Stéphane Lefebvre named Cirque du Soleil CEO

A soft-spoken bookkeeper with a low-key profile will now take the spotlight at Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group as the circus giant tries to reconstruct a business shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The famed troupe said Tuesday it is naming Stéphane Lefebvre, a chartered accountant who has been Cirque’s operations chief for the past year, as its chief executive officer, effective Dec. 1. He replaces communications specialist Daniel Lamarre, who is taking a step back into an executive vice-chairman role after two decades at the helm.

“The two of us went to war together” to pull Cirque out of the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Lamarre said in an interview ahead of the official announcement. “And now we’re looking for Stéphane to bring the company to the next level.”

Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil is slowly rebuilding its business, which was pulverized nearly overnight in the spring of 2020 after it was forced to shut down 44 productions and lay off about 4,600 employees to comply with government-mandated bans on public gatherings. The company filed for bankruptcy protection three months later and is now controlled by its creditors, which bought Cirque in a transaction valued at about US$1.2-billion.

Mr. Lefebvre and Mr. Lamarre worked closely together during that time, meeting every morning to plot a trajectory toward revival. They’ll maintain that teamwork now, with Mr. Lefebvre, 54, in charge of daily management while Mr. Lamarre focuses on business development and relationships with key partners such as casino operator MGM Resorts and Disney.

“While there was no specific timeframe for me passing the baton after 20 years building this amazing organization, I feel privileged to have contributed to the rebirth of Cirque du Soleil and feel now is the right time,” Lamarre said in a statement. “There is no doubt in my mind that Stephane Lefebvre, after being instrumental in the relaunch of our operations, is the ideal next leader to take Cirque du Soleil forward to the next stage in its evolution as a company founded on the conviction that the arts and business, together, can contribute to making a better world,” he added.

Recapturing revenues and clawing back profitability remain colossal challenges for Cirque. The company has reopened several of its permanent shows in Las Vegas and just premiered a show called Drawn to Life at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, which was delayed by the pandemic. Openings have been staggered until now but the company plans a more aggressive schedule of touring show relaunches starting next year.

Ticket sales have been stronger than expected, with pent-up demand fuelling an initial surge, the two senior Cirque executives said. Still, they acknowledged the fragility of the global health situation and said they are pushing cautiously, going only into countries and cities with high vaccination rates and rigorous sanitary measures.

“Financially, we’re in really good shape right now,” Mr. Lefebvre said. He said Cirque started the year with about US$180-million in cash for operations and also has access to untapped credit. The owners, led by controlling shareholder Catalyst Capital Group Inc., are supportive and would likely inject emergency capital if it was ever needed, he said.

Credit ratings agencies such as Moody’s have expressed concern about the extent to which Cirque’s business is centred on Las Vegas, where its partnership with MGM counted for an estimated 35 per cent of its US$950-million in annual pre-pandemic revenue. But Mr. Lefebvre sees it as a steady source of cash flow, a financial anchor of sorts that the company can build out from as it relaunches shows in other cities in the months ahead.


Mr. Lefebvre joined Cirque du Soleil from aircraft simulator maker CAE Inc. in 2016 in the wake of a change in ownership as Cirque founder Guy Laliberté sold control of the company to private equity firm TPG Capital and China’s Fosun International Ltd. He was finance chief for four years at Cirque, leading three acquisitions as well as its post-bankruptcy recapitalization.

The soon-to-be-CEO is a known quantity at Cirque and liked by its creative teams because he has an appreciation for the value of their work, Mr. Lamarre said. Other colleagues describe him as a sweet and easygoing person with a sharp mind. Lefebvre insists he’s not just a money guy.

“My background has more than just the financial aspects of management,” said Lefebvre. “I’ve been working in different businesses. Since I joined Cirque du Soleil six years ago, I’ve been involved in different parts of the business, not only the financial part … including the strategy of the company and including its operations. “And I’ve done that in my previous career as well. I worked for an amazing company called CAE and I was highly involved in operations. I am a (chartered professional accountant) by trade but I’ve got more than just finance in my background. I have a lot of interest in arts and what the creative team’s capabilities are. … One of my favourite meetings was when we reviewed creative content for upcoming shows and I have the pleasure and benefit of having an amazing creative team.”

Lefebvre has promised a seamless transition at the top of the company as its stable of live shows worldwide continue to reopen. “It is an honor for me to take the lead of this Quebec flagship company, one of the largest contemporary live entertainment producers of the world,” said Lefebvre in his own statement.

The decision to keep Mr. Lamarre as executive chairman is a reassuring one given he’s been at the heart of Cirque’s international expansion, said Louis Patrick Leroux, an English professor at Concordia University who co-edited a book on Quebec’s circus companies. Mr. Lefebvre’s appointment, meanwhile, also sends a signal.

“That, in itself, indicates the direction one expects Cirque du Soleil to follow: Financial responsibility, stability and growth as we tippy toe out of the COVID pandemic,” Mr. Leroux said. “Cirque du Soleil needs to rebuild, refinance and relaunch its otherwise successful brand.”


Going forward the Cirque will be doing less shows than before.

“The reality now is, and we made it very clear with our new owners, maybe it’s better to have fewer shows and focus on having a stronger presence in strong markets,” said Lamarre.

He cited as an example of this that they will now have a new show in Montreal every year, rather than every two years, which was the case in the past. The first show in Montreal since the pandemic will be Kooza!, which will begin performances in the Old Port April 28. The Cirque just signed a new 10-year deal with the Old Port to have a new show every year. The Cirque also plans to do the same thing in Toronto, Los Angeles and London.

“So the 10 super markets we have, we can go there every year,” said Lamarre. “Only that will change the financial model of Cirque. You have Vegas that gives you a lot of stability. Then if you add 10 super markets that adds another layer of sustainability.”

And, of course, Las Vegas…

“I have spent quite a bit of time in Las Vegas in the last month, and it is my intention to continue to work with our team there,” Lefebvre said. “I plan on being very present with our team in Las Vegas.”

Lefebvre has been conferring with Cirque Senior Vice President Eric Grilly and Vice President of Operations Matt Nickel in Vegas. The company’s next planned production is a New York-themed show at New York-New York, in the former “Zumanity” theater.

Aside from that production, there are no formal plans for a new Cirque show on the Strip in 2022. As Lefebvre said, “In the near term, we’ll continue working on certain front-end marketing initiatives that we have launched in this year, together with MGM, to help support our growth in the box office.” By the time the NY-NY show launches, Cirque will present five shows in MGM Resorts International hotels. “Mystere,” at Phil Ruffin’s Treasure Island, is the lone exception.

“I will be continuing to nurture the relationships with our great partners MGM Resorts, AEG, Disney, Vidanta (the entertainment and hospitality company out of Mexico that co-produces the show “Joya”),” Lamarre said of his new role, which is a full-time position. “I will also be involved in new business development.”


Asked if realigning the company’s executive structure was a condition of the purchase, Lamarre said, “Not at all, and by the way, this was my recommendation. If I would have decided to remain as a CEO, I would. But my decision was to make sure that we ensured the stability of the company for the next 10 years. As a matter of fact, the board has insisted that I remain as executive vice chairman.”

“First of all, I’m not getting younger,” said Lamarre, 67. “That was not only my decision, it was my recommendation. I really pushed for that transition plan to be in place because I’m not looking short-term. I’m looking mid-term. There’s only one way to learn to be a CEO, it’s to be a CEO and that’s why I thought Stéphane moving in as a CEO, and counting on my presence full-time for a while, I think is the best scenario.

“And what I like about what’s happening right now, and I don’t want to make it a personal thing, but the book that I’m writing and publishing on creativity, is exactly in the line of what you were asking about Stéphane. The role of a guy like Stéphane or myself is to put in place the right conditions to nurture creativity. And here you are in the building of a creative centre. That’s where we are. … We have to preserve that at any cost because the day that we lose our creative edge, we’re done.”

Lamarre said he’s most proud of his role in stabilizing the company through the shutdown of all of its operations in March 2020. He has a book coming out in January, “Balancing Acts,” chronicling his time with the company. And his hand-picked successor is a prominent, new power player on the Las Vegas entertainment scene.

“I’ve taken up this challenge with a dose of humility, because this company has been through such a rough period,” Lefebrve said. “We’ve been in the trenches these last 18 months. Thank God, we can count on the amazing team in Vegas that supported the relaunch of the operations. I certainly feel privileged now, just having seen people’s reaction to coming back into theaters and seeing our shows.

“That makes me feel extremely excited about the the future.”

{ SOURCES: The Globe and Mail, The Hollywood Reporter, The Montreal Gazette, and The Las Vegas Review-Journal }