Some people have epiphanies during milestone birthdays. When Roland Lescure turned 50, he left his chief investment officer post and his $1.9 million salary at the $298 billion fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) to help run France. It was a gamble – after he quit – he still had to run for election to the National Assembly in the French Legislative Election of 2017. But Lescure says he grew tired of just voting to affect change.
France had been struggling with political issues between corporations and workers, low growth (.5% according to 2016 data), a soaring 42% payroll tax, and an unemployment rate hovering between 9.6% and 10%. Lescure felt, for the sake of his children’s generation, it was time to put his chief investment officer skills to work in conjunction with France’s political system.
As an investor at CDPQ, Lescure was known for thinking big. The fund focussed on investing in real assets that contribute to economic growth, and, according to president and CEO Michael Sabia, “Roland played a huge role in building that kind of culture at CDPQ. He thinks like a builder, not a trader.” It’s the kind of investment philosophy the world needs right now, Sabia told CIO. “He connects the dots to reveal patterns that others just don’t see. That’s exactly the kind of creative thinking that we need in politics today.” Sabia added, “And he’s so elegant in how he works with people — a critical talent in getting things done in investing and in politics.”
Upon winning the election, Lescure stepped into the role of chair of the Economy Committee in the French Parliament. Now, as he fields concerns from Canada, New York, Los Angeles, and Paris from his “tiny” apartment in France, he is working around the clock to build France’s new economic initiatives. In the past year following Emmanuel Macron and Lescure’s election, France’s unemployment rate has dropped below 9% for the first time in nine years to 8.9% with the long term unemployment rate dipping to 3.6% from 4.2%. Growth, up 2.5% in 2017, and fueled by a large increase in business investment, has experienced the largest annual expansion in six years. Macron said he’ll be helping small businesses enter the export market, remove red tape for hiring and firing, and recently promised to fuel the French economy with $18 billion toward retraining and $1.85 billion toward artificial intelligence, mainly for research, training, startups and data collection by 2022.
CIO checked in with Lescure a year after his election.
CIO: You’re now part of the National Assembly of France?
Lescure: Yes. The last 12 or 14 months have been pretty special to me. But in a nutshell, I resigned from being a Chief Investment Officer of CDPQ in Montreal because I wanted to run Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in Montreal. Because CDPQ is a public Quebec Canadian government institution, I had to resign if I wanted to manage in his campaign in Montreal.
Emmanuel Macron is a newcomer, and his movement was very new so I had to go through an election process after my resignation. I sent my CV, I sent an application letter, I sent a few ideas on what I stood for, and I was selected as a candidate for French people who were living in North America. I was then elected.
CIO: And now that you’ve been elected, what are your responsibilities?
Lescure: I’ve got kind of three jobs: 1) I’m a member of Congress; a member of Parliament. 2) My constituency is a somewhat special constituency because I work with French people who live in North America, but United States and Canada, so I have to push forward an agenda that is specific for them. I work on a few different issues, like the relationship with the administration, [creating a] more efficient civil service in terms of access to passports and Visas and so forth, taxation and education.
You know, education is very important for French people. There are French schools all over the world. French living abroad can have access to French education for their children wherever they are. That’s my second job. I go back to my constituency regularly to meet the French people on the ground. Last week, I was in New York, Seattle, and Vancouver. Several weeks before that, I was in Montreal. I’m going to New Orleans.
And my third job that takes most of my time, actually, is to be the chair of the Economy Committee. Any law that has something to do with the economy goes through my committee and we improve it, discuss it, vote on it, and change it. Whether it’s housing, farming, entrepreneurship, innovation, energy, external trade—anything that’s got something to do with economics—goes through my committee. There are about 70 members of Parliament and I take care of the agenda, I chair the meeting, I organize the voting, I push the agenda forward, and I’m presiding over the committee itself. The three jobs take quite a bit of my time—as much as the previous responsibilities of the CIO. It’s a very different job though.
CIO: Is it like an 80-hour, 100-hour work week?
Lescure: When you’re a member of Parliament, it’s a bit of a 24/7. You’re always connected. With my constituency being six hours behind, when Paris is going to sleep, my constituency is still wide awake. When Paris shuts down, San Francisco is having lunch and New York is having dinner.
But the main difference between my previous job and my current job is that I used to work with a government institution. So even though I had some public engagement with the media, with the public, with the clients, I was always there as a representative of an institution. As a member of Congress, as a member of the French Parliament, I actually represent myself. In terms of numbers of hours of work, it’s probably a 10 to 12 hours a day during the week and a few hours on the weekend, and so, probably very similar to the job I had before. It’s less pay by far.
CIO: What was it like to leave a $1.9 million job behind, and what made you so sure you wanted to do it?
Lescure: I’m very happy though far less paid now. The compensation is less than €100,000 a year. But I’m very happy to do it.
Well, you know, everybody’s got their own way of turning of 50. Mine was to do this, so I turned 50 a year and a bit ago. I’ve got kids who are young adults, and I felt that I wanted—five years from now or maybe 30 years from now when I die—to think that I’ve done something for them. It was also the emergence of a man, and of a platform, and of a way of doing politics in France which suddenly convinced me that there was a call for renewal that could be answered.
I was one of those French people living abroad who kept on voting, but who also was pretty disappointed in the way French politics was going. And in a way, you know, I answered a call for engagement. It’s always easy to criticize, but sometimes you meet a consensus rather than criticize, and vote. Get involved and get engaged, so I decided to get engaged.
CIO: And you’re going through a series of large changes in France, as far as a new bill to cut payroll taxes, to help small businesses, to ease regulation. How are you involved?
Lescure: I’m involved in anything that has to do with economics. But obviously the law that we’re working on that probably will be discussed in the summer, on improving the environment of French corporations to create, grow, and export, and get more capital to grow. This is very much linked with my expertise.
CIO: What are the biggest challenges to getting these bills through?
Lescure: To compare, I think that coming back from Canada and Quebec, North America, where the relationship of the people with companies are [pretty smooth], I think that people like their companies, and people are proud of the entrepreneurs in North America and they’re proud of their successful entrepreneurs.
In France, there still is a bit of old fashioned way of seeing a company as a place of conflict between workers and management. I’m not saying conflict doesn’t ever happen in the US or in Canada, and I’m not saying that this is happening in every company here, but it’s more about the words that are being used. So, I want to change the culture and the relationship that French people have with companies in general, both on the management side who tend to see their workers as being their “enemy.” I’m going a bit too far, but this is about obstacles, success, and vice versa. I want the enterprise, I want the company to become something that benefits all its stakeholders. And not just shareholders
And the same goes for dealing with environmental issues. If companies don’t change the way they go about using resources, it’s going to end badly. If companies don’t change the way they use their customer data, you know, we will contend with what we found over the last couple of weeks in search and social network issues. If companies don’t think about how to interact with a consumer, that’s going to end badly.
And again, if companies don’t think of their workers as an ally who are going to help them thrive well, especially with the new generation, the workers are going to go elsewhere. They’re much more mobile than they used to be.
So, management has to change the way they go about managing their stakeholders, not just their shareholders and vice versa. I think wage earners have to feel that they belong to the company a bit more, that they probably own the company a bit more, so we have to put together some measures to make sure that there’s more capital ownership by wage earners of a company, for instance, to help that feeling of ownership and of alignment of ownership between wage owners and management and shareholders.
CIO: And do you feel you’re giving a strength to this area as the former CIO of CDPQ?
Lescure: Yeah, obviously coming where I come from. I was working for a public long-term investment firm, so the long-term alignment of interest between shareholders and stakeholders was a strong conviction we had. And we put it into practice the way we voted for those companies and the general assemblies.
CIO: You also have a very strong AI, artificial intelligence, initiative. Is that going to coincide with economics and the markets?
Lescure: Yeah, certainly AI has got something to do with economics and the future of the economics. Because of AI, 15 or 20 years from now, jobs are not going to be what they are now. We need to understand this, address it, change the way we train people, fund research, and organize public policy around it.
CIO: Macron is infusing the economy with $18 billion for retraining. What training is it most used for?
Lescure: On the job training, technical and professional qualifications, apprenticeship [mostly in IT].
CIO: Speaking to chief investment officers, what investment opportunities should be on their radar for the future, regarding France?
Lescure: A lot of opportunities! Thanks to a better functioning economy and labour market, investment in infrastructure and more and more new businesses being set up, there is a lot to do in France. On top of this, Brexit, a difficult political situation in Italy and uncertainties in Spain, make France one of the better places to look at in Europe.
CIO: What was the most challenging part of your transition from CIO?
Lescure: I was managing a team of 300 people including about 150 portfolio managers. Now I manage a team of four. So, a small and medium company with great people but a small team…We work together to make sure that we stick to the platform that we got elected for. The process in an investment firm is very rigorous. The process within politics is a bit more chaotic. When you’re the CIO and you push on the button, you know what happens. When you’re a member of Parliament and you push on the button, you feel something happen and it’s not easy to realize really what’s happening to the machine. The government machine is a bit more complex than an investment firm.
CIO: What would be your advice to CIOs who are considering a similar career change?
Lescure: I think that the most important part of that change is to make sure you do it for the right reasons. If you do it because you want to contribute to a greater cause—and it can be politics, it can be something else, an NGO, a charity, or a foundation—make sure you know why you’re doing it. I don’t have any regrets. I love my job because I know why I did this. And therefore, I’m at peace with my decision. So, despite the fact that I live in a tiny apartment in Paris when I’m here where my big house in Montreal is nearly empty, I’m still happy every second I do the job. But you have to know why you’re doing it. Otherwise it is hard to [take] the pressure.
CIO: You’re known for adding more women to your team at CDPQ, and France is also increasing its gender ratio?
Lescure: In the whole French Parliament now, women are more than 40%. It’s never happened before here. We’ve gone from being the least-feminized in the world to now one of the most feminized Parliaments in the world certainly due to Emmanuel Macron’s winning.
When I was working at CDPQ, we were trying to have more women in finance, which is hard, but it’s also hard in politics. You know finance, politics, and tech are probably the three most elite feminized sectors, and I’m happy I helped to make the financial sector a bit more feminized.
CIO: Do women give people an edge somehow or are you looking for balance? Why do you think it’s important to add women?
Lescure: Oh, there are two obvious reasons. The first one is that why should you deprive yourself from 50% of the workforce even if they were exactly the same as men? It would be ridiculous not to use them. So that’s the obvious answer. The second answer I find is that, for different reasons, women have a different way.
It’s been shown even by scientific reviews that when you have women in a team, usually performance is better and, more importantly, risk return is better. Women tend to be a bit more aware of the risk, and in a team of investors, it’s very important to be aware of the risk. I’m afraid to say that men very often are not enough aware of the risk.
But when I switched to politics I realized that engaging with women around the table is usually less formal, less aggressive. Even when they don’t agree, they listen to each other a bit more. One of the main challenges of Parliament and of politicians is to manage time. Politicians in general love to listen to the sound of their own voices. And when I, as the chair of the Economy Committee, give two minutes to a woman to speak, she never goes above. And if she only needs one minute to speak, she takes one minute. A man, nearly all the time, takes 2.5, and always goes over. Diversity of approaches are important because men tend to overplay their cards. So again, these are generalizations but they are true. I can prove it.
As a tool of diversification, it’s not just about women, it’s also that diversity of social and personal backgrounds.
CIO: Going forward, what kind of France do you envision for your children who are 18, 19, and 20 years old?
Lescure: A more-inclusive, less-divisive, more environmentally friendly France, that embraces a better integrated Europe, which can lead the world into a more balanced growth path.