By Brian Dunn

During a speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations last December, Sylvie Vachon, President and CEO, Montreal Port Authority, reamed off one impressive figure after another related to the port’s activities and importance to the local economy.

Over the past 10 years, for example, the port recorded a 59 per cent increase in goods handled, including a 35 per cent hike in container throughput. During the same time, the port has spent over $650 million on capital improvements. All of which translates into the port handling over $100 billion worth of goods annually.

It’s the kind of growth Mme Vachon has been highlighting since 2009, when she became the port’s boss. The port’s success will soon have to be conveyed by someone else, after Mme Vachon announced she will retire at the end of this year, following a 30-year career at the port where she started as Chief, Human Resources, in 1990. Mme Vachon had originally planned to retire earlier, but decided to stay on due to the coronavirus.

From Chief, Human Resources, she moved up the ladder to Director, Human Resources, Vice-President, Human Resources, and then Vice-President, Administration and Human Resources before reaching the brass ring of her current position 11 years ago.

In March, Mme Vachon was awarded the Grand Bâtisseur Award as part of the 2020 Tourisme Montréal Distinction Awards. Celebrating the achievements of Montreal companies and key players in the tourism industry, the award honours the Port of Montreal’s new Grand Quay cruise ship terminal and its observation tower, currently under construction and set to be inaugurated next year. The 65-metre-high observation tower will offer cruise passengers a special vantage point from which to discover the city as soon as they arrive at the port.

Mme Vachon has spent the bulk of her career at the port. After graduating from the Université de Sherbrooke with a degree in Administration in 1980, she went to work for Employment and Immigration Canada and MIL Vickers which closed in 1989 and which built the icebreaker Louis St-Laurent in 1966 and is still in operation.

Mme Vachon’s list of board memberships and awards is almost as long as her career at the port. She is a Board member of Cascades and Chair of the Board of Directors of Richelieu Hardware and Le Cercle des présidents du Québec, to name a few.

In 2014, Mme Vachon won the St. Lawrence Award conferred by the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council and was awarded the Medal of the National Assembly of Quebec in 2016. Two years ago, Mme Vachon received the Sun Life Financial Outstanding Woman in Leadership Award at Les Mercuriades, the prestigious business competition organized by the Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce. She was also a guest lecturer at business school HEC (formerly École des hautes études commerciales de Montréal) during the 1990s.

More recently, Mme Vachon won the Donna Letterio Award from the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association. The award recognizes women in the global freight logistics sector who have demonstrated professionalism, commitment, leadership and a passion for excellence in her career and in her life. The award is granted annually in memory of former CIFFA president Donna Letterio who passed away in 2013.

After 30 years on the job, Mme Vachon decided it was time to retire. “I wanted to wait until (the Port of Montreal’s expansion in) Contrecoeur was launched and the financing was in place. I believe the time is right for someone else to take the helm and chart the next course in the long history of the Port, whose future is more than promising.”

There were more highs than lows during Mme Vachon’s tenure at the port. “In terms of highs, I’ve learned a lot about the business and I’m still learning. There has also been the growth of the port, new projects and the collaboration between stakeholders that makes Montreal a great port city with an efficient supply chain.

“The lows included lockouts, the 2020 strike and, of course COVID-19. Unfortunately, the year I was appointed CEO was during the 2008-09 recession and my retirement this year will also marked by a downturn in the worldwide economy.”

While the port’s activities never ceased during the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, the port’s traffic will be down by about 12 per cent because of the virus.

Mme Vachon made some observations as a woman in a predominantly male industry. “Women offer a different style of leadership and there were very few of us when I joined the port. But the Traffic Club of Montreal organized events for women and there are more of us in the industry, but it’s far from parity, although there is more interest now from women.”

While the industry is still seen from the outside as very masculine, Mme Vachon noted that five of the port’s seven board members are women. Even the corporate secretary is female.

One of the biggest changes over the years has been the evolution of the logistics chain and the port, along with CargoM, Montreal’s logistics and transportation cluster, has adapted to the reality of the logistics chain, according to Mme Vachon.

“The distribution chains around us have changed with the concentration of distribution centres. The container business at the port was mostly with Northern Europe, but now trade with emerging markets such as Asia is growing steadily.”

The port is also working on infrastructure and innovative solutions to improve the fluidity of truck movements in and out of the docks by a Trucking PORTal app for truck drivers and a road link and an overpass spanning Notre-Dame St. to connect directly to Assomption Blvd.

Another change over the years has been more cooperation between all levels of government. “We’re an urban port so there is a lot of a consultation with the various stakeholders, including the logistic and transportation industry, the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government and the local community, which wasn’t the case 30 years ago.”

In terms of successes, Mme Vachon is proud of the team that has been built over 30 years which she called professional, engaged, creative, motivated with a good working relationship.

“There has been a net improvement of our entire infrastructure, including the expansion of our Viau terminal, new cruise ship terminal and installations for bulk and liquid bulk cargo, in addition to our container and grain operations.”

Despite competition from other east coast ports, especially New York, Mme Vachon feels Montreal is well served by seven of the largest shipping lines in the world and lots of capacity for the markets the port serves.

Asked what challenges lay ahead for her successor, Mme Vachon mentioned the completion of Contrecoeur, not just for the benefit of Quebec, but for the rest of Canada. Between now and 2024, backed by the Canada Infrastructure Bank and private partners, the Port of Montreal intends to develop the new container terminal with a capacity to handle 1.15 million TEUs annually.

“The evolution of markets is always a big challenge that could affect the economy and we have no control over external forces which can affect the port.”

As the health crisis continues and government authorities prepare for the gradual recovery of the economy, the Government of Canada has formed the COVID-19 Supply Council which brings together a diverse group of leaders to provide the government with advice on the procurement of critical goods and services required as part of Canada’s COVID-19 response and recovery.

Mme Vachon was invited to join the committee.

“I am very pleased to be able to contribute to the Council’s work. The Port of Montreal plays a major and vital economic role at the heart of Greater Montreal’s supply chain and will definitely be an important player in the economic recovery by doing its part to create and maintain quality jobs and ensure the smooth flow of trade between businesses here and around the world, imports and exports alike,” said Mme Vachon.

“In the years ahead, I have no doubt that innovation and resilience will be at the forefront of the port’s strategy, along with its economic recovery.”