Cirque du Soleil sells majority stake to U.S. private equity firm
Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, April 20, 2015 10:04AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 20, 2015 5:40PM EDT
MONTREAL -- The force behind Cirque du Soleil's nearly 31-year run as a world-renowned Canadian success story is selling the famed circus even though his seven-year-old daughter has dreams of one day becoming a clown.
"I truly don't believe in second-generation entrepreneurship," Guy Laliberte told a news conference on Monday after announcing the sale to a U.S. private equity firm.
Laliberte, 55, has five children between the ages of seven and 18, but said that having them take over the Cirque was never really an option.
"From the outset, I didn't want to put the pressure of running the circus on their shoulders."
The creator of the Cirque, which wowed the world with breathtaking and cutting-edge shows, will maintain a 10 per cent stake in the Montreal-based company through his family trust and will also continue to provide strategic and creative input.
Equity firm TPG is acquiring a 60 per cent stake for an undisclosed price. Chinese investment firm Fosun will have a 20 per cent stake and Quebec pension fund manager the Caisse de depot another 10 per cent.
The transaction -- which Laliberte said wasn't a "fire sale" at a reported value of around $1.5 billion -- will also see partner Dubai World sell its 10 per cent stake.
After building the Cirque into a major success story in the business and entertainment worlds, Laliberte said he wanted to pursue other undisclosed creative challenges. He added he'd gone through a long emotional process to prepare himself for the sale.
Laliberte dismissed any suggestions the Cirque is in financial difficulty, saying it is a profitable venture that sells 11 million tickets a year.
He said the sale -- only approved early Friday morning -- will be good for the Cirque as it aligns with partners that can nearly double its growth by piercing the complex Chinese market and expanding third-party licensing deals and digital media.
Although the new owners have made a commitment to Investment Canada to preserve the Cirque's Montreal headquarters, there's no written guarantee.
But incoming chairman Mitch Garber said TPG understands the company's core value is its Quebec-based creativity.
"It's not only a political statement and a statement of heart, it's a sensible financial reality that we have with the Cirque du Soleil," he told reporters.
Laliberte rejected a recent newspaper cartoon that showed U.S. flags flying over the Cirque's big top. He likened the Cirque to other respected Quebec-based companies like Alimentation Couche-Tard, Molson Coors, Bombardier and Garda that have large U.S. shareholders.
"Why are we so scared we will lose that identity?" he asked. The fact is that with just a eight million people, Quebec companies can only pursue international growth by finding well-financed corporate partners, he said.
"And sorry gang, there is a little more money on the other side of the border than there is here to allow companies like the Cirque or others to grow more solidly."
Laliberte said he was surprised to have lasted so long, having originally foreseen a 10-year run. He began to think about finding a strategic partner in 2006, and thought he found the right match two years later in Dubai World, a large real estate developer that quickly ran into financial difficulties.
The latest sale process originally identified 94 potential partners. After weeding out incompatible potential partners, the list was whittled down to 46. Eight finalists were chosen among 17 that responded with offers.
The sale to the group led by TPG is expected to close in the third quarter.
Here's a timeline of key developments in the company's growth:
1984 -- To mark the 450th anniversary of French explorer Jacques Cartier's arrival in Canada, the Quebec government hires Guy Laliberte and Gilles Ste-Croix's troupe of about 20 street performers. They create the Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil, and take the show on the road to 11 Quebec communities.
1985 -- The troupe travels beyond Quebec for the first time, playing in Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls, and then onto western cities a year later. By 1987, it performs in California and earns raves reviews for its We Reinvent the Circus show.
1990 -- We Reinvent the Circus goes to London and Paris.
1994 -- The company marks its 10th anniversary with the show Alegria, opening in Montreal. It plays in 250 cities for more than 14 million audience members, closing in December 2013.
1998 -- The troupe's new show, O, opens in Las Vegas's Bellagio hotel and casino. O is the troupe's first aquatic performance.
2003 -- Zumanity, an adult-only Cirque show, opens at another hotel in Las Vegas.
2009 -- Laliberte becomes Canada's first private space explorer.
2010 -- Laliberte receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
2012 -- The troupe launches a creative production service aimed at helping other artists and organizations. Madonna's halftime Super Bowl performance uses the Cirque's artistic direction.
2013 -- An acrobat from Paris, France becomes the first-ever fatality during a Cirque performance. Sarah Guyard-Guillot falls to her death at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
2014 -- The Cirque marks its 30th anniversary.
2015 -- Laliberte announces a deal to sell a majority stake to U.S. private equity firm TPG; Chinese investment firm Fosun and Quebec pension fund manager the Caisse de depot will hold minority stakes. He says the deal will move the Cirque forward in its evolution as a company "founded on the conviction that the arts and business, together, can contribute to making a better world."