Michelin UK’s MD Eric Le Corre talks to Jane Gray about being a foreign leader in a British business and shares how his background in financial services prepared him for his current management role.
Eric Le Corre was born and raised in Paris. His family had a background in business with his grandfather running a successful family owned company and his uncle running a state owned French company. Following the completion of his Baccalaureate M Le Corre went through Sciences Po, a broad ranging course taking in politics, constitutional law, history, economy and more. The focus of this course was to prepare student careers in the French top civil service but when M Le Corre finished he says with a decisive gesture “I was sure of one thing. And that was that I did not want that career.”
Instead Le Corre progressed to business school and qualified for a career in Finance at École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris in 1986. His first professional appointment sent him to London working for a French company as a means of completing a then compulsory national service term. And so, twenty five years before he was to return to the UK as MD of Michelin’s national business, Le Corre had a chance to sample British business culture – though he acknowledges that Britain is a very different economy today than it was back then. “There are those that say the country is still unbalanced and we rely too much on London – the City – but when I used to leave London in the eighties the dramatic difference in the regions outside was deeply striking.”
A key part of Le Corre’s first job in finance included liaising with investors and it was the skills Le Corre built in this area that finally led him to be recruited by Michelin in 1999 in investor relations.
Looking back on the choice he made to jump the fence from finance to industry Le Corre says “It had become clear to me by that stage in my career that the role of banks should be to finance the economy. I don’t believe that banks are there to make money for themselves and I am not motivated by the desire to make millions. I must trust in my work. I have never regretted for one second my decision.”
Eric Le Corre
1984 Graduated in political science from Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po)
1986 Graduated from Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris
1986-1990 Business Analyst for a London-based joint venture between Crédit Commercial de France and New York Life
1990-1991 Returned to France as Account Manager with Société Générale – Commercial real-estate lease financing division
1991-1999 Held various positions including Secrétaire Général with private French bank, BIMP.
2000 Appointed head of investor relations for Michelin Group
2006 Appointed chief financial officer for Michelin North America
2010 Appointed managing director of Michelin UK
At Michelin Le Corre said he was immediately struck by the approach to investor relations with differed from that he had seen elsewhere. “The difference came in the conception of the role that M Michelin and M Rollier, who was CFO at that time [now CEO] had. They wanted me to be credible,” he says and goes on to explain, “They wanted me to be intimate enough with the company strategy that when investors spoke to me – or to my team – they felt as though they in fact spoke with Mr Michelin and with the very top management of the company. Not every company has this approach.”
Le Corre says that the challenge in investor relations is to know how to persuade an audience and to acknowledge that, “they have a choice: if they decide to invest in one company, it may not just be because they feel it is a better choice than its competitors but may also be that they believe it is a better choice than another industry, Michelin rather than General Electric for instance.”
After 6 years as Head of Investor Relations, Le Corre went on to become CFO for Michelin in North America for six years before his current UK role became available. However, the focus on justifying investment is still a central concern for him.
UK industry tyred?
From a heyday of six manufacturing site and over 10,000 employees in the UK Michelin has now shrunk to three site and 2,800 staff. But Le Corre is adamant that there is still cause for optimism. “Competitively what is important is that the rest of the manufacturing industry here has downsized as well. This is important perspective. We are still, by far, the largest tyre manufacturer present in the UK; we turn out more than fifty percent of the tonnage produced.”
Le Corre continues, “There can be a future for manufacturing in the UK. Our plants here – and across Western Europe have made the necessary progress in terms of productivity in the last ten years and they are competitive today. This has opened the door for the UK being considered for future investments by the Michelin Group.”
Le Corre is no daydreamer however, and says, “We must not beat about the bush. There is no possibility that we would build a brand new greenfield factory in the UK.” Instead he makes clear the key is to focus on modernisation and market positioning.
“All things being equal, modernising a plant in the UK is still a ‘marginal investment’ when compared to the greenfield sites we are building in India and China. A tyre manufacturing greenfield site today costs close to half a billion Euros a piece,” reasons Le Corre. “The questions the group must ask and balance are; where are our markets and what is the cost environment in the UK going to be like.”
The final point is Le Corre’s main concern when it comes to reading the road ahead for his company and those who rely on its employ. “The cost of energy in the UK is one of this highest in Europe today. What is it going to look like fifteen or twenty years down the line?”
As a foreigner working in the UK Le Corre says he finds the political stance on energy pricing, and other industrial issues sometimes confusing, “There is one part of the government that is serious about rebuilding manufacturing and rebalancing the economy, however Departments seem to have different agendas and they all work very much in silos. When we talk to BIS they understand us, when I talk to DECC they have another view and Treasury will have a third.”
With the recent spat between Energy Minister Chris Huhne and Chancellor Osborne over the viability of UK environmental policy barely cooled on the ages of the mainstream press, Le Corre’s comment certainly ring true. But is the situation any better elsewhere? “I sense, when I talk to my European colleagues, that the synthesis is more consistent. I only arrived in this role as the government came into power – but you would hope to see some gelling by now,” comments Le Corre.
Treading a new path
He is quick to clarify that Michelin is committed to the decarbonising the economy. The display the company put on this year at it Challenge Bibendum event in Berlin, dedicated this time to the exhibition of low carbon technologies, not just for automotive, but for a whole range of smart mobility solutions shows that the company is throwing considerable resource behind the development of sustainable technologies and the reduction of its carbon footprint – not only through the evolution of its products, but also through campaigns to promote safe, more sustainable driving habits.
And the company is keen to do more by working with Governments to collaborate on meaningful policy for decarbonisation explains Le Corre. “I would say we need to look more at the whole lifecycle. As we have discovered we can create tyres which significantly reduce emissions in the long term.”
But when consultation takes place Le Corre is forthright in stating that it must be sincere, “If government wants to approach industry it must respect the feedback it gets. We spent a lot of time participating in CBI workshops and on the consultation over the carbon budget and energy policy. At the end of the day the Treasury submitted the budget that it wanted. It is frustrating,” he says.
This frustration aside Le Corre says that he is thoroughly enjoying his time working in the UK and that generally there is a growing willingness to support industrial growth, both from a political and a union stand point. “Having worked in France, where historically we have had a cultural difficulty with people making money in the private sector, and having worked in America, where the whole economic and social system is geared for ‘survival of the fittest’, I can keep a perspective on the difficulties in the UK. It is difficult for those who have only ever managed a business in one country to do this.”
So is Le Corre won over? Would he consider settling in the UK? “The weather!” he exclaims – by which we can interpret a resounding no.
But before M Le Corre turns homewards bound for warmer summers and, no doubt, some more refined cuisine, what is his ambition for the UK Michelin business. “When I leave I want to step away from a business full of high potential people who can grow a company and a country which will be a benchmark. For Michelin this will not only be on the industrial side but also in services for our products. I want this to be a place where people within the group aim to spend time during their career in order to learn and develop as professionals.”