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A Leader's Journey: Alain Brunet

October 11, 2019


Alain Brunet: Human Connections and the Retail World – Inextricably Intertwined

If you took a microscope to Alain Brunet’s DNA, you’d probably see the letters SAQ woven into every strand. He first started working part-time at the government corporation in 1981, while majoring in history at the Université de Montréal. In the years and decades that followed, he made his way up to the head of the organization. In fact, he is among only a handful of SAQ executives, past or present, who started at the very bottom and climbed all the way to the very top.

His passion for retail developed early on, while he was still working as a salesperson and cashier. A series of promotions followed in quick succession: store manager in 1987, regional manager in 1993, director of sales in 1999, and eventually vice president and president. He stepped down from the latter position in 2018, after five years at the helm.

“If I fell in love with retail, it’s because of the connections you inevitably make with people – customers and employees alike – once you’re on the management side of things,” says Brunet. He left briefly in 1998 for a six-month stint with Provigo before returning to work under Gaétan Frigon, who would spearhead the shift to a more customer-focused way of doing business.

Human relationships at the heart of service and management

This passion for people shaped the rest of his career and achievements. “I would always spend some time on the floor every week. I made it point to try to stay approachable and easy to talk to every time I was in one of the stores or warehouses. And I think that helped me earn people’s trust. I was able to make major organizational changes because I had their support.”

He used this leverage to tackle some sizeable challenges. “We pushed the organization toward innovation and new technology and made the customer experience central to all of our sales and distribution channels,” recounts Brunet. “Remember, SAQ back in the day was nothing more than a distribution centre.” He is proud to have brought a philosophy of change to such a large organization. “That culture is not going anywhere. It will live on and propel the SAQ to even greater heights.”

According to Brunet, the SAQ can serve as an inspiration to other businesses in embracing the culture of change necessary to make it in retail. “Survival depends on an organization’s ability to find new ways to really connect with customers.” He argues that the challenge facing today’s retailers lies in their ability to develop or adapt tools to promote better, stronger relationships with their customers. “At SAQ, everyone who comes through the door is now greeted by a trained advisor who knows the products and who is an expert in the field,” explains the mastermind behind the SAQ’s renowned taste profiles. “It’s not the same job it used to be.”

The added value of mentoring

That same commitment to building relationships is what inspired Alain Brunet to become a coach and a teacher. When HEC Montréal invited him to become an adjunct professor in the HEC-SAQ retail program, he was quick to accept. “It’s a teaching culture that’s plugged into the realities of the industry and the business world,” he says. He is enthusiastic about taking on these new responsibilities. “I am excited to be able to give back to other executives and to share with them what I’ve learned from both my successes and my setbacks.”

As for his role as mentor to Executive Education HEC Montréal’s Class of 2020, he sees it, once again, as a chance to foster relationships. “I hope to guide them throughout their educational journey, attending presentations, drawing connections to the real world and giving them food for thought,” he explains. “I will also be available for more personal one-on-one discussions. People in the retail industry need concrete ideas that empower them to move forward. I can provide that added value,” says Brunet.

An inspiration to many, Brunet was himself inspired by Canadian business guru Henry Mintzberg, who believed that a great manager needed to exist within a team, not in some ivory tower. Ultimately, says Brunet, “you have to have your boots on the ground to set strategic objectives that make sense and effect meaningful change.” Even now, 38 years after landing that very first job, he still has a part to play in the SAQ’s present and future, as a member of the board of directors.


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Executive Education > News > 2019 > A Leader's Journey: Alain Brunet