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Renaissance man: This entrepreneur changes lives with your goodwill offerings

A lot of us complain about the way things are in Quebec – poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and over-dependency on the state, or l’état providence.

Then there are those who take the next step and set out to make a real difference in people’s lives, and one such person is Pierre Legault.

“Pierre who?” you might rightly ask.

He is hardly a household name but the 63-year-old has made life better for thousands of Quebecers.

I first heard about him indirectly, because for the past few years I have been an almost daily visitor to the Renaissance used bookstore and donation centre located next to where we lived, on Décarie Blvd.

For me, this was close to providential – just about every interesting title, fiction and non-fiction, English and French, travel and cookbooks, was for sale there for $3.50. And CDs too, at $2 to $6, toys, paintings, and knicknacks.

The staff was so polite, so helpful, so efficient, the store open seven days a week, that I figured this could not be a government outfit.

I learned that the staff is composed of people ready and willing to be trained and to work for six months, at the minimum wage, now $11.25 an hour. Since he started Renaissance in June 1994, the non-profit organization has found jobs for 3,605 people. After their six months were over, four workers in five in 2016-17 found employment or returned to school. In that time 11,311 tons of clothing and household goods that might have been dumped in landfill sites were recycled. And as we know, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.

Talking to one of the staff, I learned that the founder was Pierre Legault and that this was not the first of his exploits to make the world a better place. He was instrumental in setting
up Moisson Montréal, the city’s central food bank, which distributes $81.5 million worth of food annually to 254 community organizations, which then redistribute it.

I tracked him down for an interview in the offices of the former warehouse on Saint-Laurent Blvd, just north of Jean-Talon, where, as general manager, he runs Renaissance.

I learned that the 63-year-old father of six, and grandfather to eight, comes from a middle-class family. His father Robert Legault ran a fleet of trucks as distribution manager for La Presse. His mother, Jeanine, was a cosmetics manager at a Jean Coutu in Laval. He grew up in the St. Vincent de Paul district of Laval, with three sisters, earning a B.A. from Université de Montréal in psycho-education. Once Renaissance began to grow and prosper, he returned to school for an MBA at McGill.

It was while working with emotionally disturbed children from 1981-84 that he was moved to do something about hunger.

“There was a little girl who returned to the facility after a weekend with her parents, who was very upset and crying. She told me, her mum had sold her bed because there was no money left for food. It broke my heart.

“I said to myself, it doesn’t make sense that in Montreal there are these kids who are going hungry, and yet there is all this wasted food.”

He started Moisson Montréal, or Harvest Montreal, with three parishioners of a north-end Catholic church in 1983, first as a volunteer. In 1984 he became involved full-time. At first he was working with no revenue at all and three kids to feed, but his wife, Margaret Anne (Peggy) Brooks, said she wasn’t worried, saying, “If it doesn’t work out, you’ll find something else.”

“A friend of mine in the U.S. inherited some money, and sent me $5,000 – quite a bit of money then, which helped us tide things over.”

Things started to change dramatically, thanks to a TV program on CTV’s W5, about City Harvest in New York City, which was collecting food from restaurants and institutional kitchens.

“We went down to New York, and realized there was a lot more food, in warehouses of Kraft, or General Foods in LaSalle, and we could pick up larger volumes.

“We decided to get a truck, a warehouse, and then started moving much bigger quantities, adding food from the central market, truckloads of potatoes, fruits, and vegetables.

“This is produce that had to be used right away, so they would give it to us and we would pass it on right away to the agencies, rather than them having to pay to have it dumped!”

“It was a win-win and then W5 came to interview me!”

That publicity got the ball rolling, with a flood of phone calls from Rotary Clubs, Centraide, the McConnell Foundation, and the Bronfman Foundation offering matching grants. It is now a pillar of Centraide’s efforts to feed low income families.

As far as his motivation, Legault says he and his wife, a psychology graduate from McGill, are both
idealists who want to contribute to making the world a better place.

“I stopped going to church when I was 12 or 13, but in Europe I ended up meeting (Canadian Catholic philosopher) Jean Vanier in France. I stayed at the L’Arche community he founded (for people with developmental disabilities) and rediscovered my spiritual values.”

When he realized he was “a bit of a social entrepreneur,” he and his wife decided they would do what they can.

He was struck by the fact that there were thousands of people using soup kitchens who were not working, some of whom were very effective as food bank volunteers.

“I realized many had low self-esteem, were very anxious, and they needed a way to regain their self-
confidence.”

In 1988, the Catholic organization known as Emaus was closing and their property was up for sale. Legault had heard about Goodwill Industries in the U.S. and decided to copy its format of running thrift stores while providing job training and employment placement services as a non-profit
organization.

He visited a Goodwill in Toronto in 1988, and in 1989-90 he got the J.A. De Sève Foundation interested, which offered $1 million and a warehouse, but agreed to hold off on setting up Renaissance for four years. He worked as an administrator at Vanier’s L’Arche, and in 1993 returned to the idea of starting Renaissance.

The concept here is also inspired by Enterprise d’Insertion in France, which interested the Quebec government at the time because of its newly acquired responsibility for manpower and employability training. Emploi Québec now contributes 15 per cent of Renaissance’s budget.

The first store was opened in the former warehouse on Saint-Laurent, which Renaissance now owns.

“We had a rough time for years, barely making it,” but the organization as of today is a huge success, offering lower prices than Value Village, which is a U.S. owned for-profit chain. And there is no sales-tax component at Renaissance.

“On July 20, we are opening our 12th store, in les Galeries Normandie mall on de Salaberry in Cartierville-Ahuntsic, a huge store with 17,000 square feet, similar to the one we opened last year on Henri-Bourassa”, he said, with pride.

Renaissance has 42 locations, including a liquidation centre, and eight bookstores. The remainder are donation centres.

Legault says he was not surprised by the success of the concept but has to face stiff competiton from Village des Valeurs and the agencies that collect items for it.

Their business model is to use non-profits, collect goods from them, which are paid a low price, and Village des Valeurs sells for its share-holder’s profit.

“It is certainly not very ethical to be highjacking donations from people in Montreal who want to do good with their donations,” he remarked.

Groups that sell donated goods to Village des Valeurs in Quebec include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada and the Fondation de recherche pour le diabète juvénile, he said.

Renaissance has a full and part-time staff of 508, and 120 in-training positions, plus about 100 volunteers.

It is now starting to buy surplus goods, especially clothing, from various not-for-profit agencies.

In the works is “a little project of a farm because not everyone functions well in a retail environment. Some people need to be in contact with nature.”

The organization is shopping around for a property to grow organic vegetables and try to finance itself over the next four or five years.

“It would be nice to have that.”

Somewhat full disclosure

Legault is reluctant to discuss precise details of Renaissance finances because he says it might compromise its competitive position with regard to privately owned Value Village, but he referred me to the Revenue Canada report for Industries Goodwill Renaissance Montreal Inc. – the registered name – which shows total revenue last year of $25.27 million. His gross income as general manager was between $120,000 and $159,999.

Apart from their salary, staff hired on the six-month “insertion” program gain work experience, they receive personalized training and support, and guidance tailored to their needs in searching for a job.

irblock@hotmail.com

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