Few people have ridden the rollercoaster life of a consulting engineer more dramatically than Bernard Lamarre, ing. For almost half a century, this stout and genial figure has been front and centre on...
Few people have ridden the rollercoaster life of a consulting engineer more dramatically than Bernard Lamarre, ing. For almost half a century, this stout and genial figure has been front and centre on the engineering scene in Quebec, enjoying times of great achievement and good fortune, and enduring sore disappointment when business did not go well.
Bernard and his younger brother Jacques Lamarre are intimately associated with the mega-consulting engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin of Montreal. The two founded Lavalin Inc. in the 1970s, but the company fell into difficulties in 1991 after it diversified into the petrochemical manufacturing field, and was forced into a merger with its rival SNC. By past accounts, the decision was a bitter blow for Bernard. “This is the work of a lifetime that is now crumbling,” he is reported to have said.1
Today Jacques is the chief executive officer of SNC-Lavalin. Bernard became a consultant rather than an employee of the merged firm. He retired from that role two years ago, but keeps busy on no less than 25 boards, including being chair of the boards of the Muse des Beaux-Arts and the Old Port of Montreal.
If Bernard suffered at the time of the SNC-Lavalin merger, it was surely because the situation was in such contrast to his previous success. All the companies he nurtured had experienced extraordinary growth. After graduating in 1952 from the cole Polytechnique de Montral, he spent two-and-a-half years in England as an Athlone fellow, then returned to work in Montreal. When he started work in 1954 as a structural engineer with Lalonde & Valois the company had 30 employees. Eight years later it became Lalonde Valois Lamarre Valois and employed 100. “We started from very few people and we grew very, very fast,” he recalls. When he and others launched Lavalin in 1972, they employed 1,000, and that number had burgeoned to 6,000 by the early 1990s.
Lamarre believes their success was due to export work and building a reputation for quality service. It was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time during the Quiet Revolution. “It was a good period to start in engineering,” he says. “In Quebec in the 1960s everything had to be done: roads, hospitals, hydropower, and schools. It was not very difficult to get jobs and to get contracts.”
One of his proudest accomplishments from those early days is the Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine Bridge completed in 1966. He worked on the project with two other consulting engineers who went on to venerable careers, Armand Couture and Roger Nicolet. “We were barely 30 [years old],” he remembers, “and we did one of the largest projects in Quebec at the time. So I felt we had luck on our side.”
There aren’t the same opportunities for younger engineers today, he recognizes. His advice to them is to work for established firms and come up the ranks. And after his unsuccessful excursions outside engineering, he has another piece of advice: “Stick to what you know best. Don’t try to diversify too much. That was an error, and I paid very dearly for it.” Bronwen Ledger
1 Quoted speaking to Guy St. Pierre, in SNC Engineering Beyond Frontiers, p. 245.
Last year Bernard Lamarre won the Beaubien Award from the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada in recognition of his lifetime of achievement and contributions to the industry.