Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 13, 2006
His work is a precious place
Montreal businessman and international speaker 'follows God's hierarchy of love'
J. Robert Ouimet
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
If the NAIT business students were expecting a Donald Trump sort to reveal how to make a quick million, they were in for a disappointment. Instead, they got a lesson in the value of human dignity in the workplace.
Businessman J. Robert Ouimet told the students they should create places of work where each person feels that God loves them.
More than 70 people attended a Feb. 2 lecture by Ouimet, chairman and CEO of Holding O.C.B. Inc. and Ouimet-Tomasso Inc., a large food processing company based in Montreal.
Ouimet inherited the business from his father, as well as the elder's belief that the human being is just as important as productivity and profits.
The company's motto is Orare ad gerendum in Deo (Pray so as to Manage in God), after a prayer by Mother Teresa in 1983 on the 50th anniversary of the company's founding.
Each is loved by God
"We call it a workplace so there is work done by human beings. For me, each person has been created and loved by God. Therefore, the workplace is a precious place," said Ouimet, 71, in an interview.
"As managers, we must carry in our hearts the colossal importance of what impact our management will have on our employees."
His unorthodox style spills over into the company's headquarters. Expensive wall hangings are replaced with simple posters carrying messages like Be the Light, Kindness and the Serenity Prayer. Rather than whipping his managers into a production-oriented frenzy, morning meetings begin with a quiet prayer. And each factory is equipped with a non-denominational silent room inspired by Mother Teresa for meditation and centring.
"Mother Teresa used to say that the greatest enemy of God is noise and the best friend of God is silence. Through silence he can reach us."
Ouimet described the rooms as a lighthouse in the competitive world.
"We do more than $110 million (a year) in volume in a very competitive industry. We are continuing to increase productivity and efficiency. But at the same time, we try to bring to our workers some beautiful and profound values that often do not reach a workplace," he said.
"I challenge any leader to run an organization and to grow slowly over 20 or 30 years, the well-being as well as the productivity, without help from the spirituality of one's choice. It will eat you up."
Ouimet is a respected international speaker on business and has sat on numerous boards, including Petro-Canada and the National Bank of Canada.
When he has free time, he goes to church to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.
"Authenticity starts with a handshake," Ouimet told his audience while ascending the theatre's stairs, shaking many of their hands.
"A CEO must shake hands or he might be categorized by the workers as corrupt or dishonest. They can tell when he is (less than honest)."
Ouimet recalled that as a boy, he used to ride his bicycle to visit his father's first manufacturing plant, knowing he was seen as a child of privilege being an only son.
"I remember shaking their hands, asking myself why I am where I am and not working on the floor. It reinforced in my heart to care about the workers and love them, while rigidly following the rules of the free market system. Otherwise, we would have been bankrupt many times in 72 years."
Pebble in the pool
Ouimet noted the increase in business managers and professors visiting his Montreal plant to learn more about his methods. They see that what Ouimet told them during his lecture is being put into practice.
Ouimet first travelled to Calcutta in 1983 to meet Mother Teresa after reading what she was doing for the poor and the sick. They developed an immediate kinship, lasting until her death in 1997. He would later return home with her prayer and adopt it as part of the company's mission statement.
"She was very ordinary looking until she smiled. Her smile was brilliant," Ouimet said. And she wore the same smile whether shaking his hand or holding a leper in her arms. She had nothing but authentic love for humanity.
"I went to see her with one question I had been carrying since birth. I am a fragile Roman Catholic born into the privilege of faith and wealth. I asked her, 'Mother, should I give everything I have?'"
Ouimet said Mother Teresa pondered a reply for 20 seconds and said, "'You cannot give it: It has never been yours. It has been loaned to you. You can try to manage what has been loaned to you for God, but if you want to go further, you can try to manage what has been loaned to you, with God.'
"I was getting my answer," Ouimet said. "I knew then I had to follow God's hierarchy of love. My wife was to come first and then our four children. I realized I had my wife at number 200 in priority. Then were to come the families of the organization I was leading, and to branch out from there."
Man with a mission
Ouimet returned to Montreal with a renewed purpose. He began to implement rules of conduct rarely seen. Managers were instructed to go out anonymously twice a year and serve the poor in a community soup kitchen. They were to hold testimonial conferences with the workers and listen to their problems. A contest would be held every year with $1,500 going to the worker who best exemplified efficiency while reinforcing human dignity.
And when a manager laid off a worker, he had to meet with that person for lunch within the next year to see how he or she was doing.
"Layoffs are inevitable," Ouimet said. "They are awful and they are tough if the manager has a heart. Sometimes we get discouraged, but if we are plugged into the one Creator, we can be better for it. We can have faith and hope in our hearts."