Jean Coutu

Quebec’s famous pharmacist

By Jason Santerre

“What do you want from me?” It’s the first thing out of the mouth of the 91-year-old man dressed in slacks and a crisp, white pharmacist’s lab coat. Even if he wasn’t asking with a smile on his face, the self-made billionaire has earned the right to be suspicious of people asking him for things. People of affluence and influence are continually solicited for everything from financial advice and favour to donations and interviews. There’s a reason Jean Coutu keeps a low profile.

That’s not to say Mr. Coutu isn’t generous. Before anyone outside of the east end of Montreal knew his name, he was just a pharmacist looking to support a young family. Still, he was a citizen of the world and open to helping the less fortunate. During our conversation, Mr. Coutu tells of a time when two gentlemen came to see him about a village in Africa. “An artist and a professor stood before me, asking if I’d like to foster a village in Mali. I was sceptical, to say the least.”

But the men spoke of a plan to make the impoverished people of the West African village self-sufficient. The key was to dig a well. With clean water, the people would not only be able to drink without fear of disease, they could grow crops and raise livestock. It would change everything.

“They held my attention to that point,” recalls Mr. Coutu. “Then I asked how much. They said it would cost $60,000 to foster an entire village. I said, ‘Whoa! I have a pharmacy that cost me that much. I have a family. I have employees to worry about.’ But they made such a good case, that I said okay.”

The day after the visit from these goodwill ambassadors, Mr. Coutu started Nuits D’Afrique at his pharmacy. The idea would be for each store to stay open all night. Patrons were asked to make a donation. “Whatever comes in, I said I’d match the total. Our first night, we made $70,000. I was flabbergasted by the generosity of the people.”

And that’s how the Marcelle & Jean Coutu Foundation was born, helping several sectors here at home and abroad. The foundation is close to Mr. Coutu’s heart, as is his partner and wife of 68 years, Marcelle. “Can you believe it? These days, couples are lucky to last 68 weeks,” he says. Seven decades is a testament to the couple’s devotion and willingness to see projects to fruition despite hardships and obstacles.

Five children, 15 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren later, the Coutus make family their business and their business all about family. “I always said we have to have respect for women and for the family unit. They were the ones who needed good products at discount prices the most.”

And women made up most of his employee base, especially in the early days. “We were one of the first companies to have a human resources department. Plus, we offered good pay for a good work ethic with opportunity to move up in the company and take on more responsibility. This allowed us to have superior employees. Better, happier employees meant a better shopping experience.” And everybody wins.

By 1969, Jean Coutu was outperforming the traditional corner pharmacy. The Coutu name meant a wider array of products at a discounted price, and longer opening hours. By 1973, the Jean Coutu Group was incorporated. Franchises were available. The first franchise was the massive Pharmacie Montréal in the heart of downtown. It boasted 250 employees over six floors and was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. “We were sore in the wrists from pushing people away.”

Over 400 stores later, an iconic brand respected by employees and shoppers alike, Mr. Coutu received the Order of Canada and the Order of Quebec for his philanthropic and economic contributions. And now, nearly 50 years later, the PJC group is making headlines again.

Just last year, a merger with Metro inc. was announced. The multi-billion dollar deal combines two of the province’s most iconic retail brands. “I think the move we are doing actually is good for both these companies,” said Mr. Coutu in an interview with The Toronto Star. “It’s good for myself and it’s good for the future because we open up more opportunities than staying what we were.”

Business acumen aside, Mr. Coutu says he’s most proud of his family. “Of course I’m proud of them, but I’m also proud of my understanding of humans. What’s important is that you respect people and give back when you can, give back wisely. You can give a child a new pair of shoes, but if you give them clean water to drink and teach them how to keep that water clean, you’ve made a huge difference in the lives of many instead of just one.”

Mr. Coutu offers more advice, especially for the next generation. “We each have a job to do, whether you’re a pharmacist, a plumber or a poet. We have to do our best to take society where it needs to go. Kids have those tools,” he says. “The next generation must use those tools to make the world better than when they found it.”

Of course, most of Mr. Coutu’s world is Montreal. He was born here. He made his fortune here. He employed tens of thousands along the way, and put Quebec business people on the map in the wake of the Quiet Revolution.

“Montreal is the best city on Earth. The fact that we have French and English culture here, I mean, what a unique and wonderful circumstance,” he says. “Both cultures have so much to offer. It’s up to us to make the most of that. Montreal might not be the most beautiful city in the world or the warmest – the winters here! Ouf! – but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”


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