Serge Godin, the fourth of nine children, was born in 1949 in the village of Shipshaw, Quebec, about 300 miles north of Montreal. His father, who attended school up to the fifth grade, owned a lumber business. “My father was an entrepreneur,” says Godin. “He married at 19 and started his own business, which he grew gradually. He was a good businessman and was close to those who worked for him as well as his clients. He was not satisfied until he saw a smile on everyone’s face. In terms of attitude, all family members learned a lot from him.”
Godin’s mother was dedicated to her family. “She made our home feel cozy,” he says of his close-knit family. “My parents always took care of people and helped them in whatever way they could. They taught their children to respect others, to be honest, to work hard, and to be dedicated to whatever project was in front of us and to never give up. We lived in a rural area, so we depended on each other for everything. I enjoyed playing with my brothers and sisters. We also had family nearby. My father had a sister who had 21 children. There were always lots of people around. I had a happy childhood.”
Godin had a godfather who owned a large farm and he often went there to help with the chores. By the age of 12, the Godin children were expected to work over the summer months. Godin enjoyed working in his father’s mill and talking with customers. Envisioning his own future, Godin could not see himself doing anything other than owning a business—regardless of what type of business that might be.
When Godin was 16, his father’s sawmill burned to the ground. “My father had no insurance, and it was a total loss,” he says. “All my brothers and sisters helped to rebuild the business. Everyone got jobs, and no one complained about the work. We put our shoulders to the grindstone and did whatever was necessary to keep the business going.” Godin worked at a convenience store every day after school from six to eleven o’clock and at the local dry cleaners every Saturday from eight to five o’clock.
Godin’s older brothers and sisters were well educated. His prospects for a college education were uncertain in the aftermath of the fire, but Godin was very interested in learning computer technology, which was just being introduced to the marketplace. “Everything at that time said computers were our future, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he recalls. “That is why I completed a computer science diploma.”
Godin moved to Québec City. After obtaining the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in management and marrying at the age of 20, he undertook partial studies toward an MBA program at the Université Laval in Québec City.
Starting his career as an IT consultant, Godin worked for two consulting firms in Québec City over the next six years—and he noticed a significant gap in the technology market. In 1976, at the age of 26 and with only one client, Godin founded CGI with $5,000 from his savings account, which he was able to repay after the first year. He eventually grew the company from two employees to 68,000 employees with locations in more than 40 countries. From its early days as an IT strategic consulting firm, CGI has gradually developed into a full-service IT business process company, becoming the fifth-largest firm of its kind in the world.
“Like my father, I am a client-driven guy,” says Godin. “We are a service business, and I like nothing better than working with my associates at CGI while trying to find a management solution to a client’s problem. I love that because I love to serve. In this business, you have to love to work with people, and you have to enjoy working together. This is what inspired the documented dream of CGI into its constitution, which says: To create an environment in which we enjoy working together and, as owners, contribute to building a company we can be proud of.”
Godin’s leadership philosophy is to share decision making with his team members. “In that way, we all share in our success,” he says. “There is nothing better in a profession than making sure the people who work there feel as if they are making a valuable contribution and be recognized as such.”
Asked to define success, Godin says, “I’m convinced it’s not money. It is the people who surround you. If they are successful, then you will be successful.”
Another lesson learned in his youth was to never give up. When Godin addresses young people today, he underlines the importance of perseverance. “Young people need to learn to think positively. They should never hesitate to submit and exchange ideas, and ask people what they think, and then listen to what they have to say,” he says, adding of his Horatio Alger Award, “I will have to work hard to deserve it.”
Godin is a member of the Order of Canada and the Ordre national du Québec. In 2008, he was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, and he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Youth Business Foundation. In 2011, the Conference Board du Canada named him an honorary associate.
Godin has honorary doctor of law degrees from York University and Montréal’s Concordia University, an honorary management degree from H.E.C. (University of Montréal Business School), and an honorary doctor of administrative sciences degree from Québec’s Université Laval.
Long involved in charitable causes, in 2000, Godin established a family foundation with a mission to alleviate poverty, advance education, and improve the health of disadvantaged children and teens. Since its inception, the foundation has helped more than 90 schools, hospitals, and youth organizations.