~ Frederic Sautet ~
François Michelin, former CEO-Managing Partner and grandson of the founder of the Michelin tires company passed away yesterday at the age of 88. He was a truly remarkable man and somewhat of an oddity in the French and European business landscape.
First, he was a devout Catholic and always put his faith ahead of the rest. He had a keen sense of the vocation of business leader and what it meant to be responsible of the destiny of a business enterprise. He saw the vocation of business as a daily participation in the divine order, whether one is a boss or a worker. He would say that happiness often results from having accomplished something well. He tirelessly explained how the success of Michelin was the result of the teams of men and women who worked there in communion, but also that love was the principle that helped him see the best in the people that worked with him.
Second, François Michelin was a very successful manager and CEO. He promoted the radial tire technology in the 1950s, 60s and 70s at a time when nobody thought much of it, including in his own company. His vision propelled Michelin to the top. He never rested on his laurels, as he understood that innovation was key to sustained comparative advantage. He cultivated an “esprit d’équipe” and a “climat de liberté” within Michelin that created a culture of innovation. His best management tool was his “ears,” as he liked to say. It was because of his willingness to listen that he learnt from the facts on the ground, where many new ideas come from. Among the ideas now common in business schools and that he put forward we find: current products are the results of past mistakes; and clients have the power to elect our business every day.
Third, and not least, he was a free-marketeer. In the rare interviews he gave, he explains how Parisian centralism and politics have often been detrimental to the free enterprise system. Like Henry Ford, another titan of business, François Michelin did not like unions much, even employers unions that he regarded as having fatally compromised their views after 1968. He justly thought that French labor laws were Marxist-based, as they rest on the notion of class warfare and not on social cooperation. He criticized the political elite for being technocrats without much understanding of the reality of commerce.
Some pundits saw François Michelin as too secretive and patriarchal. Critics said that he compromised his views when the company accepted a loan from the government in 1982, as it was going through severe difficulties. They have a point. But considering how common lobbying is in business, we have all the reasons to celebrate François Michelin’s probity and principles. May he rest in peace.