‘Ottaw’ ‘Up Until Recently I Was a Rock Star’s Agent, Now I’m a True CEO’: Cirque du Soleil’s Daniel Lamarre
Daniel Lamarre, 62, is the president and chief executive officer of Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, which has about 4,000 employees working on more than 20 shows in about 50 countries.
Lamarre was born and raised in Grand-Mere, Quebec, about 170 kilometres northeast of Montreal. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Ottawa, which later honoured him with a doctorate.
He was the CEO of Burson-Marsteller and then co-founded National Public Relations with Luc Beauregard. He went on to be the CEO at TVA Broadcast Group for four years before he joined the circus in January 2001. In addition to his day job, he spends a lot of time with the One Drop Foundation, a non-profit organization to help improve access to water, and the Montreal Heart Institute. He also has a personal foundation to support various causes.
When he’s not traveling Lamarre calls Montreal home, where he lives with his wife, the photographer Emmanuelle Dupérré, and her two sons. He also has two grown children and five grandchildren.
Lamarre spoke to Karl Moore, a professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.
Q: How did Cirque co-founder and former CEO Guy Laliberté get you to leave journalism and run away to the circus?
A: We originally met during my consulting days in 1986. Later, when I became the CEO of TVA [a privately owned French language television network] he gave me the opportunity to get the TV rights for the Cirque du Soleil and we were in touch on a more regular basis. One day, out of the blue, he called and said: “I had this amazing flash last night that you’re going to join the circus.” I burst out laughing and a few weeks later I was with the circus.
Q: Do you think Guy is more of a showman than you?
A: Guy is a rock star. He has his entourage and his fans and when he walks somewhere, everybody knows that he’s there. I’m more like the behind-the-scenes guy.
Q: How do you work with, or manage a creative genius, a superstar like Guy?
A: My job working with Guy is to make his crazy ideas happen. He’ll come with a lot of different ideas and I help him select the right one. My job is to put together the right conditions. I’m there to say: “Yes, maybe. Let’s see, let’s explore.”
Q: How do you know the good ones?
A: There are two ways: first, intuition. I have a lot of experience, but you shouldn’t trust yourself too much when you’re selling shows to consumers, so we also do a lot of research to test if our crazy ideas can work with the public.
It’s something that Guy didn’t want to do in the early days. Now we’re doing it because it’s important that we understand how the tastes of people are growing and it helps us make sure we meet their expectations. In the case of Cirque du Soleil, their expectations are getting higher and higher. It puts a lot of pressure on our creative team.
I don’t want you guys in the creative and production department because you’re going to kill the soul of this company
Q: You have relatively new owners since the Cirque was sold in July. San Francisco-based TPG Capital is now the largest shareholder, followed by Shanghai-based Fosun Capital Group. How do you balance the creative and business sides with them?
A: I feel like I have a new job. Up until recently I was a rock star’s agent, now I’m a true CEO of a company that reports to people with a financial background.
I said to them: “You can come to my office as often as you want to talk about finance, but I don’t want you guys in the creative and production department because you’re going to kill the soul of this company.” And they just burst out laughing because as financial people they’re smart enough to know that they have nothing to do with our creativity.
Q: Why is the Silicon Valley and China so important to the Cirque?
A: Silicon Valley, first and foremost, because in the future live shows are going to be influenced by new technologies. There are 3D technologies, there are virtual characters, there are virtual environments today and I want our shows to be at the forefront of that development.
And China is an amazing market to capture. Having a Chinese partner gives me an opportunity. I’ve been traveling in China for 15 years and I was having great meetings with people but I wasn’t getting results. I’ve been there five times in the last four months and now a lot of people are saying yes to us because we’re a part of them.
In China… you have to remember that there is always, behind the scenes, the government
Q: How different is a Chinese management style to that of the Silicon Valley?
A: It’s very different. We are French-Canadian, we are French-speaking North American people, so it’s easy for us to do business in the U.S. We’ve been doing that all of our life, we speak the same language, which is the business language.
In China, it’s different because you talk business a lot but you have to remember that there is always, behind-the-scenes, the government. I’m not making a judgment about whether it’s good or bad, but you have to be conscious that the government is present in any decision there.
Q: You have an incredibly busy schedule, how do you manage work/life integration?
A: I travel a lot – 50 per cent of the time – and that’s a lifestyle in itself. I don’t have a job, I have a lifestyle. I love my lifestyle. I love traveling. I like everything about traveling. I’m fortunate that my wife can travel with me, not all the time, but she does travel with me and that’s the only way that I can have a wife and keep a balance.
Q: What’s your passion in life right now?
A: We’re just opening our first show on Broadway and when I saw the billboard on 42nd Street I was like a kid, I was so excited. I met with the artists and I could feel the nervousness in the theatre. I like that, it brings me a lot of adrenaline. That’s what I like. I know the artists are all working because we did that deal and I feel good about it. It’s very tough for an artist to earn a good living.
Cirque du Soleil is providing a good living to more than 2,000 artists and if I can supply jobs for 4,000 artists, I will feel even better. That’s what drives me.
At the end of the day, yes you want to be profitable and you want to make money and all of that, but that’s not the meaning of life. I cannot be driven by money alone – that would be a boring life. But, to see an artist performing and traveling around the world, oh my God – I feel good about that.
This interview has been condensed and edited from the CEO Series, which can be heard on CJAD and other Bell Media stations across Canada. For the full interview, go to the CEO Series on: http://www.cjad.com/TheCEOSeries/aspx