08/13/2012 03:18 EDT | Updated 10/13/2012 05:12 EDT

SNC's new CEO may rile Quebecers but please investors

SNC-Lavalin's choice of a U.S. engineering executive to head the Quebec-based company — an announcement that came in the same week that the leading candidate to be the province's next premier twice rallied her troops around the decline of French in the workplace — could ruffle political feathers because he doesn't speak the language.

Robert Card, a senior executive at CH2M Hill Companies and former undersecretary of energy in the United States government, will take the reins Oct. 1.

He was chosen after a global search for an executive not already with the Montreal-based company, which has recently been mired in scandal. Predecessor Pierre Duhaime stepped down amid controversy over millions in mysterious payments in North Africa.

Card and his family plan to move to Montreal and learn French, but the naming of an anglophone to head one of the province's marquee businesses is sure to upset some Quebecers in the midst of a provincial election race.

The issue of French's place in Quebec stores, schools and workplaces, and the hollowing out of Quebec-based companies that get taken over by foreign firms, has made headlines over the last week of the campaign.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, who is slightly ahead in polls, pledged last week that a PQ government would pass a new, tougher version of Bill 101, the province's French Language Charter. It would make French the workplace language for companies with as few as 11 employees, and require non-English-speakers to attend CEGEP colleges in French.

"We have abandoned the defence of our language," she said, ruing that the use of the French language — what she called the essence of Quebec identity — is on the decline, particularly in Montreal.

Marois and rival François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec party, have also raised concerns about a hostile takeover bid for Quebec's hardware giant Rona by U.S. retailer Lowe's.

Marois said Monday that SNC should require Card to take French lessons so that at least he becomes bilingual.

'Best overall candidate'

SNC-Lavalin spokeswoman Leslie Quinton said the ideal candidate to head "this great Quebec institution" would speak French.

"However, at a time when the company requires strong, decisive and insightful leadership, the most important criterion was to hire the best overall candidate with significant international experience," she said in an email.

Quinton added that the company has a global reach and that attracting someone with such extensive experience demonstrates that Montreal is an attractive international location to which such people can be recruited.

Vancouver-based analyst Frederick Bastien of Raymond James, an international investment and financial-planning firm, said Card's appointment may not be initially well-received by the average Quebecer.

But he said shareholders should be pleased that the firm has managed to attract someone with Card's experience and reputation.

Card served as president of CH2M Hill's energy, water and facilities division and earlier headed its government, environment and nuclear division.

Privately held CH2M Hill is a Fortune 500 engineering firm with 30,000 employees in more than 80 countries and $6 billion of revenues and has competed against SNC-Lavalin for many contracts.