PARIS-Within the company, Francois Michelin is known simply, and respectfully, as ``le patron'': literally, ``the boss,'' but with paternal overtones. To those outside the company trying to understand the Michelin corporate culture, he's an enigma, answering questions with questions and serving up provincial anecdotes to illustrate his points.
His tenure at the top of the company that bears his family name, 45 years and counting, is unprecedented. But as it anticipates his impending retirement, the company is embarking on a wide-sweeping over-haul of its corporate culture and management structure.
``We are at a crucial point in our history,'' Mr. Michelin said, citing increased global competition and constantly shifting market demands. ``That's why I consider this reorganization essential to ensure the group a future of progress and innovation into the next century.''
Both the reorganization itself and the way it was presented are seen as important indications of the company's future under the direction of heir-apparent Edouard Michelin, the 33-year-old son of Francois who will be the fourth generation of Michelin to chair the executive board. Francois will reach the customary French retirement age of 73 in 1999, but extensions are possible.
The creation of a nine-member executive committee to assist the managing partners-Francois and Edouard Michelin and Rene Zingraff-is the first step toward a more decentralized decision-making process, deemed critical to the company's direction in coming years.
The executive committee members' average age is 47, with nearly 20 years experience with Michelin. Edouard joined the company full-time in the mid-1980s following military service, but his father often speaks of his son's ``33 years of experience with Michelin'' in a jestful reference to his age.
Where corporate hierarchy previously was kept close to the vest and executives' business cards were untitled, the new Michelin corporate structure is clearly defined on both geographical and tactical aspects. ``We are counting on this new organization to bring about a considerable strengthening in the efficiency of our workforce and, in consequence, the operation of the company,'' Mr. Michelin told shareholders at their general assembly in late June.
If such a restructuring is so critical to the company's future, was it not long overdue?
``You never know when a fruit is totally ripe,'' Mr. Michelin said wistfully. ``The...life of an industry is made of changes in different directions at different times.''
An important catalyst for the restructuring, Mr. Michelin said, was the impending retirement of several key executives, who approached the managing partners with concerns about a smooth transition to the next generation-especially in light of the firm's growing international presence.
``Implementation of the new structure is now supported by the very people who were involved in the original studies,'' Mr. Michelin told shareholders.