Hydro-Québec gets its first Jewish chair

Michael Penner

MONTREAL — Businessman Michael Penner has become the first Jewish chairman of the board of Hydro-Québec, as well as the first anglophone in modern history to hold that post in the government-owned public utility.

On Oct. 8, Premier Philippe Couillard made the announcement of the cabinet’s decision that Penner, formerly the president and chief executive officer of Richelieu Group (a company that manufactures and imports legwear), is replacing Pierre Karl Péladeau, who has recently become a Parti Québécois member of the National Assembly.

The former CEO of Québecor Inc., Péladeau was named to the chairmanship of Hydro-Québec by then-premier Pauline Marois in April 2013, but resigned less than a year later to run in last spring’s provincial election.

Penner is reportedly a Liberal supporter who backed Couillard for the party leadership. His mandate ends in May 2018.

Penner, 45, is a lawyer by profession. He received his law degree from Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. after earning an undergraduate degree at McGill University. He practised law in New York City until 1998, specializing in mergers and acquistions, before joining Richelieu, which had been bought by his father Harvey Penner soon before.

In 2006, the younger Penner became president, CEO, and principal owner of the company, which was founded in Sorel, Que., in 1934. It now has facilities in Montreal, in Cornwall, Ont., and in Hildebran, N.C., where in 2011 he acquired assets of the International Legwear Group, a decades-old business that was in liquidation. 

The rescued factory is now the main centre of Richelieu’s manufacturing, and the company is building another plant in the United States. One of its biggest customers is Walmart.

For his U.S. $31-million investment in American industry, Penner was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with President Barack Obama in May at the White House, one of only 11 executives, and the only Canadian, selected to do so.

In an article in Women’s Wear Daily in September, Penner is quoted: “I told [Obama] that five years ago, when I was at a factory near the DMZ in South Korea buying socks, if someone had said I would be making socks in the U.S. and shipping them to South Korea, I would have asked them what they were smoking.”

David Birnbaum, D’Arcy McGee Liberal member of the National Assembly, underlined the significance of the choice of Penner, a member of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. He said it is proof that the premier is serious about improving the representation of minority communities in positions of authority in provincial bodies.

“It’s my understanding this is the most senior public service appointment a premier can make,” said Birnbaum. Since its establishment 70 years ago by the government, Hydro-Québec has been viewed as a symbol of the province’s success in taking control of its economic development and most prized natural resource.

“The premier has made a commitment that our institutions should reflect the diversity of Quebec,” Birnbaum said. “He made a clear statement that the talent of people from minority communities is essential to Quebec’s development. But the key word is talent, first and foremost.”

Birnbaum got to know Penner during the campaign leading up to the April election. “He’s dynamic, bold, original in his approach and deeply committed to Quebec.”

Penner heads a 15-member board, which includes president and CEO Thierry Vandal, who runs Hydro-Québec on a daily basis. Penner also chairs the board’s Governance and Ethics Committee.

Penner did not return a phone call from The CJN requesting an interview.

Thus far, Hydro-Québec has  announced  only that is “pleased with the nomination and welcomes Mr. Penner.”