François-Philippe Champagne and Peter Carlsson – one of the co-founders of Northvolt – were not destined to meet. In March 2022, the minister was on vacation, while the businessman planned a trip to New York to meet investors. Their plans will be turned upside down by a phone call.

“As they say in good French, it started with a cold call,” says Mr. Champagne, in an interview with La Presse. We didn’t know each other. I just had his phone number. I said to him: “it would be interesting to talk, I saw what you want to do, it seems interesting to me”. »

He became aware of Northvolt’s North American ambitions through an article in the Financial Times, which was published in December 2021. The portrait presents the young company as the leading European manufacturer of battery cells – the last step before battery assembly. Its investors are well-known: Volkswagen, BMW and Volvo, to name a few. One element particularly piques the minister’s curiosity: the company, which aims to compete with giants like Panasonic (Japan), CATL (China) and LG (South Korea), wants to set up in North America.

“Not everyone gets up in the morning thinking about Canada,” the minister likes to say. Northvolt is a good example. Mr. Champagne decides to give it a try. To reach Mr. Carlsson, he turned to an acquaintance: Swedish businessman Marcus Wallenberg. Aged 67, the latter is well known in this Scandinavian country. He sits on no fewer than nine boards of directors. He is notably at the head of that of the Swedish automobile manufacturer Saab.

The two men know each other well. Before making the jump to federal politics in 2015, Mr. Champagne spent two decades in the private sector, a journey that took him to Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Their paths crossed in particular at the Swiss multinational ABB, where the minister was vice-president and senior lawyer between 1999 and 2007. The Wallenberg family has always been among the main shareholders.

At this time, Northvolt is busy compiling a list of 70 potential sites in the United States to determine where it will locate its megafactory. Canada has come a long way and is not yet considered seriously. Mr. Champagne nevertheless piques the curiosity of his interlocutor and the two men agree to a time to get to know each other in person.

Mr. Carlsson, who was to go to the United States, made a detour through Montreal, where he stopped at the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. The discussion between the two men will take place at Rosélys, the main restaurant of the chic city center hotel, on March 6, 2022. A meeting lasting a few hours.

“He [Peter Carlsson] was going to meet investors from Goldman Sachs in New York,” says Mr. Champagne. I was on vacation. We each agreed to change our plans. I convinced my partner to let me leave my vacation to go to dinner at the Queen Elizabeth on a Sunday. I made sure we had good service. That’s really how it all started. »

Mr. Champagne no longer remembers exactly the number of guests, but the two men are not alone at the table. On the menu, fish and wine. The minister’s objective: to convince two former protégés of Elon Musk at Tesla in the early 2010s to broaden their horizons and not consider an automatic return to the United States.

The minister notably succeeds in arguing that it is Quebec, with its renewable electricity, which is the place to “build the greenest battery in the world”. However, a major handicap arrives in the decor: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), this law of the Biden administration promulgated on August 16, 2022. It has a budget of US 370 billion to support projects aimed at fighting against climate change, such as those in the niche of batteries for electric vehicles.

“It was a catalyst, that’s clear,” says Paolo Cerruti, co-founder of the company and president and CEO of Northvolt North America, in an interview in French. It was a big market to take and our competitors were already placing their pieces on the board. Speed ​​of execution was essential. »

In the months following the meeting between MM. Champagne and Carlsson, Northvolt continues its evaluation of potential sites in the United States. The list gets smaller as the months go by. Meanwhile, Mr. Cerruti arrives in the scene. It is to him that the company’s board of directors entrusts the mandate to carry out the company’s North American breakthrough.

A sign of the seriousness of the approach, Mr. Cerruti is ready to come and settle on this side of the Atlantic to fulfill his mandate. He still does not know that it is to Quebec that he will move.