Victoire de Margerie (H.83)
It’s all about the team

Paris. We met Victoire at La rotonde restaurant in the 6th district. This epitome of business woman, full of wit and with no complex has built an iconoclaste career in industry. She reminded us that there are an infinite number of paths that lead to success. But they all have in common that you cannot walk them alone.

Read full transcript…

HEC United: Hi Victoire! Let’s go back in time. We are in 1983 and you just graduated from HEC. What do you want to do with your life?

Victoire de Margerie: When I graduated I knew what I wanted to do : I wanted to work in industry. I was 20 years old and you had to be at least 23 to have a management job according to the convention nationale des cadres which you had to comply with in France at that time. So out from HEC all I could do in industry were jobs like supervisor in a factory… That was not what I wanted so I looked for something else to do. Eventually I followed some friends of mine who went to Science-po (ed. French top political sciences school). As often in my life, and you will realize it through our discussion, my choices have always been driven by the combination of my own reflections and the people I met.
At Science-po, my friends chose the public service option that could lead the to l’ENA (ed. French top administration school) whereas I chose the International Relations track (IR) that was meant for those who wanted to become diplomats. Historically, my family was an ambassadors family and I had gone through an international program at HEC that had allowed me to go to NYU and Bocconi. So choosing the IR track was congruent for me.

I entered Sciences-po IR and I quickly realized it would not keep me busy all week. So I looked for internships to do in parallel. I first spent 9 months as financial Analyst at Paluel-Marmont Capital. This was very interesting, I learnt a lot, but there was not enough field work and the working environment was very individualist while the thing I love most in corporate life is team work. Then, during my last year at Sciences-po I managed to gather my academic obligations on two days so that I could work at Charleville Mézière for Deville. I was method manager at the smelter service.

«I loved the atmosphere there. People had a great team spirit. Many managers had just come back from the Algeria war so they always had incredible stories to tell.»

H: Did you have any formation to work in a smelter ?!

V: The method service is about operations management. You manage the production plan, no need to be an engineer it is all about management!

I loved the atmosphere there. People had a great team spirit. Many managers had just come back from the Algeria war so they always had incredible stories to tell.

H: What did you do after your internships?

V: I knew I was interested in two things: industry and international. I spoke 3 languages at the time, English, Italian and French (ed. Now 4 with german). I learnt Italian during my exchange with the Bocconi. I learnt it in two months reading the Corriere dello sport, it was a matter of survival!

After an extensive job search I received two offers from big companies : a fancy one and an interesting one. I chose the interesting one.

The fancier offer was at Dupont de Nemours. A world leading American company in chemistry. They were famous at the time because they were the best in terms of industrial security. Their factories were known to be the best managed in the world. They offered me an internal audit job, which was the stepping stone for top management, with a very good salary.

The other opportunity was at Atochem. Atochem was created when Elf Chimie, Rhône-Poulenc chimie de base and Pechiney chimie de base merged as the result of the three corporations decision to get rid of their basic chemistry activities. The company was losing one billion francs and nobody really cared about it.

I chose this opportunity because they really seduced me with their offer: develop their business in the little known eastern Europe. It was in 1986.

So I dropped Dupont de Nemours, internal audit, amazing offices at Invalides, fast tracking, etc… to go to Atochem.

At the beginning it was very folkloric. The only way to get to the eastern Europe markets was through three chemistry fairs in Moscow, Leipzig and Gdansk.

«One of their asset to attract workers was the bakery inside the site. Because you could hardly find one closer than 50 kilometers around…»

H: The collapse of the eastern bloc must have changed a few things hasn’t it ?

V: Yes. When the wall collapsed they gave me a rental car and I drove across Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and Hungary with the objective to find investment targets in this “new world”.

I lived amazing stories. For instance I went to visit quite a famous factory in Germany called Bitterfeld. It was a huge industrial plant employing tens of thousands people. One of their asset to attract workers was the bakery inside the site. Because you could hardly find one closer than 50 kilometers around…

This site had a very bad reputation because there was, quite close to the bakery actually, a huge mercury lake. It stemmed from extremely dangerous waste products from manufacturing but it was paradoxically beautiful.

We are back at the beginning of the 90’s and there were no road signs on the highways. I had to ask a map to the French state department to go there. I also used the smokes going out from factories: their color tipped me on which products they transformed. R&D engineers had briefed me…

My plan was to sleep inside the plant since it had a guest house. I realized when I got there that there were no female commodities and that the showers were shared.

The day after, there was a meeting in a big room with thirty persons around the table. They only knew how to speak Russian and German. Fifteen minutes after the meeting began we ended up drawing to communicate.

Elektrochemisches Kombinat Bitterfeld Kraftwerk Nord

Electrochemical plant of Bitterfeld – 1959

The guy that made me visit the factory told me an anecdote I will never forget about. After Staline and Roosevelt agreed on how both sides would occupy Germany, the U.S gave the Russians control over some territories they had occupied. It was awful for the population because they had been treated decently by the Americans and obviously the situation was very different with the Russians. As a consequence, the populations that had known the American occupation for weeks tended to rebel more since they had witnessed that things could go differently. In 1953 the workers of Bitterfeld revolted and were literally crushed by the Russian tanks that were sent inside the factory. The guy that was showing me around was a 15 year old apprentice in the factory when he witnessed this scene.

This is amazing, it was a 40 year old story when the guy told it to me, 25 years later here I am telling it to you…

After I was done with my investigations in Eastern Europe I presented 37 projects to my bosses, 9 have gone through due diligence, 5 were short listed and 4 were actually implemented. And Atochem offered me to manage one of these four projects.

«I will always hire older people that were pushed to retire in their previous job and also give their chance to young people. Usually both types are very motivated and I noticed they tend to pair up and do some great job working together.»

H: What was this project?

V: It consisted in building a factory near Leipzig with a 100 million francs budget. I set up a team. For me it is important to mix generations. I will always hire older people that were pushed to retire in their previous job and also give their chance to young people. Usually both types are very motivated and I noticed they tend to pair up and do some great job working together.

The project took me 5 years, I was living in Berlin and working in the industrial region near Leipzig. After the project was over I wanted to come back to Paris and Atochem’s HR only offered me Shanghai… So I left Atochem and I became head of quality at Carnaud Metal Box – subsidiary of the Crown Cork group – with 150 factories in the world.

H: What stake did you take of your experience at Carnot Metal Box ?

V: Actually, the subsidiary was sold to an American company 6 months after I arrived. I felt that they were about to dismantle the European head offices. So I found a job to my team members and then I left the firm.

H: What did you do after that ?

V: I started to work for Pechiney in Alsace. I was 34 years old and I was heading a 500 million euros business. We were producing aluminum for cans. I had 10 clients worldwide, they produced packages for Coca Cola, Heineken etc… I did that for 3 years.

After that, I went to U.S. I was in Chicago where I was in charge of the plastic bottle activity of the group. My clients were Heinz, Ocean Spray…

Then I lived a second misunderstanding with a big group’s HR. I wanted to go back to Paris and I was offered… Shanghai again!

So I decided to take a sabbatical year and I began to teach as a strategy professor at HEC. I taught to masters and MBA students.

«To me the challenge of aligning the interest of the organization and of the men that are part of it is as important as finance.»

H: How does-it feel to come back to concepts, students and classes after 15 years of a very concrete professional life?

V: Dealing with students was not an issue since I had always been working with many young people in my teams. Conceptualizing was a challenge, though. But I learnt a lot. I had the opportunity to think about the decisions that I had taken by instinct, analyze them and extend some recipes. It was extremely interesting! At the end of the year I was willing to continue teaching but HEC didn’t renew my contract. My profile didn’t interest the dean Bernard Ramanantsoa because I didn’t have a PhD yet.

H: But you did pass a PhD right ?

V: You are right. The day after HEC turned me down I had lunch with an amazing man called Thierry Grange who was Grenoble management school’s dean. He offered me to come and work with him because he wanted to give a focus on industry to the school. He had been manufacturing motocycles for 20 years near Clermont-Ferrand and he understood my position since himself had made the same move from business to academics. He told me “girl, you gonna get your PhD and then you gonna work for me”, he was a funny guy, he had a very posh and long name but he used a shorter version of it because he was a nonconformist (laughs).

So I got a PhD, I was working for Grenoble School of management three days a week and doing other things aside the rest of the time. I taught during 6 years at Grenoble as a strategy professor with a specialty on technology management.

H: What did you learn from being a professor ?

V: First of all, I did my PhD with an outstanding guy: Frank Bournois. He became dean of ESCP Europe business school last year by the way. He was specialized on organizations theory, which is the “soft” side of management. Back to when I was in HEC we mostly learnt about the “hard” side of management which is finance. To me the challenge of aligning the interest of the organization and of the men that are part of it is as important as finance. And this was a niche topic at that time. I learnt tons of things on that matter thanks to Frank.

I also wrote two books: La boîte à outils du chef d’Entreprise and Strategy and Technology.

Thanks to this experience I have the pleasure to count a dozen of young people between 30 and 35 years old in my environment. They are pursuing great careers, mostly in the tech industry. When you are 52 it is a real boost, they often call me to discuss problems in their jobs, their strategic positioning, issues in their relation with investors…

H: Do they talk to the professor or to the businesswoman?

V: To both! One day, I was in vacation with an ex co-worker from Pechiney and an ex student from Grenoble. We were drinking rosé wine on my terrace when I got a call from another former student who was doing an internship in a private equity firm. A guy had come at their door and was willing to sell his company for approximately 500 000€. It was too small for the fund he was working for and the business was very technological, in the brick-and-mortar area. He told me about the business and two weeks later, we bought 40% of the capital, the two guys that were on that terrace and I. I have been managing this company, called Rondol, for 8 years.

«We want to adapt a technology from the chemical industry to the micro/nano scale in order to lower costs for the pharmaceutical industry»

H: Could you tell us more about Rondol?

V: It is a very small company and a real technological challenge. We want to adapt a technology from the chemical industry to the micro/nano scale in order to lower costs for the pharmaceutical industry. I knew the technology well because I used it in the factory I have built in Germany. Our challenge is to convince the pharmaceutical industry – which is one of the most conservative in the world – to change technology for the production of sensible medicine such as AIDs or Cancer drugs. Everyone told us that it would take us 10 years. Here we are, 8 years later, and we have had great feedback on the machine we exposed to the pharma forum in Madrid.

logo Rondol

We are a team of 8 persons for a 1 million euro turnover. For 8 years we have been working on prototypes, we have reduced the machine I was using in Germany to the micro size and we have adapted it to the health industry standards. We have sold prototypes to AbbVie, Evonik, Catalent, Johnson & Johnson, Ferring, Sanofi, Ibpsen… I think the company is at a turning point right now.

Since our English shareholders wouldn’t invest in England anymore, we created a new company in Strasbourg. The ecosystem suits us better, in particular with the pharma faculty which is one of the best worldwide. There is also a complete ecosystem of manufacturers in micro mechanics, automatisation, electricity in the region between Besancon and Nancy. So we settled there in spite of the social security charges that are three times what we used to pay in great Britain.

H: Let’s rewind, so you can sell a prototype?

V: This is a good question, but also a very French one. French companies want the prototypes to be free whereas Japanese and German companies accept to pay in order to increase your loyalty the day your technology is operational. It was a real challenge to sell prototypes in France but we eventually succeeded because German companies had been paying for 4 years…

H: Let’s change subject. An important part of your time is dedicated to sitting at boards of directors. Could you tell us what is the job ?

Victoire de Margerie LinkedInV: I sit at Arkema, Morgan Advanced Materials, Italcementi and Eurazeo boards. I declined the invitation to sit at Eurazeo several times because I felt I didn’t have much value to bring in the financial industry. But one day I got an appointment with Michel David-Weil (ed. president of Eurazeo’s board and a major figure of French capitalism), that, I couldn’t decline. He told me “I wanted to meet you because you are the first person that has ever declined to sit at Eurazeo’s board, it teases me”. I told him I was very honored that they thought about me but that I needed to be really useful in what I was doing.

He gave me three reasons I had not thought about:

  • 50% of their assets were in german speaking countries while no one at the board spoke German, and I did since I had lived in Germany
  • They were interested in bringing in industrial specialists, to see which other points of view they would bring to board discussions
  • The third reason particularly touched me, he said “I am surprised because you had a great career in big companies and you left all that to manage a SME. You are way less paid, you don’t have a secretary, no company vehicle… Tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, which we want to bet on at Eurazeo, are made of the same wood as you”

So I accepted his offer under the condition that he would tell me one year later if I turned out being useless. Actually one year after he offered me to enter the investment committee of the fund. And this is really exciting.

«These discussions are among the most interesting I have ever taken part of in my career»

H: What is the role of the investment committee?

V: It assesses buying or selling opportunities for the fund. The following are around the table:

  • Some members of the fund’s board of directors
  • Bankers – when Eurazeo makes a deal there is always at least one high-end banker from Lazard, Rothschild or Morgan Stanley
  • A couple senior executives working on the sector of the deal. Let’s say you plan a deal in luxury you will have a former Hermes executive for instance

These discussions are among the most interesting I have ever taken part of in my career.

H: You are also involved in a few non-profit projects. What are they ?

V: There are two projects, and I dedicate a third of my time to them.

The first one is the presidency of the material committee of Éco emballage. Éco emballage is the collecting and recycling system for consumer goods packages in France. We manage a 650 million euros per year budget that we distribute to 30 000 municipalities for them to collect, sort and recycle household waste.

The material committee decides on the pricing rules for each collected material. Taxes vary depending on the packaging type, its content and the way it is transported and stocked.

Around the negotiation table you have package producers, users (Coca Cola or Fleury Michon for instance) and the mass distributors. We work with the principle of neutrality of the materials. No material is deemed absolutely better than another. It depends on a certain usage in a certain context.

Our goal is to find a system, which optimizes every interest, and then finance actions that will be implemented by the local administrations. I’ve been doing that for 4 years.

H: What is the role of the public authorities in this process?

V: The public authorities discuss every 5 years with eco emballage a contract that has targets in terms of recycling rates for every material.

H: How about your second non-profit activity?

V: It is the World Materials Forum. We want it to become the Davos of materials. This idea has been in my head for a couple years… In the materials area, every big forum is whether in Germany, in Japan or in the United States. However, many innovations in that field come from France, especially from the East and North of France. So we launched the first edition of the World Materials Forum last June in Nancy. Nancy is at the German boarder and it is where the crystal was born! Today it is at the spearhead of the composite materials production. French company Safran has just invested 200 million euros in Commercy… which is also famous for its pastries by the way.

So I brought Philippe Varin in as president of the forum. He was my boss at Pechiney, and he is the former CEO of PSA and today’s chairman of Areva. I am the vice president of the forum. We organize it hand in hand with André Rossinot, who has been Nancy’s strongman for 35 years. He is an amazing person, he is a ENT specialist by training and has done incredible things for his city. Today he is president of the urban community and he was Nancy’s mayor during 25 years.

With this double mentoring, we launched the first edition last June. 10 top bosses from all around the world came. Mitsubishi, Rio Tinto, Voestalpine … you can find the full list on http://www.worldmaterialsforum.com/

In front of these 10 CEOs we have 10 famous academics. For instance last year we had Eric Fullerton from San Diego university and Thomas Graedel, who leads the industrial ecology department in Yale.

The next edition will take place on the 9-10th of June 2015. We invited Stuart Parkin, an Englishman from Halle university, Germany . He just got the Millennium price for his work on nano materials.

Basically, during 48 hours you have top people from the material industry all around the world gathered in Nancy. And Andé Rossinot makes la place Stanislas, the City Hall, the museum of Arts and the Opera available for us during these two amazing days.

Read more here :
World Materials Forum – Presentation

H: What is Victoire de Margeri’s typical week ?

V: I can’t give you an accurate answer right now so I’ll tell you about my next seven days. Tomorrow I am going at the composite-textile cluster in Paris. Then I will go to the technological innovation price in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. There are some of the best micro mechanicals specialist in Neuchâtel. Then I spend a day in Strasbourg to manage Rondol. Then I go for 2 days in Atlanta for Morgan’s board of directors. Then I come back to Paris where I have to meet clients for Rondol and just after that I go to Bergamo for Italcementi board of directors. So on 7 days : 2 days for Rondol, 2 days for the World Materials Forum and 3 days for my boards.

«I am currently building a team in Strasbourg and the head of operations is 24 years old»

H: How long have you been based in Paris ?

V: It has been 12 years, but I spent 2 years and a half working two days a week in northern England for Rondol, before I based it in Strasbourg.

It makes me think about something, I am currently building a team in Strasbourg and the head of operations is 24 years old. The two persons who work for him are respectively 50 and 57 years old.

H: Wow! How does it work?

V: I hired the younger guy 2 years ago when he just got out from engineering school in Tarbes. I sent him on a 6 month internship in Chicago at the French embassy trade commission in order for him to study the American market. Then I hired him for commercial development. He did this for 10 months, he was at the same hierarchical level as the two other guys at the beginning. He ended up taking the leadership and no one contested it. So I offered him to head up the team in June.

«We were trained by a former Bolchoï ballet dancer (…) I am just thinking it might be because I met her that I decided to work in eastern Europe in the first place»

H: Talking about youth, what is your best memory from HEC?

V: Without a doubt it is the “Gala des grandes écoles”. It was a live show that was organized in a famous theatre that was a packed room for two nights. I was part of the star couple of the “French cancan” show with another HEC alumni: Philippe Oddo. Maybe a there is a video somewhere… We were trained by a former Bolchoï ballet dancer that had fled the Eastern bloc. It was an outstanding woman. It is funny, I am just thinking it might be because I met her that I decided to work in eastern Europe in the first place…

H: What is your favorite place on the HEC Campus?

V: The A2 building I think! I lived there and its peculiarity was that it was at the very end of campus. So we could party as much as we wanted without any trouble…

«We should put other types of Alumni under the spotlight in order to fight the prejudice that, if you are not in private equity 5 years after your diploma, you are a looser»

H: Would you advise to a young person to go to HEC today?

V: Of course! With one downside: HEC became a top, top level school but very standardized too. Everybody wants to work in finance because you quickly earn a lot of money and you quickly build a reputation. But most of HEC alumni do not work in finance and do incredible things. I have nothing against finance, I have many friends who work in finance. But I think we should put other types of alumni under the spotlight in order to fight the prejudice that, if you are not in private equity 5 years after your diploma, you are a looser.

«You have to accept one weakness: to need your allies»

H: What quality do you value from a young person who wants to work with you?

V: The fact that he or she is willing to work a lot, to take risks and to do so with a teamwork spirit. People often complain about not finding money to build their projects. I think that good teams always find money. If you want to set up a business one day always ask yourself about the team. Does it gather all the necessary qualities to deliver what the project needs? If I take the World Materials Forum example, we changed two people from our initial crew this year. And I don’t know why, because on paper the teams were equivalent, but actually the whole team is not playing in the same league than last year. The new-comers just made every other better. We meet one Friday a month at noon and even if we are all quite busy no one would miss the meeting and we actually have fun for an hour and a half.

H: What advice would you give to a 20 year old HEC?

V: Love what you do. If you do things to tick cases in your career, for money or else you are going to get bored and you will not succeed. But you also have to accept that business is a very, very hard environment. I look relaxed, and now I am, but I have been through hard times, even if I was passionate with what I was doing. One more thing, you have to accept one weakness: to need your allies.

People have trouble to trust other people in France. You need to be humble enough to build an ecosystem around you: without my friends I would be nothing, this is something that I cultivate and that I enjoy a lot.

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