DEA11 1024 Pichette 2
Patrick Pichette has spent most of his career in the C-suite of large companies. Good luck catching him wearing a tie though.
His friend Doug Harpur said, “Wearing Patagonia fleece is more comfortable than wearing a business jacket.”
Pichette is one of the most influential figures in Canada’s technology industry. He was chief financial officer at Google when the company that would become Alphabet Inc. began to move seriously beyond its origins in Internet search. Now, as a partner at Innovia Capital Inc., a Montreal-based venture capital firm, he helps fund hundreds of millions of dollars that could produce the next generation of Canadian tech companies.
But he is not widely known to the general public, as he is extremely private, preferring walks in nature to the glare of the media.
Of course, the media attention was hard to avoid last year, when Pichette, then chairman of Twitter Inc.’s board of directors, found himself in the middle of perhaps the most-watched business story of the year.
Pichette’s position made him a central player in Elon Musk’s soap-operating acquisition of the company for US$44 billion. At one point, Musk tried to back out of the deal, but Pichette remained firm, and Musk ultimately decided to go ahead with the purchase, even though several analysts said he overpaid.
On October 28, Pichette tweeted A partially completed “to do list” that includes check marks next to “Put Away Backyard Summer Patio,” “Finish My NYT Sunday Crossword Puzzle” and “Get Elon to Honor Twitter’s $54.20 Bid” were involved.
He acknowledged that he still had to get groceries. “Nevertheless, I would say very well…”
Now, Pichet is focused on what he describes as his two primary missions: building a Canadian technology industry and protecting the environment. In November, Innovia contributed $3 million to a $50 million effort that includes the Nature Conservancy of Canada to preserve 65,000 acres of forest between Montreal and Ottawa called Kenouk.
Millionaire Pichet said that he hardly had any clothes. Just a few shirts and two wool Patagonia sweaters. His sparse closet is symbolic, and represents an almost militant commitment to a life of simplicity. “I don’t need any more wool,” he said. “I need more time to cycle. I need more time to travel. I need more time to build more things.”
Pichette draws inspiration from Yvonne Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia Inc., who donated the entire company in September 2022 to finance climate change mitigation efforts. Pichet said that it is better to spend money on the protection of the environment than on meaningless goods.
That’s a strange philosophy for someone in the tech industry who has earned an estimated net worth of at least $91 million, according to GuruFocus, an online value investor research company. But Pichette learned through his worldwide travels that “there is zero correlation between stuff and happiness,” he said. “In fact, I would argue the opposite… more stuff means less happiness.”
An ‘Accidental’ Rhodes Scholar
Before Patrick Pichette was a tech magnate, he was a middle-class youth peeling north of Montreal on his bike. As a young adult, he worked as a downhill ski instructor and heavy machinery operator.
After CEGEP, a pre-university program unique to Quebec, Pichette spent two and a half years working for a federal program called Katimawik, which enables youth to travel across the country and work in different communities.
“My family was never about, ‘Let’s make a lot of money.’ It was about being a good citizen,” Pichette said.
After a bachelor’s degree at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) School of Management, Pichette wanted to be a carpenter and “bum the world over,” but the universe had other plans.
Pichet receiving the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Quebec during a ceremony at the legislature in Quebec City in 2015.
Pichette may have lacked ambition, but he had good grades. A professor suggested he apply for a Rhodes Scholarship for a fully funded master’s degree at the University of Oxford, so Pichette filled out an application and emptied his bank account to buy a suit.
“I don’t have a career plan,” he told the selection committee. “What I can tell you: I plan to live to be about 100 … I’m 25, I’m going to work until I’m 75. And after that, I have a good 15 years left for a more contemplative life.” It’s years. Then after that I’ll wear nappies, eat porridge. We’ll figure it out.”
He gave him a scholarship.
Pichette, now an “accidental” Rhodes Scholar, enrolled in politics and economics, an experience that divided his life into two parts: before and after. “Oxford is simply extraordinary,” he said. “The whole world is visible there. You hit this wall. Ordinary science, thoughtfulness, progress. You see the progress of humanity. And that changes you.
Pichette realized that he had a choice to lead an influential life. So he did.
‘Most unconventional CFO’
For 30 years, Pichet served as an executive in large firms. At McKinsey & Company, he led the North America telecommunications practice. At Bell Canada, BCE Inc., he served as President of Operations and later as Chief Financial Officer. Then there was the jump to Silicon Valley, where he spent seven years at Google as CFO.
But somewhere along the way, he lost the thread of simplicity that shaped his early years. He decided to leave Google in 2015 to try to re-invent it. After three decades of non-stop work, he stepped away from one of the world’s most coveted executive positions to travel, cycle, and spend time with family, an experience that deepened his understanding of what it means to live the “good” life. Changed his perspective about
His departure from Google left a void. Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of people operations during Pichet’s tenure, said, “He was beloved within the company.” “People really, really liked him. They missed him when he was gone.”
Bock said that Pichette wanted the company to be “scrapier” and that the company lacked financial discipline.
Pichette’s departure from Google left a void.
Of course, Pichette blended in well at the company, as the standard T-shirt and jeans worn by Google engineers was already his outfit of choice. Pichet’s ubiquitous orange backpack became a running joke within the company. Bock said that during the all-hands meeting, management announced that the company generated US$1 billion in cash in a particular quarter. He remembered that day with a smile.
“Someone in the audience asked, ‘Well, where’s all that money?’ And Patrick says, ‘It’s in my backpack,’” Bock said. “Eventually the gift shop for visitors sold an orange backpack called ‘The Patrick,’” he said. “Even after he left, they kept him Sold for a while.”
Pichette wrote a long note announcing his departure, which founder Larry Page called “the most unorthodox quit notice from the most unorthodox CFO”.
In it, Pichette details a discussion he had with his wife Tamar on top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She asked when Pichette was going to make time for him, for the two of them. He proposed that they leave behind their obligations at Google to travel. “Let’s see Antarctica,” he said.
“I would love to continue, but we have to go back,” he told her. Many people were counting on him. Ultimately, he could not find an argument that could persuade either himself or Tamar. He quit, writing that life is “wonderful” but still a series of tradeoffs between business and family.
Pichette’s ‘Simplicity Test’
Pichette became Twitter’s independent board chairman in June 2020. “By design, Twitter is dramatically simple,” Pichette said.
His theory of simplicity was tested during the Twitter sale, when Musk, the world’s richest man, sought to upend the platform’s carefully considered rules.
“One day, (Musk) lets Kanye in, and then the other day, as I’m brushing my teeth, I realize he kicked Kanye again,” Pichette said. “I don’t know what the rules are.”
Musk fired the entire board, including Pichette, in October 2022. When asked whether Musk would be able to advance the board’s objectives, Pichette said, “Not at all, but my hands were tied.”
Twitter Inc is now run solely by Elon Musk.
Twitter is now run solely by Musk. “It’s his property,” said Pichette.
Harpur said that his friend is a genius shapeshifter who can hang out with billionaires in one breath, and in the next, have a real conversation with every man.
“It’s rare to see someone who has a foot in both worlds,” said Harpur, chief executive of London-based Harpur Investments, a merchant bank that invests in companies focused on land development and forestry.
Innovia and what’s next
Pichette returns from his trip and joins Innovia. He said he wanted to address a troubling trend he had observed in his years in the Canadian tech world. He felt that Canada was punching below its weight.
“I just thought, ‘It’s time to give back to the place that gave me everything.’ And that’s why I decided to join Innovia.” “I’m in this reinvestment mode. You think, ‘Okay, do I want to be prime minister? Do I want to do this, do I want to do that?’ You think about all the things you could do. What I thought was the best I could do was support…the tech ecosystem.
Pichet said he thinks Canada should be building more big tech companies. Based on what he’s seen, it has all the ingredients: world-class universities and “great” intellectual property and technology. But, “we don’t grow them fast, we don’t grow them to champion,” he said, echoing the oft-cited observation that Canada appears to be good for one international tech giant per decade: Nortel. network in the 1990s; Research in Motion, which created the BlackBerry smartphone in the 2000s; and Shopify Inc. currently.
“How about we do a Shopify every 10 years?” Pichette asked. “With all the great IP we have. It just doesn’t make sense. We should have a Shopify in Canada in a year.
Pichette said investing in the tech ecosystem would be worthwhile. He said it would create high-tech jobs that would generate wealth that could be used to fund public enterprises such as hospitals and schools.
Pichette is not the first to make such an observation, but he may be the first to confront the issue with his unique combination of experience and values.
Whatever he does, it will probably be behind the scenes more often than in public. The limelight that came with his entanglement with Kasturi appears to be the kind of attention he wanted to avoid.
Pichette was upset by the Financial Post’s decision to write a separate story based on a 500-word overview about Google and the state of the tech industry, including his “criticism of Google and Facebook and all these big giants that broke them”. “10 Companies That Should Go” because, “These companies have a slim chance of staying agile.”
Pichette did not ask for a correction, but said he felt it was inappropriate to write a story about his views on a single topic when he had agreed to an interview to contribute a brief profile.
“Complex topics like Google require more than one sentence to be fully understood,” Pichette said in a statement. “Unfortunately, on January 27, the Financial Post used a sentence from me to run a full article suggesting a very simplistic perspective on Google, as part of a wider conversation. In doing so, my The views were misrepresented, which does a disservice to Google, its management, itself and the Financial Post’s brand.
The article in question contained several sentences about Google, culled from an interview during which he mentioned the company more than 20 times. The Financial Post invited Pichette to explain how his views had been misrepresented. He denied.