Caroline Neron, celebrity jewel queen and former ‘Dragon,’ dethroned in Quebec

MONTREAL — News that celebrity Quebec jewelry-maker Caroline Neron filed for bankruptcy protection Thursday is shining a harsh light on the qualifications of stars chosen for the province’s French-language version of the deal-making show, “Dragon’s Den.”

Described by news media as a “thunderclap” in Quebec’s retail industry, Neron’s financial troubles have called into question her aptitude for assessing entrepreneurial talent on Radio-Canada’s “Dans l’oeil du dragon.” The show features prominent businesspeople deciding whether to invest in the pitches of budding entrepreneurs.

Francois Lambert, a former panellist on the show, said the French CBC does not ask its prospective stars to reveal their riches or demonstrate they have the time and liquidity to properly invest in start-ups.

“They never asked to see my numbers,” Lambert said in an interview. “They can say that they ask to see people’s numbers, but they don’t, because they never did it with me. And this week it exploded in their faces.”

Other embarrassing choices to play the role of dragon include Gilbert Rozon, the disgraced founder of Just for Laughs facing sex-crimes charges, and Martin-Luc Archambault, who quit the show in September under a cloud. An investigation by the privacy commissioner of Canada revealed his IT company violated numerous provisions in the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

Lambert co-founded Aheeva Technology Inc., a software for call centres available in 75 countries, and says he has investments in 10 companies, including a three-year-old start-up called Boostmi — an on-demand roadside assistance application.

The entrepreneur said a little research would have flagged concerns about Rozon and Archambault, and he claimed there are other people with whom he appeared who did not belong on the show. Radio-Canada should seek out candidates who have money, and who have sold a business, he argued.

“We make money with a company, in reality, when we sell it,” Lambert said. “I had just sold my business when they asked me to be on the show …. I wasn’t an impostor and I had my place there. You become a dragon when you have finished your company, and you have the time to invest and apply your recipe of success with others.”

Marc Pichette, spokesman for Radio-Canada, said the public broadcaster and the show’s producers “conduct a basic review of (the) application based on information given in good faith by the potential dragon.”

He added that when Rozon was on the show in 2016 he was an internationally celebrated figure who had also been chosen by the City of Montreal as commissioner for its 375th anniversary, held in 2017.

Montreal’s La Presse reported Friday it contacted all eight of the entrepreneurs with whom Neron made deals on the latest season of the show, which ended in June 2018. Not one of them had received any money from the jewelry maker. Neron left the show in December.

During an interview with the TVA television network on Thursday, Neron said she is closing 9 of 14 boutiques in the province and letting go 64 of 152 employees.

She rose to prominence in Quebec as a singer and actor. Michel Nadeau, head of a think tank on governance of public and private companies, said Neron’s brand was strong in Quebec, and she was one of the few people to make a name in the jewelry market.

“It was one of the rare companies, in the jewelry and craft and artisanal industry that succeeded in imposing a brand in the industry — she succeeded,” said Nadeau. “She is very, very present on television and on the radio.” The problem was that she grew the business too quickly, he said, by investing too much in retail and small boutiques in commercial centres with extremely high rents.

Lambert, who was not invited back for the upcoming season of “Dans l’oeil du dragon,” said Neron’s story should serve as a lesson to all entrepreneurs “who spread themselves so thin and do anything and everything, instead of managing their own company.”

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