Volume 11 Number 2
Risk-Taker Par Excellence
01 April 1998

French businessman Jean Fayet has never jibbed at taking risks. He talks to Michael Smith about conscience, cars and the economic crisis in Asia:

The most surprising aspect of the collapse in Asian financial markets last year was that it didn't happen a lot sooner, believes French businessman Jean Fayet. As head of Siemens Automotive in France he was in South Korea last December, at the height of the crisis which triggered fears of a worldwide economic recession. The company has four joint ventures in South Korea and, as one of the world's leading suppliers of automotive parts, has close ties with Korean car companies, including Daewoo and Hyundai.

Such well-established Korean chaebol (conglomerates) may have weathered the storm relatively unscathed. 'But company debts were three times the normal level and Korean chaebol lacked strategic goals,' says Fayet. Several went to the wall, following bank closures, and South Korea had to be bailed out by the IMF.

At first, Siemen's financial directors 'were absolutely shaking, asking "How much do we lose?"' says Fayet. In the event it was not a large sum for the German-based multinational. Fayet himself, however, is 'very confident' that Korean chaebol, now having to divest, have learnt their lesson and will be in a much stronger position in a couple of years. Koreans are well regarded in other Asian countries, he says, and Korea may now be in 'a very good position' to expand in the Asian market.

Far more worrying are the consequences of globalization, he believes. Jobs are moving to the low wage economies of China and Eastern Europe, leading to 'exclusion' -- the word increasingly used in France for poverty -- amongst western workers. In his own industry, for instance, France no longer manufactures any of the 300 metres of electrical wiring which goes into each car: the entire process has moved to the Czech Republic and Lithuania.

Fayet asserts that globalization is desirable for world justice. But he fears that there will be 'some kind of revolution' between the excluded and those remaining in jobs. There are already signs of this in France where there are a record three and a half million unemployed -- over 12 per cent -- with 11 per cent living below the poverty line. The jobless are now organizing themselves in street demonstrations.

'The world is becoming a village, but at what price?' he asks. Surprisingly for a senior industrialist, he believes that market forces alone are not going to solve the problem. Governments may have to 'interfere', if only to control the pace of events. America, for instance, has a 'buy American' policy which advertises the American content of products. 'Without deviating from international law, they set up new rules of the game,' comments Fayet. But he is concerned that there is little intergovernmental debate on the issue.

Fayet knows at first hand the cost of not remaining globally competitive. In the early 1980s, he had the 'painful' experience of downsizing Peugeot Talbot's car manufacturing in Britain when he was Director of Industrial Operations. As the value of sterling rose, the cars became too expensive for the export market. He spent three years closing eight out of nine plants, reducing the workforce from 24,000 to 6,000. Linwood in Scotland became 'a ghost town', he says. 'You are aware of the misery you are creating.'

But he was also determined to keep a British base for Peugeot. In what he calls the biggest risk of his business career, he transferred the manufacture of a new model, the Horizon, from France to Peugeot's Ryton plant in Coventry, without obtaining the agreement of the French parent company. Ryton had a highly skilled workforce, and he believed that Peugeot would lose its British market share without a UK manufacturing base. The parent board in Paris gave their grudging approval only three months before the car's launch. The Horizon may not have been a world beater. But today Peugeot retains nearly eight per cent of the UK market.

Throughout his career, Fayet has not hesitated to take such risks for what he believes to be right -- and paid the price. Returning to France in 1982, he was given a sinecure appointment at Peugeot. 'After six months I went mad.' He went to the top management and handed in his resignation. 'They did not want to keep me.'

He joined the US car components company CIM Rockwell as General Manager in France, but clashed with his American boss when she wanted to close its most productive French plant. He resigned over the issue, feeling sick at heart and a failure at 50, until a Catholic priest helped him to gain perspective. He joined Bendix Electronics as President of its French operations, and when Bendix France was taken over by Siemens in 1986 he was appointed Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Siemens Automotive. It is the world's fifth largest electrical and electronic engineering company, supplying the world's major car manufacturers.

Jean Fayet comes from a village of 2,000 people in central France where his father was the local pharmacist. Jean was only five when his father died of cancer. By the end of World War II he was nine years old, with the memory of his father kept alive by his mother. 'In my countryside and mountain childhood, I benefited from one amazing thing: a faith as natural as the passing seasons. I remember my grandmother with her expansive kindness, which meant there were always a few strange vagabonds in her home. They shared our meals and found board and lodging in one house or another. I experienced this with all the simplicity, challenge and reverence to God which have affected and formed my attitudes ever since.'

He studied engineering and had his first taste of the ruthlessness of big business after joining the Simca car company in Poissy in 1973. The management wanted to fire 150 workers who were suspected of being communist agitators. They urged Fayet, then a 37-year-old plant manager, to provoke a row by placing tools and spare parts in workers' bags, so that they would be caught as thieves at the factory gate. Fayet refused.

Instead, he persuaded a local Catholic priest to call a press conference to protest against the workers' dismissal. The issue became a cause célèbre in the national press and Fayet was summoned by the board to ask if he was behind the press campaign. He admits that he denied it. But the campaign worked and, he says, such underhand management methods never reoccurred. 'That was my first real confrontation with large-scale compromise. I came through it thanks to the way I had been brought up and through the support I received from my friends in the Employers' Christian Movement.'

Fayet's career seems to have been marked by stands such as this. What gives him the courage? 'I cannot tolerate injustice,' he replies unhesitatingly. 'It is impossible for me to work against what I feel is my conscience.' He is cautious about attributing this solely to his religious upbringing, knowing that his brother, a non-believer, also has a strong social conscience, 'and we have the same outlook'. But Fayet believes that 'God is behind us, whether we are willing him to be so or not, whether we name him or not'. And he regards his own strong family life, 'shaped by evening prayers', as 'the foundation of my professional career'.

'I cannot tolerate injustice. It is impossible for me to work against what I feel is my conscience.'

Following an invitation to speak to a Christian trade union group in Coventry, Fayet came to know about the Caux Conferences for Business and Industry which are held annually at the MRA centre in Switzerland. Fayet says he enjoys addressing such conferences because, he says, 'the benefit in teaching is first to the teacher. It is a tremendous opportunity to formulate one's thinking.' Speaking at Caux last year he urged that businesses should not be afraid of 'a certain kind of chaos'. They expanded best through encouraging small projects, whereby individual managers take initiative.

'My contribution at Siemens has been to develop an entrepreneurial spirit by decentralization,' he says, adding that it has taken him seven years to persuade his managers of the importance of this. 'We need to give people hope and place power in their hands. Now our employees have a feeling of being entrepreneurs.' Engineers at Siemens Automotive, for instance, are now developing a revolutionary new gasoline injection system.

But his strongest message is that big companies need to take risks to stay competitive. The French education system, he says, with its emphasis on egalitarianism and fraternity, does not always encourage this. But in a global economy, job creation -- indeed civilization -- may depend on developing 'a culture of risk taking'. And at the personal level, 'Creativity is linked with precariousness but security in life goes against surpassing oneself.'

At 63, Fayet is looking forward to retiring to his farm in his home village and spending more time with his family, including his 12 grandchildren. He jokes that with power there is always the danger of becoming a megalomaniac, and he wonders if he will be 'able to live without the strong recognition and consideration' which comes with his high position. That may be another risk he'll have to take. But one cannot help feeling that an entrepreneur who has staked his career on taking risks will still make his presence felt on the world stage.
Michael Smith