. “I decided to write my final exams of philosophy in Latin because it was easier for me,” recalls Douville, who was expected to go into the priesthood or study law at Laval, then a Catholic university, founded by Jesuit priests.

But his spiritual advisor and long-time school mentor, Jules Gélinas, encouraged him to do a degree in Finance and broaden his horizons at McGill, an internationally renowned, English-speaking university. “Jules had tremendous wisdom and knew me so well. It was great advice,” says Douville, who had to ask for special dispensation from the Archbishop of Quebec to attend a non-Catholic university.

Advocating to attend McGill

Although he was immediately accepted into second-year commerce, Douville heard nothing for months and was refused dispensation the day before starting at McGill. “Not being docile, I went to the Archbishop’s office and insisted that he see me,” says Douville, who arrived at 9 am and waited until he was granted an audience at 5 pm. He was offered a scholarship to Laval, which could be extended to allow him to do an MBA at Harvard University.

“The Church was powerful, and I was a little guy from a small town. I turned the offer down. They were trying to bribe me at the last minute, and I said, ‘I’m going to McGill with or without your dispensation.’ He gave me the dispensation. I’m very proud of being a McGill graduate and this was the right move,” he says.

photo of Jean Douville from McGill yearbook

Philanthropic support for Finance students

The steely determination, clarity of purpose and integrity that Douville showed in this memorable encounter served him well in his university studies, through an accomplished and varied business career, and as a philanthropist supporting Finance students in obtaining a university education to help achieve their life and career goals, without finances being a barrier or burden.

In 2019, Douville created the Jean E. Douville Bursaries by the Fonds Foundation Jean E. et Lucille Douville at the Foundation of Greater Montreal (FGM), which provide $60,000 in awards annually in perpetuity to students from four Montreal universities. Each year three Finance students from McGill, Concordia University and HEC Montréal will receive a $5,000 award for a total of nine awards. In addition, a student researcher in mental health at Université de Montréal will be selected for a $15,000 bursary.

With this generous and lasting gift, Douville is advocating for students who may not have the financial resources needed to pursue their educational and career goals. “Having come from a small town, I was fortunate my parents had the funds to send me to private school at 12 and to university. A lot of students don’t have those benefits. The creation of the bursaries reflects my sense of responsibility for sharing the success of a career and good investments to help others achieve goals in life not easily reachable without financial help. The awards will give these students a chance to get a good start in life,” he says.

Webcast of the first anniversary of the Jean E. Douville Bursaries, September 16, 2020.

Webcast of the first anniversary of the Jean E. Douville Bursaries, September 16, 2020.

Vital aid in a time of need

Gabriel Casavant-Desjardins, BCom’20, is one of the first three Finance students at McGill to be awarded a Douville bursary, which provided vital funding at a critical juncture. “I had been working as a sales associate at Sherwin-Williams while studying at McGill until the summer of 2019 when a family member became ill. I quit my job to be with the family member and help. I used all the resources I had, including student loans and government scholarships, but could not afford to pay my tuition for the last year. The Jean E. Douville bursary covered all my tuition for the last year, so I could complete my degree on schedule and better support my family through some challenging times,” he says.

Lifting the financial burden enabled Casavant-Desjardins to make the most of his education at Desautels and pursue his career goals in the investment industry. “My goal is to work as an investment analyst and become a CFA charterholder. I am passionate about investments and financial analytics, which is the perfect combination between my interests in programming, data analytics and finance. I had the privilege to benefit from a remarkable education at one of the best business schools in the world and acquire the right skills, work ethic and mindset to achieve my career objectives,” he says.

His educational experience was stimulating, inspiring and practical: “At Desautels, I met incredibly intelligent and hardworking individuals who inspired me to improve every day. I enjoyed every professor and course I had the chance to take. My favourite was the Fixed-Income course taught by Professor Guillaume Roussellet, where we had the opportunity to combine programming with the financial analysis to measure the impact of Brexit using real-world data. He challenged us to build on what we had learned in previous courses, apply that knowledge to real world scenarios and derive useful conclusions from our analysis.”

Casavant-Desjardins was touched by a gift that had such a positive and meaningful impact for him and his family. “I am extremely grateful for the exceptional generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Douville. I was deeply moved and inspired to receive the support from people I didn’t know, who wanted to look after students like me and give them an opportunity to succeed,” he says.

Douville’s journey: embracing business challenges and opportunities

After overcoming a religious hurdle to attending McGill, Douville was determined to leap over the linguistic barrier and embraced the opportunity to improve his rudimentary English. He also took the advice of Eric Kierans – then Director of McGill’s School of Commerce and later president of the Montreal Stock Exchange and a federal cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government – to major in Accounting because Kierans viewed it as more demanding than Finance.

“I was living entirely in English at the time as a student at McGill in Montreal. It was a super experience and McGill’s reputation was extremely beneficial to me. Everyone knows McGill and never questions your credibility or the value of your education,” says Douville.

The value of his business education and training as a Chartered Accountant became evident over the course of an exciting and diverse career. After graduating, Douville joined McDonald Currie (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), a top accounting firm in Montreal. He then served as controller and treasurer for Merit Insurance, an institutional investment salesperson and research analyst at C.J. Hodgson, President of an investment firm, Vice-President of subsidiaries at Air Canada, and then President and CEO of Nordair.

“I didn’t want to spend my whole career doing audits. It was a big leap from the accounting profession to the investment industry,” says Douville, who found his calling and excelled at increasing value for investors through corporate turnarounds and as a venture capitalist.

At Nordair, where he became a significant shareholder, Douville took the reins amid a recession and period of labour unrest in 1982. He implemented a series of changes that restored profitability and led to the sale of the company to CP Air in 1986 at a high valuation. “Nordair was a big challenge and tough experience. I came in as a leader and relied on a great team with airline industry expertise to do the job. When facing difficult challenges, I didn’t lose sight of the objectives. I didn’t deviate and get thrown off course,” says Douville, who showed the same determination and clarity of purpose as an executive and active investor that he did as a student.

In 1987, Douville joined Schroders and Associates, a venture capital firm, where he spearheaded the acquisition of Richelieu Hardware and several other major companies. His first acquisition of Richelieu from the founder, Georges Forest, was a spectacular success. “I was mandated to find a President and CEO, Richard Lord, who still leads the company. He grew a modest $28-million business into a company with sales of over $1 billion. Schroders paid $14 million for Richelieu in 1987 and the company is worth about $1.5 billion now,” says Douville, who served as Richelieu’s Chairman of the Board from 1987 to 2005, and as a Director on the boards of Sovereign Life, GBC North American Growth Fund and Public Sector Pension Investment.

Student bursaries increase access and diversity

Douville and his wife Lucille decided to use funds from his successful investment as a shareholder in Richelieu Hardware over three decades to establish the Jean E. et Lucille Douville Foundation in 2017. In addition to supporting need-based bursaries for Finance students, the Douville Foundation also supports four healthcare institutions in Montreal including the Jewish General Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, Montreal General Hospital, and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute

The Douville bursaries can be given to McGill students for both entrance and in-course awards. “It’s wonderful to have that flexibility for recruiting and retaining students. Entrance bursaries allow us to ensure that no student should have to forgo an offer of admission solely due to financial constraints, while in-course bursaries allow us to support students throughout an entire degree as need arises. When it’s a gift in perpetuity, such as the Douville bursaries, this allows us to plan our multi-year budget with confidence. This translates into being as generous as possible to meet financial need, knowing we can support at that level in subsequent years of study,” explains Cara Piperni, BCom’94, McGill’s Director of Scholarships & Student Aid.

Bursaries have a major impact in supporting McGill’s policy of increasing access and diversity in its student population. One out of three full-time undergraduate degree students rely on some form of need-based aid. “Access has been a big priority for the University for well over a decade and there are so many success stories because of bursary donations. These are part of an inter-generational support system that takes the financial stress off the table so students can focus on academic success and take full advantage of the McGill experience. This aid helps students flourish inside the classroom and beyond our gates,” says Piperni.

Business integrity and social responsibility

Douville’s involvement with McGill as a benefactor began decades earlier with regular donations, a significant contribution to the Class of ‘58 gift that supports Desautels Career Services, and a substantial gift in 2007, which helped create the Investment Management program, now the elite Honours in Investment Management program for BCom students. This became the model for the more recent Master of Management in Finance program.

“Because of what my education at McGill did for me, I felt a desire and responsibility to share that success and support my alma mater in meaningful ways,” says Douville.

He also shares with today’s business students a timely, yet timeless message that success in their lives and careers depends on hard work and perseverance in overcoming challenges including those of fulfilling their ethical responsibilities.

“I worked hard all through my career but another key to a successful and fulfilling life is integrity,” says Douville, who recounts an episode early in his career when he caught his boss cheating and stealing from the company.

“I disclosed my evidence to the President who, being new in his job, claimed he needed him. I went to the Chairman, who represented the majority shareholder, and he fired both overnight. I also resigned from boards at times to uphold my integrity. I wanted my family to know it is possible to do well in life and in business, and to maintain the highest level of integrity,” he says.

Article written by: Mark Witten
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