Success due to immigrant parents: Air Canada boss

Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu and his wife Elaine light candles on the menorah at dinner in his honour. [PBL Photography photo]

MONTREAL — Air Canada boss Calin Rovinescu revealed a side of himself that few are aware of: how he was driven to excel as the son of hard-working Romanian-Jewish immigrants.

Rovinescu, the company’s president and CEO since 2009, received B’nai Brith Canada’s 2011 Award of Merit at a gala dinner Nov. 24 at the Fairmount Queen Elizabeth Hotel. More than 800 people, many of them coming from Quebec’s corporate leadership, attended the $1,000-a-plate fundraiser.

Rovinescu, born in Bucharest in 1955, came to Montreal by boat when he was six years old. His father, Ionel, 38 at the time, was a urologist and surgeon seeking to escape antisemitism and repression. His mother, Adriana, was a teacher, with two master’s degrees.

The family, which also included Calin’s sister, Olivia, came with $200 and two suitcases, he said. None of them spoke French or English.

His parents’ professional credentials meant little here, and the family at first lived modestly on Barclay Avenue in Côte des Neiges as his parent rebuilt their lives.

His father and mother stressed the necessity of not only getting a higher education, but of being outstanding in whatever they did. Olivia is now director of Concordia University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services.

Rovinescu received his law degrees at the University of Ottawa and the Université de Montréal, and joined the firm of Stikeman Elliott, becoming a managing partner and corporate law specialist. He went to work for Air Canada in 2000 as executive vice-president for corporate development and strategy.

He left in 2004 to co-found the investment bank Genuity Capital Markets.

As ambitious and bull-headed as he is, his son Lee said, his father remains “humble, deflecting compliments about his success.” Indeed, the humorous videos made for the evening proved Rovinescu can laugh at himself.

Rovinescu accepted the tribute largely because of his favourable impression of B’nai Brith House, a non-sectarian subsidized apartment complex for low-income seniors on Côte St. Luc Road, and of the volunteers who help to run it.

The evening’s chair was Stanley Hartt, former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, whom Rovinescu calls a friend and mentor. Hartt hired Rovinescu at Stikeman Elliott when he was fresh out of university, seeing in him great potential.

“Stanley taught me to be nimble on my feet, to be a quick study, to occasionally b.s. it and to shoot from the hip when needed,” said Rovinescu.

He admits he needed these qualities when he became head of Air Canada in April 2009, when the airline was close to bankruptcy and the world was in an economic collapse.

“His principles and remarkable leadership in the corporate world and his philanthropic efforts make Calin Rovinescu a most worthy recipient of this award,” said B’nai Brith CEO Frank Dimant.