Profile: Bertrand Collomb: Builder who keeps the spirit level

The swoop on Redland by France's taciturn businessman of the year was an immaculate piece of timing, writes Frederic Tomesco in Paris
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The Independent Online
For Bertrand Collomb, the chief executive of Lafarge SA, the all- but-certain victory in his six-week battle to acquire Redland plc, the British building materials company, is but one of a number of steps to transform a once stodgy operation into one of France's most international companies.

From 12 countries when Collomb joined Lafarge in 1989, it has expanded to 50. Now it's looking for more - in Asia. "The Asian crisis clearly creates new opportunities for us," Mr Collomb said on Friday. "There are strong local companies that were valued at excessive prices. This crisis will probably give us the chance to increase our presence there."

Still, the Redland purchase is a big bite. It will cost pounds 2.2bn, including debt. It will increase Lafarge sales by 65 per cent to pounds 6bn. It will make Lafarge a major factor in the manufacture and sale of cement, roofing, and other construction in Britain. "It will help us balance our development between industrialised countries and emerging markets," Collomb said.

But Collomb faces problems. Even though Lafarge holds more than 50 per cent of Redland's shares, industry minister John Battle has asked the European Commission to refer part of the bid to the Office of Fair Trading for review.

Lafarge already owns a ready-mix concrete business called Enemix in Norwich and Leicester. The French group concedes the purchase of Redland will give it market dominance in both areas.

There remains the sensitive issue of job cuts. "We're going to have to integrate 20,000 people in a group that already has 40,000," Collomb admitted. But he says there will be no swingeing lay-offs. "There may be job cuts here or there, but not in a significant fashion," he said. "There's very little overlap between our businesses."

The chances are the celebrations in Paris last week will not prove premature. "This is a major coup for Collomb," said Mike Betts, a building industry analyst with Goldman Sachs. "His timing was impeccable - he struck at a time when Redland's share price was depressed, and picked up a good company without paying too much for it. Full marks to him."

Industry watchers agree. On Thursday, the 55- year-old executive was named France's "manager of the year" by Le Nouvel Economiste, a business magazine. That news is bound to please former Lafarge chairman Olivier Lecerf, who hand-picked Collomb to succeed him in 1989. Lecerf won the award in 1981.

Collomb, whose prime escape from business is riding to hounds, is one of a new select breed of French executives - educated the old French way and then honed by training in the US.

Like his father and grandfather before him, the elegant Collomb is a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique, arguably France's most prestigious engineering school.

After nine years with the French government, where he held a variety of positions in the industry and education ministries, he joined Lafarge in 1975. He's been with the company ever since, winning praise for his low-key management style.

Collomb, who has emphasised marketing as the key to business success, delegates well. "Collomb's not the warmest of bosses, he doesn't like to socialise that much, but he knows how to listen," said Claude Goudier, the retired editor of French business weekly L'Expansion, who has known him for more than 10 years. "This is how he snapped up Redland: he noticed their shares had nearly halved in the past year, and decided to attack."

Collomb spent three years in the US in the mid-1980s, emerging as chairman of Lafarge Corp, the company's 52.7 per cent-owned US unit, before heading back to France. Collomb also holds what one biographical directory describes as a doctorate in management from the University of Texas.

"Living in the US helped Collomb develop a different management style," said Philippe de Woot, a management professor at Belgium's Louvain University and a member of Lafarge's international advisory board. "All of our board meetings are in English - something you'd never have thought possible in a French company."

Lafarge spent around pounds 5bn on foreign acquisitions last year, boosting the company's presence in countries such as Brazil, Poland and Turkey in its major product lines. Earlier this week, it announced the $200m (pounds 118m) purchase of a 51 per cent stake in Romcim, a Romanian cement maker.

Lafarge now makes a third of its sales at home, down from 50 per cent a decade ago. Emerging markets account for almost 20 per cent of revenue, compared with 3 per cent in 1988, the year before Collomb took the reins.

"For 20 years or so, Lafarge was basically a Franco-American group," Collomb told reporters in March. "Our aim is to become a truly global company."

Still, in light of Lafarge's emerging market ambitions, some investors can't help question the wisdom of the Redland purchase. "I don't see the point of that acquisition," said Olivier Lefevre, a fund manager at Monte Paschi Banque in Paris, who oversees around $20m in stocks. "Lafarge has said it would try to expand in high-growth markets, yet Redland operates mostly in the UK and Germany. In my mind, they would have been a lot wiser to expand into Asia, especially since the financial crisis has made expansion there a lot cheaper."

Even fans of the move are puzzled. "It's strange to see Lafarge targeting western Europe," said Betts, the Goldman Sachs analyst, who reckons the Redland purchase will boost profits at Lafarge by around one-third in 1998. "It needs to do a better job of explaining why it's departing from its growth strategy."

The Paris-based company earned pounds 1.85bn last year. It's already forecast a "significant" profit increase in 1997.

Whichever way Lafarge decides to grow, the company's expansion programme is bound to take its toll on Collomb. The father of three spends an estimated 100 days a year on the road, touring current and potential sites.

"It's certainly curtailed his horseback riding," said Goudier. "It sometimes means he'll drop out of a hunt after a couple of hours because he has to go off somewhere and work."

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