Before starting with the interview, it is important to give some backgrounds on the current Cirque du Soleil President
Stéphane Lefebvre has been President and CEO of Le Groupe Cirque du Soleil since December 2021. With over 30 years of experience in procurement management, strategic planning and financial governance, Stéphane has significant knowledge, a very deep understanding of market development opportunities as well as complex business environments.
Stéphane joined Le Groupe Cirque du Soleil in 2016 as Chief Financial Officer and later served as Chief Operating Officer. During these years, he was responsible for overseeing finance, information technology, global sourcing, and risk management, among other things.
Stéphane also played a key role in the acquisitions of the Blue Man Group, VStar Entertainment and The Works Entertainment. He also played a key role in the team leading the company acquisition in 2020 and the subsequent relaunch of the company operations after the pandemic.
Stéphane holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Montréal (HEC) and is a member of the Order of Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA).
After this brief presentation let’s move on with Q & A.
1 - We assume that this question has already been asked by many media, but it is inevitable. How have you achieved the almost total recovery of the company after the situation created by the pandemic?
I always believed in the strength of the brand and our teams, so I am convinced that the forces of our teams and our strong vision led to this remarkable recovery. At the end of the day, it comes down to having the right people around you to build a strong management team.
During the pandemic, I worked a lot with my predecessor Daniel Lamarre to rethink the business plan. Not only did my team need to keep the company afloat, but it also had to deal with the challenge of getting thousands of performers and employees, located all around the world, back to their respective homes safely.
There was a small team of people that worked on relaunching the business at the time. I felt supported by a team of twenty employees who were still partly employed by the company in different functions. It was a key factor in the relaunch of our activities because we motivated each other to get through the crisis and the hard times.
When the company finally emerged from creditor protection in November 2021, the initial focus for the new owners was on improving efficiency. In my previous role as CFO, I had helped identify new sources of funding for the company, and now, as CEO, I am leading the company’s renewal efforts. 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.
One of my first moves was actually to revamp the organizational structure overhead and work on a remodel of the company’s timelines, which would be beneficial for the long-term future of our business.
2 - What is Cirque du Soleil’s current strategy? Are the current economic situation and the skyrocketing inflation will have negative repercussions in the company?
The challenges of the last few years made us rethink our business models. Needless to say that travel, transport costs and the cost of petrol are all going up these days, but we anticipated this and we planned accordingly. We don’t foresee any crisis on our side for the time-being.
I want Cirque du Soleil to become very ambitious in the way we reach our audience. We all know that the world has changed immensely during the pandemic. It’s clear that the world needs to gather and connect with each other again.
Looking at the bigger picture, we also want to utilize the company’s rich catalogue of successful shows and use the company’s productions, like classic albums, that fans continually revisit.
We’re also looking at extending the life cycle of the average Cirque du Soleil Big Top show and tailoring smaller shows to specific markets, rather than pushing every big top show worldwide.
We also took the time to re-envision the entire fan experience. We implemented our newly defined mission to diversify our offering beyond live shows by widening our portfolio of brand experiences across 3D immersive and filmed entertainment, premium content, gaming, and beyond, to reach new audiences. Several projects and partnerships will be announced in the next few months!
3 - What in your opinion are the main bases for business success?
For me, it all comes down to a mixture of innovation, creativity and positive leadership.
At the end of the day, my role is to think about the message and emotions we want to leave the audience with. One thing I insist on is inspiring surprise – Cirque du Soleil has to surprise people. As we’re close to celebrating our 40th anniversary next year, we remain with the mission to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world.
4 - For me, it all comes down to a mixture of innovation, creativity and positive leadership.
At the end of the day, my role is to think about the message and emotions we want to leave the audience with.
One thing I insist on is inspiring surprise - Cirque du Soleil has to surprise people. As we’re close to celebrating our 40th anniversary next year, we remain with the mission to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world.
At Cirque du Soleil, we believe that our commitment goes beyond the performance. We aim to positively impact people, communities and the planet with what we know best: creativity and art.
Our social responsibility strategy is based on four pillars (Talent, Community, Procurement & Partnerships, Environment) and gives our work clear direction to focus on the objectives that we have set for ourselves.
More than one year ago, we embarked on the process of re-designing our ESG strategy by benchmarking best practices in the entertainment industry, assessing what meant the most for our organization and committing to 14 ESG priorities as part of our roadmap for the years to come.
Our sustainability vision is to create a blueprint that will be owned across the organization instead of being assigned to a dedicated ESG team. We want our priorities to be closely connected to our employee’s values and expectations. We’re not looking at boiling the ocean here, we want our actions to be true to our beliefs, intentional and sustainable in time.
5 - Another current issue for the business sector is the rising of artificial intelligence that affecting the industry. What is your assessment on this point?
For now, I believe that artificial intelligence poses a low risk for our company, even if a debate is emerging about intellectual property protection for artists. Just like any other big business, technology and innovation are always evolving, so we will adapt through the years.
We are not completely closing the door on the technology for its creative process, but for now, we see it more as an administrative aid than an artistic one.
6 - What happened to all the company equipment during the pandemic? Was Cirque du Soleil able to recover all of its equipment already shipped around the world?
When the pandemic started, not knowing how long this was going to be lasting, we kept 3 of our Big Top and equipment on location (Montreal, QC. – Houston, TX – Melbourne, AUS). The other shows were packed up and dispatched in different warehouses and back to our International Head quarters. Quickly, we realized this was going to last much longer then anticipated and had to orchestrated for the 3 remaining Big Top to be tore down, which required logistics as our specialized technicians were at the moment not able to travel. Once every show and infrastructures packed away, it represented a total of 600 semi trailers of equipment.
7 - Has the fact that Cirque du Soleil activities have been suspended for more than a year affected the equipment quality?
Of course, after spending multiple months in road cases and in storage all the equipment had to be reassessed and a lot of maintenance had to be done on the technical equipment as well as costumes. Investments had to be done to relaunch every show in a safe and secure environment.
8 - During the pandemic we have seen a generational shift caused by massive retirement of older employee. Did this also affect Cirque?
We are lucky to work with extremely talented and passionate artists. In June 2022, a year after the relaunch of our activities, 80% of our artists had come back, which is something we’re really proud of!
The core of Cirque du Soleil’s creative energy is made up of our performers. Athletes, acrobats, and artists are nurtured and allowed to flourish creatively while working as part of our creative team. These people are driven by a passion to continually surpass themselves in a pursuit to create exciting new art. Our company provides a creative environment that encourages its artists to express themselves in their own unique way, challenge their limits and grow both professionally and personally. Our artists often feel they are part of one big extended family. We do our best to make our artists feel at home and we offer special living conditions.
We even have a 60-year-old artist, a sixth-generation Spanish circus performer – Vicente Quirós – who joined the company in 2007 and who has been touring the world with us ever since!
9 - In several countries, contact with the new generation of authority figures has complicated the process of certification and authorization for temporary activities. How Cirque managed to grant these the authorization of its material and activities?
It has been a challenge indeed and required for us to establish new connections and expect longer delays in the processes, but in the end, Cirque du Soleil can count on a great network around the world and support from many local partners in cities we visit.
10 - New code requirements for all type of assembly area arise as a result of the pandemic. How do you ensure that equipment and processes meet the new health and safety standards of these to meet new health and security?
Prior to the pandemic, our global footprint already exposed us to numerous, ever-changing safety regulations and codes. Having mobile activities transiting across multiple jurisdictions, drove us to set some of the highest safety standards that would comply with most of the visited markets. By doing so, we minimized making changes in our standard practices in every market we came across but rather made adjustments in markets requiring specific standards. We’re constantly monitoring jurisdictions’ requirements by using local consultants to support our operations before they get to these markets.
11 - Cirque du Soleil has a great reputation for surprising his public with creativity. What are the new future projects to be expected in the incoming years?
This company is such a creative powerhouse and the momentum we have right now is phenomenal, and even beyond our expectations! In April 2023, we launched our newest touring show this last spring, ECHO, which tells the story of a woman named Future, who along with a cast of engaging characters, learns how our actions can have the power to shape the world around us. The show is currently in the Old Port of Montreal until the end of August, before premiering in the United States in early September 2023.
We also broke the news last April that we have teamed up with Outrigger Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel to bring Honolulu residents and visitors a bespoke new multi-year resident show, exclusive to Hawai’i, starting in late 2024.
After months of anticipation, we also launched our first-ever immersive experience on Roblox last July. As part of our newly defined mission to diversify our offering beyond live shows, we’re working on widening our portfolio of brand experiences across 3D immersive and filmed entertainment, premium content, gaming, and beyond. Many more incredible projects and partnerships have yet to be announced for the coming years!