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Businessman Stéphane Lefebvre stands in front of a colourful wall
From Pivot Magazine

How this CPA resurrected Cirque du Soleil

The pandemic temporarily closed the curtains on Cirque du Soleil but the company’s newest president and CEO is preparing a comeback for the ages

Businessman Stéphane Lefebvre stands in front of a colourful wallThe responsibility of the role is Stéphane Lefebvre’s favourite part of his job (Photograph by LM Chabot)

As far as Stéphane Lefebvre knows, the headhunter who called to offer him a job in the C-suite at Cirque du Soleil in the summer of 2015 had no clue that the now 54-year-old CPA was a dedicated arts aficionado.

Lefebvre, who was promoted to CEO at Cirque du Soleil last December, played classical piano as a child in Chambly, Quebec and grew up admiring the works of Robert Schumann and other classical greats. While studying business administration and management at HEC Montreal, he got his first taste of working on the numbers side of entertainment when a professor, who had a side gig putting on rock shows around Montreal, hired him to help with the accounting. An all-access pass to the local music scene was a major perk. “I got to go to shows for free and mingle with the artists backstage,” Lefebvre recalls. “That was an amazing experience for me. It’s one thing to see an artist on stage, and something else entirely to meet and make connections with them.”

When the world’s largest contemporary circus production company came calling decades later, it felt like the stars were aligning. “I was interested in the fantasy of working for Cirque du Soleil,” says Lefebvre, who moved steadily up the ranks since joining in 2016—first as CFO, then COO and, now, its newest president and CEO.

But even Lefebvre wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of dropping a lucrative career and joining the circus.

At the time he was headhunted, Lefebvre was VP and CFO at Montreal-based flight simulator firm CAE, where he had worked for 20 years. It was a good gig. CAE operates all over the world meaning, over the years, Lefebvre’s job took him from an initial posting in London to Italy, Brazil, India and Australia, among other destinations. The work was interesting, his globetrotting lifestyle was satisfying and he was in no hurry to leave the company. But ultimately, Lefebvre was swayed by the allure of Cirque du Soleil’s creative brand and the prospect of merging a career with his lifelong passion for the arts.

After graduating HEC Montreal in 1991, Lefebvre got a job at Pricewaterhouse (before its merger with Coopers & Lybrand) where he worked until 1997, earning his CPA designation during that time and working primarily on mergers and acquisitions, and insolvency financing. He also spent a few years on the board of two small Montreal theatre companies, helping with paperwork and handling the books. An inlet to the arts world was a welcome bonus. “I became a part of it, even though I wasn’t really creatively involved,” he says. “I got to attend the shows and observe the creative process. I remember they put on a play called Le Portrait de Famille and I was in the audience almost every night.”

Eventually, the demands of a full-time finance job caught up with him, and Lefebvre took a step back from working in the entertainment world. But his interest in it never dwindled. Throughout his 20-year career at CAE he spent weekends attending musical or theatrical shows—including Cirque du Soleil, where he was mesmerized by an early production of O, the one-of-a-kind water-based production that debuted in Las Vegas in 1998.

“You hear about the expression ‘think outside the box,’” says Lefebvre. “Well, for Cirque du Soleil, there is no box.”

In 2015, Cirque du Soleil was in the midst of a major executive restructuring process. Company founder Guy Laliberté had just sold his majority stake in the company to an investor group led by private equity firm TPG Inc. Its leadership group—longtime CEO Daniel Lamarre and COO Jonathan Tétrault—wanted a profitability-minded CFO with operations experience to implement a strategic plan.

“This company is such a creative powerhouse. When I considered joining, I thought it can do even more than it’s already done.” Lefebvre says. “Plus, it was such a cool industry to work in.”

A performer balances on one arm while three other performers pose below Instead of retiring older shows after 12-15 years, Lefebvre sees the company’s past productions, such as Kurios, like classic albums that fans can revisit (Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

It was relatively smooth sailing at first—until the pandemic hit in 2020. Suddenly, the company went into survival mode in a matter of days. At the time, they had a show being staged in Italy, where the pandemic first hit hardest, and the company scrambled to find another city in Europe to send the production. Six days later, all Cirque du Soleil shows—46 total both in production and actively running—were shut down. “We went from more than a billion-dollars in revenue to nothing,” he says.

On June 30, 2020, the company filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors to restructure its capital. By that November, it emerged from creditor protection and closed the sale of the firm to a group led by Catalyst Capital Group.

As part of the business case to the new investors, 68-year-old CEO Lamarre retained his position and presented a succession plan that would see Lefebvre promoted to COO and, eventually, take over his role. “It was no secret that Daniel was not planning on being around [the company] for the next 10 years,” says Lefebvre. “I became much more focused on value creation. We came up with a plan for the company to become more efficient, less capital intensive, and capable of growth.” As Lefebvre moved into the CEO role beginning in December 2021, that plan has more or less stayed the course, even as Cirque continues to weather the ongoing fallout of the pandemic.

One of his first moves was lowering overhead at the company’s Montreal headquarters. He reduced the number of staff there and gave decision-making power to employees who were actively working in operations. The next step was a total revamp of the company’s timelines.

With a few exceptions, Cirque du Soleil produces a big top show every two years, after which it tours worldwide. “The model was to take the show offline after 12 to 15 years of touring and replace it with a new one. That’s not cheap,” says Lefebvre. “You’re deploying capital that doesn’t create growth, but just replaces what you’ve decided to remove.”

Risk management is more important than ever, says Peter Graham, media and entertainment specialist at KPMG. “Before [the pandemic], if a show was green lit and started selling tickets, you thought your risk was over,” he says “Now, we have a somewhat reluctant public, and when you think of the investments needed to re-launch shows, you need to do things to encourage ticket sales, like refund options.” 

Looking at the bigger picture, Lefebvre wants to utilize the company’s rich catalogue of successful shows. He sees the company’s productions like classic albums that fans continually revisit. He references Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios, a steampunk-style production with a jazz and electro-swing score, centred on a late 19th-century inventor who creates a machine that bends the laws of physics. The show is set to return to Toronto for a second run from mid-April to the end of May. “I’m convinced it will be a success,” he says, “even though it’s run there before.” A 2014 review from the Montreal Gazette declared that Kurios “runs like clockwork and could tick on forever”—which is precisely Lefebvre’s new strategy.

Four performers balance on top of each other in colourful costumesCirque du Soleil performances, including touring shows like Luzia, are slowly making their way back to the stage (Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Another production, Luzia—a show centred on the richness of Mexican culture—is currently on its second run at London’s specially refitted Royal Albert Hall. “We wondered how it was going to perform after going into the same market with the same show for the second time,” says Lefebvre. “And we’re doing fantastically.” In late January, the show beat a weekly sales record as fans returned to theatres in the U.K. after COVID-19 restrictions were loosened. Lefebvre envisions extending the life cycle of the average Cirque du Soleil big top show.

The company also plans to tailor smaller shows to specific markets, rather than pushing every big top show worldwide. “We’ll do a less-capital intensive show that caters to their specific market,” Lefebvre promises.

Graham sees an opportunity in gearing shows toward younger audiences as well. “Can they rekindle their success? I don’t see why not,” he says. “They have proved it time and time again by coming out with new content and attracting spectators.”

Offstage, he’d like to re-envision the entire fan experience. “Before working there, I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to a show at Cirque du Soleil and left to get a drink somewhere else. Even though the big top environment is amazing,” he says, “there isn’t much to do in the tent before and after the show. I want to offer a richer experience.” Lefebvre did not go so far as to say exactly what that will look like, but promises changes are coming soon.

As if being tasked with turning around a legacy brand during a chaotic pandemic isn’t enough, Lefebvre recently took on a new project: teaching his oldest child to play classical piano. And not just on any old instrument, but a vintage family heirloom he stubbornly refuses to replace. “When I brought it to the repair shop, the guy told me, ‘It’s not worth it. I can sell you a much better one for the same price it takes to fix this one,” he says. “But I couldn’t get rid of it.”

Lefebvre’s ultimate musical dream? Mastering Schumann’s notoriously difficult Fantasie in C major. But he admits that will likely have to wait until retirement. For now, he’s focused on rescuing a Canadian treasure and building a new legacy.

“My role is to think about the message and emotions we want to leave the audience with,” he says. “One thing I insist on is inspiring surprise. Cirque du Soleil has to surprise people.”

Lefebvre’s job operates in the big picture, which is where he says his CPA chops and wealth of corporate finance experience come in handy. Creativity is the soul of the company, but it takes a guy who knows his numbers to keep that creativity in business. But Lefebvre’s other side allows him to take part in meetings where artistic decisions are made. “I can’t believe I’m paid to be a part of those conversations,” he says. “I find the meetings about artistic direction absolutely fascinating.”

That comes of little surprise to his predecessor. “At the end of the day, what makes the company work is the quality of its shows," says Lamarre. "Thinking about quality is the first thing the leader should do, and that takes a real sensitivity to the creative process, which Stéphane certainly has. The creators and artists can feel it. They don’t see him as just the former CFO of the company, but as someone who puts a lot of effort into supporting the creative team. That’s key for the future of our organization.”

Lefebvre straddles a fine line around creative control. “When he passed the CEO position on to me, Daniel told me ‘You’re the ultimate executive producer of this company. If something goes wrong, people will always point at you.’ I feel the weight of that responsibility,” he says. “It’s my favourite part of the job.”


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