Louis Schweitzer, head of Renault, insists better cars will reap success, says Richard Feast

In January last year, this man summoned 11,000 Renault managers from around the world to a summit at the Palais des Sports in Bercy, a Paris suburb.

It included 150 people from Renault's subsidiary in the UK - a third of the headcount - so everyone present knew the boss had something important on his mind. They found out what over the next three hours.

The quality of Renault's products was not good enough, Louis Schweitzer, the chairman and chief executive, told them. There were no histrionics. That's not Schweitzer's style. But the message was clear: everyone present had to ensure future Renaults would be better. Renaults were not bad, but they were not good either. In reality, they were on a par with Volkswagens while lacking the German firm's reputation for high quality. Renaults were no match for models sold by the leading Japanese brands, including its alliance partner, Nissan.

Schweitzer's goal is for Renault to be "fighting for the leadership" in terms of quality, reliability and warranty costs by 2007. His first action was to delay by four months the launch of the latest Espace that was then just going into production. The decision was important because previous Espaces - made under contract by Matra, unlike the current model - were invariably at the foot of any consumer survey.

Each new Renault since then has had to meet higher quality standards. The results, the company insists, are starting to show, though it will take another two or three years to complete the process.

Recalling the events of January 2003, Schweitzer says: "I felt we were not where we should be. Since then, we have seen an enormous amount of progress. It's one of the things I am really proud of, these last two years."

The rallying call was typical of Schweitzer's low-key style. Some of his peers favour exaggerated hoopla to explain how they will one day rule the world, but the Renault chairman prefers more measured tones. He looks more like a bookish academic than an industry Titan.

But while Schweitzer speaks quietly, he clearly carries a big stick. He engineered the alliance with Nissan and bought Samsung Motors in South Korea and Dacia in Romania. All were considered basket cases by other car makers at the time. But for Schweitzer, the moves were essential to transform a small, parochial car maker into a global player. Last year, only General Motors, Toyota and Ford sold more vehicles than the Renault-Nissan alliance.

Along the way, Schweitzer found someone to replace him when he steps down as chief executive next April - Carlos Ghosn, formerly with Michelin and the man credited with turning round Nissan. Schweitzer, 62, will stay on as non-executive chairman for four more years.

The transformation of Renault is total, even if Schweitzer was not an obvious revolutionary. He was born in Geneva to a family descended from country pastors in France's Alsace region. Father was head of the International Monetary Fund, great uncle Albert was the missionary and Nobel peace prize winner, and cousins included Jean-Paul Sartre, the existential philosopher, and Charles Munch, the conductor.

Young Louis proved to be another high achiever. He attended the National School of Administration, the elite ENA that produces France's business leaders and administrators, and spent 16 years in the French administration, rising to chief of staff to the former prime minister Laurent Fabius.

The switch to Renault in 1986 is surprising to outsiders, but was natural in France, which requires its brightest and best to hold the top jobs, whatever they are. Schweitzer spent four years learning the business before becoming chief operating officer in 1990 and chairman two years later. Schweitzer says he likes cars, but is not an enthusiast in the mould of Bob Lutz of General Motors, or former Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piech. But he knows how important it is to have car experts to create Renault's products.

Schweitzer and fellow board members acted boldly when they authorised production of some controversial-looking models presented to them by Renault's design team. Some (the Megane and Scenic) proved to be greater successes than others (Avantime and Vel Satis). The greatest legacy of the Schweitzer era, though, is the Scenic, a compact people-carrier that redefined car-buying habits across Europe.

Was Schweitzer surprised by its success? "Our product planning people said 300 (production) a day. I expected 700 or 800. We went to 1,800, so, yes, I was."

Now Schweitzer has another Big Idea. He wants to introduce car ownership to millions of people around the world who have never been able to afford it. Eighty per cent of the world's cars are bought by only 20 per cent of the population, says Schweitzer. His mission is for Renault to give those others "access to the civilization of the motor car from which they were previously excluded."

The result is Logan, a Megane-sized model that will be sold in developing countries at prices from £3,300 including tax. Schweitzer has effectively called for a 21st century reincarnation of the old Ford Model T, the car that put America on wheels. His vision is that Logan will create happy motoring memories for first-time buyers in emerging markets, just as the original Mini did in this country, the Beetle in Germany, the Deux Chevaux in France and baby Fiats did in Italy.

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