Meet the sorcerer's apprentice

The new boss of Euro Disney combines hard-nosed professionalism with a sense of fun. Gilles Pelisson
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The Independent Online
Many people believe they have a Mickey Mouse boss. Very few are actually Mickey Mouse's boss. Gilles Pelisson has just achieved that rare distinction. A month ago he was elevated to the top job at Euro Disney, which operates the DisneyLand Paris theme park. He has replaced Philippe Bourguignon who left in February to join Club Mediteranee, where he has been asked to weave the same magic which has transformed Euro Disney in the past four years from Dumbo to the Lion King.

Many people would have shirked at the prospect of stepping into Bourguignon's shoes. Not Pelisson. For him it is a natural progression. Indeed when, in July 1995, Bourguignon plucked Pelisson from the ACCOR group where he was co-chairman of Novotel Hotels, it was with succession in mind. The timing of Pelisson's appointment may be premature but only slightly so.

He and Bourguignon go back a long way. They worked together at the ACCOR group for several years and it is no surprise that they share remarkably similar management philosophies. The talk of a smooth transition at Euro Disney is much more, then, than public relations hype. Pelisson has been playing an increasingly important role in the company's management and to find him in the top position comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Euro Disney well.

"Gilles is so well known from the boardroom to the park that his appointment seems extremely natural, " says one insider. "He is well liked and well respected. He knows the business and what makes it tick. We are very lucky."

Luck does not really come into it. Pelisson is a man whose style is entirely in keeping with one of the most international entertainment businesses in the world. He combines Gallic charm with a hard-nosed American business professionalism befitting a man who has graduated both from the French business school ESSEC and Harvard.

Much of his international perspective on life comes from the seven-and- a-half years he spent in the US during his 12- year career with ACCOR. Pelisson was first appointed manager for the development of the group's hotels in North America, later becoming the marketing director for the Californian restaurant chain Seafood Broiler.

"It opens your eyes," Pelisson says. "The more time you spend away from home the more you see the world differently."

This internationalism is extremely important at Euro Disney. For, while the park has its roots in America, its audience is Pan European. Mickey Mouse may represent a common currency, but the tastes of visitors from all points of the European compass vary enormously. Catering for such a cosmopolitan and vast crowd (around 12 million visitors a year come to the park) is an enormous challenge.

Pelisson is a man who relishes such a challenge. He is a natural enthusiast with a zest for life.

"His energy is frightening," says one former colleague. "But it is also a great inspiration to those around him."

"We work hard here but we also like ourselves," says Pelisson. "I believe in commitment coupled with a true joy of work."

It is a reasonable attitude for any business but particularly pertinent at Disney where the product is enjoyment.

"There is a real dedication to entertainment, magic and fun here," Pelisson adds. "If we as managers want our cast members (the Disney term for staff) to follow us then we have to lead by example. I cannot be sad, I cannot be seen to be worrying all the time."

But do not be deceived by his bright personality. Unlike many French businessmen, he can be extraordinarily direct when circumstances demand it. "I have been with him when he has told me exactly what he thinks and wants," recalls one colleague. "It may not be typically French but it is extremely effective."

For Pelisson this approach is an inherent part of efficient management.

"Life is too short for wasting time with bureaucracy. I believe frank and open communication lines are key to good management," he says.

It is for this reason that he will often be found breakfasting with his line managers. Noticeably absent from these meetings are his managers' immediate superiors. Pelisson sees these get-togethers as crucial intelligence- gathering exercises. The idea is not to undermine the absent bosses but to hear directly what life is like at the coal face. It provides him with a real world view of Euro Disney life to counter any temptation by those who surround Pelisson at the most senior level merely to tell him what they think he wants to hear.

"I really enjoy teamwork," Pelisson says. "I know how to make decisions. I do not believe in the eternal consensus and will not waste time on that when I think there is not the time to be wasted. But to be surrounded by talented colleagues who have an expertise that I do not and whose advice I can take is a real pleasure. Conducting the orchestra is something I really enjoy."

It is not just something he enjoys - it is also something he is good at.

Antoine Jeancourt-Galignani, president of Euro Disney's supervisory board, says of him: "Gilles has demonstrated superb international management capabilities both at Euro Disney and in his previous positions. We are fortunate to have a manager of his calibre within the company."

That view is echoed by colleagues past and present who admire his intellect, his personality and his management skills.

"He was born and bred in the service industry," says one insider. "He is guest oriented, he understands service and is keen to listen to the customers and find out what they want."

At 40 years of age he is young, but then Euro Disney is a young company. It is five years old next month and the 10,000-strong workforce has an average age of 26. Yet in its brief life it has been through more than many companies which are 50 years old.

After a disastrous start the company is now on an even and profitable keel, but there are still challenges aplenty ahead.

"We know the product can always be improved and we are always refining it, but our basic offering is right on track," Pelisson says. "People love it and they come back. Our counterparts in the US are very proud of what we do. We are a big organisation and it is my job to keep the momentum going."

In parallel with this, Pelisson must also balance the books. Operational profitability is now fine and at levels comparable with the US parks - a great testimony to the achievement of the whole team. More problematic is the debt burden the company has been saddled with.

"It is a question of saying we are aware of the balance sheet and looking at the problem and discussing it with our bankers to see what is more appropriate for the future," Pelisson says.

The debt may be high but it is not intimidating and Pelisson talks animatedly about the next phase of development of the 2000-hectare site which is so far largely untouched. Plans are in place for a new 90,000 square metre shopping mall, a housing development is proposed, convention facilities are being expanded and an eight-screen movie theatre opens in May.

Pelisson is a man with a vision. It is a vision which caters for the four-year-old child and 54-year-old banker. He is the new Sorcerer, but the Magic of the Kingdom is as powerful as ever.