MONTREAL - Jean Coutu fought back tears as he bid adieu to shareholders Wednesday after they approved the sale of the pharmacy chain he founded to Metro Inc. in a move that could pave the way for expansion beyond Quebec.
"I gave my all, my best, in business and my profession," the company founder said before choking up.
Coutu, 90, said he will now devote his time and energy to helping the poor through a foundation established with his wife and family.
The Marcelle and Jean Coutu Foundation, which has around $500 million in assets, has long helped projects to aid the poor, women, child abuse and fighting drug addiction.
Coutu, who founded the pharmacy chain in 1969, said watching the network join another retailer was a bit like a mother watching her youngest child leave home.
"You're glad because you hope they'll be a success but at the same time you feel a little sorrow," he told reporters.
A near-unanimous 99.9 per cent of votes cast sanctioned the $4.5-billion transaction, well above the two-thirds requirement.
Shareholders of Jean Coutu (TSX:PJC.A) are being offered a combination of cash and stock worth about $24.50 per share. The Jean Coutu Group will appoint two members to Metro's (TSX:MRU) board of directors.
The deal announced nearly two months ago still requires Competition Bureau approval and is expected to close by March.
Quebec's second-largest pharmacy network, including Jean Coutu and Brunet, will operate as a separate division of the Metro, headed by Francois Coutu, son of the company founder.
Francois Coutu expects the combination will open opportunities to expand in Ontario where Jean Coutu has just eight stores.
"That is something we think we can exploit more than what we have done so far," he said.
But Coutu said the first step is to merge the pharmacy operations in Quebec and then see how the growth will extend to neighbouring provinces.
Jean Coutu and Metro had casually discussed a deal for more than seven years, but only entered into detailed negotiations last spring.
The vote Wednesday was all but a foregone conclusion since the Coutu family and affiliated entities which held 93 per cent of the voting rights, along with company directors and senior officers, agreed to vote in favour of the deal.
The food and pharmacy industries have faced intensifying competition from other food retailers, Wal-Mart, Costco and Amazon's entry in the grocery space with its purchase of Whole Foods.
The proposed merger follows Loblaw Companies Ltd.'s (TSX:L) deal in 2014 to acquire Shoppers Drug Mart, which operates as Pharmaprix in Quebec.