In America, we have Henry Ford, and in Canada, they have J.-Armand Bombardier. Although most people located south of The Great White North have never heard of him, just walk through the streets of Montréal and you’ll see his name plastered on everything from buses to subway cars and everything in between. Fact is, he’s a bit of a legend around those parts, so much so that the person in charge of running one of his companies has a heavy responsibility on their shoulders. Today, that man is José Boisjoli, the current CEO of BRP.
But before we get into his story, let’s go back to Bombardier, the man who started it all. Although Canada is an easy area to navigate today, prior to World War II, traveling anywhere in the Eastern providence of Quebec during the winter was quite the task. What Bombardier wanted to do was build a personal motorcraft that could traverse the snowy grounds with ease, and become a one-man car for the snow. But this was no easy task; in fact, while in the middle of building one of his prototypes during the worst part of the winter, his son fell ill. With no way to transport him to the nearest hospital located miles away, he was forced to watch his son die. That drove him to complete the project quicker, that way he avoided more potential suffering in the process.
His basic concept works like this: put skis on the front of a vehicle to steer and control the movement. Then put treads in the back to provide traction against the snow. The unique part here is that instead of running metal wheels with teeth against the treads like a tank, Bombardier used pneumatic tires just like the ones found on the average Ford at the time. But how?
From an engineering perspective, treads are incredibly difficult to work with. A metal tread has a very specific length, and needs to go around a series of wheels and gears to provide forward and rearward movement. But if the wheels flex or a suspension part moves, that could cause the length requirement of the tread to change, so a complex series of wheels and levers are used to keep the length fixed at all times. Problem is, the ride is pretty stiff, and it’s nothing that someone would want to drive for long periods of time.
Bombardier’s brilliant idea was to use rubber treads instead of metal, and pair two pieces of rubber together, linked side by side with metal teeth designed for digging into the snow. But he couldn’t turn the treads with regular tires, and he wanted to use those tires because it would help with ride quality. Instead, he connected the treads to a gear that ran down a shaft and connected to the transmission on the drivetrain. This kept the track aligned and moving forward, but also allowed for movement with the suspension. The concept was so popular that the military picked up on it and had Bombardier making 12-passenger vehicles for the Canadian Army to help with the effort in Europe.
Ultimately, these developments led to the Ski-Doo, a personal snowmobile that most people see zooming down the slopes each winter. That, in turn, led to the Ski-Doo, another hugely popular watercraft that has a name so well-known and recognized it’s almost used more than the technically correct name, jet ski. The company he created would eventually build subway cars, trains, ATVs, planes, boats and seemingly any kind of recreational vehicle imaginable. Bombardier, the company named after the founder, had become a goliath.
Back in 2003, that company was broken up, with the recreational vehicle side of things becoming a new entity named BRP. Three different groups own this new company: Bain Capital owns 50 percent, Caisse de depot et placement du Québec owns 15, and the Bombardier family owns the remaining 35 percent. This allows Bombardier, the company, to focus on the commercial products, such as the subways and trains, and BRP to focus on recreational vehicles, such as the Sea-Doo and Ski-Doo.
Enter Boisjoli. Back in the late ’80s, he was working at an engineering firm in Montréal when he was approached by Bombardier to join the company. “I interviewed for the first time in October 1988,” Boisjoli recalls. But it wasn’t until he took a trip to the production facility in Valcourt, Québec, about a two-hour drive east from Montréal, that he really fell in love with the company. He started in February of 1989 as the director of purchasing, and it was all up from there.
Throughout the years, Boisjoli had the opportunity to help guide the product line of the company’s recreational vehicle division. “I had a chance to be part of what we call the ‘Product Strategy Committee,’ PSC,” Boisjoli says. “And in there you have people from design, engineering, marketing, operations, and together we try to define ‘Do we work on this? Or do we work on that? Or where do we go?'”
By the time 2003 came along, Boisjoli was in an enviable position in the organization, and he was the first candidate to take over as CEO of the new offshoot company. Coordinating three different ownership groups can be a bit tricky, but Boisjoli had no problems navigating the treacherous waters. “For sure, the first year or year and a half, we had new owners and their new way of doing things,” he says with a thick French accent. “[It took] a year, year and a half to you know … you find your rhythm, you know?”
As it turns out, having a banking partner was advantageous to BRP, because they were able to work out the financial issues facing the new company easily and smoothly. And with the Bombardier family still onboard, that meant that the original feeling and history embedded in the organization for so many years would pass over to BRP seamlessly. “It took about 12 to 18 months to reach our rhythm, and after we did get it, man oh man. I’m very happy,” says Boisjoli.
“We like to say that we’re a young company with a long heritage.”
Today, BRP can act like a startup in the sense that they can move quickly on product designs and get something to market in short order. “You know, a big company has a reputation to move slowly; small ones to move quickly, and then my biggest challenge is to continue to grow, but always keep that rhythm and flexibility to move. And for me, I believe, that if you explain the things and how they are, people will have good sense, they will react. And for me it is to make sure we grow but remain a child.”
So what keeps José Boisjoli motivated to keep innovating with the company? After all, he could just sit back and continue to make Ski Doos and they would still make a profit. It turns out, he’s an enthusiast himself. “I don’t know if I told you or not, but I had my first snowmobile at 10, and for me, I’m hooked to this,” he says. Oh, and part of the perks of being the CEO is access to the products both new and old, which also keeps him feeling young.
Today, BRP doesn’t just make snowmobiles; they’ve also started tearing into new technologies, including building hybrid and electric vehicles. Their current product lineup includes the Can-Am Roadster, a three-wheeled motorcycle with two wheels in the front, that looks kind of like a reverse tricycle. It also includes ATVs, side-by-side off-road vehicles, and even planes and boats. They also continue to innovate their current lines, and today’s Sea-Doo has an active braking system and more in common with the average sport bike, being able to reach speeds up to around 70 mph and more.
As for José Boisjoli, he sees big things in the future for BRP. “I believe that depending how the U.S. will recover — but let’s say just OK recovering in the U.S. — we’ll be a $3 billion company. We’ll flirt with $2 billion to $3 billion in sales in 12 to 18 months,” he says confidently. “I think this company, in 10 years, can be doubled.”