Profile: Racing beyond the famous names: Louis Schweitzer, Renault's chairman tells John Eisenhammer how he plans to keep the car maker up to speed

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The Independent Online
POWER, reflects Louis Schweitzer, does not lie with the eminence grise. It is to be found sitting firmly on the throne. The chairman of Renault, the French state-owned car and truck maker which recently announced its merger with Volvo of Sweden, smiles to himself at this little homily. There is nothing regal about this tall, gangling man, aged 51, dressed in a sober blue suit, but the aura of quiet authority is palpable.

'As head of the Prime Minister's private office I was No 2. Here I am No 1. That is a world of difference. There is something negative about the word 'power', but I have to say I enjoy it. I like taking decisions. Perhaps I like it too much.'

Mr Schweitzer turns to look through the broadwindows of his eighth-floor office at the Renault headquarters, down at the busy banks of the Seine trapped in early morning autumn fog. It is not an attractive view, for we are well away from fashionable central Paris here, but for Mr Schweitzer it is a panorama worthy of a brilliant career enjoyed by one of the cream of France's technocratic elite.

Renault's relatively youthful boss is a classic product of that unique French power machine, the Grandes Ecoles, a small number of super-universities where minds are honed and relationships forged. It creates that nexus between the highest levels of the civil service, politics, industry and finance that is a key to understanding the French state.

'These relationships are made at the beginning of one's adult life, and they are ineradicable,' Mr Schweitzer said. 'Young people go to the Grandes Ecoles not because they want to be civil servants, but because in France it is accepted that the brilliant elements of each generation follow that course. The numbers are few, and therefore the links strong.'

Mr Schweitzer's fellow students at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration - one of the best known of the Grandes Ecoles - in the early Sixties included: Philippe Seguin, President of the National Assembly; Jean-Claude Trichet, Governor of the Bank of France; and Jacques Attali, who recently resigned as head of the Bank for European Reconstruction and Development in London. 'The point is that you do not have to get to know these people because of your job. You have already known them for 20 years,' Mr Schweitzer said.

There is little time these days for Mr Schweitzer to contemplate the joys of power, as he peers into the abyss of crumbling markets and plunging motor sales. Renault made a pre-tax profit of Fr 730m (now pounds 85m) in the first half of this year, compared with Fr 5.4bn ( pounds 628m) in the same period of 1992. It will be a miracle if it breaks even over the whole year, but it is not alone in its misery since every other large car company is struggling too.

In fact, there has been a remarkable turnround since the mid-Eighties when Renault was accepted as French for 'lame duck'. Now the company is one of the most efficient car-makers in Europe. It is no small accolade that Ferdinand Piech, chairman of Volkswagen, cites Renault as his European model for imaginative, low-cost production.

'What we have seen is the demystification of Renault, a firm that was a national institution, a laboratory for social improvement -certainly not a company like any other. Now it is, and fights like one,' Mr Schweitzer said. This break with the past, as he calls it, occurred when Georges Besse became chairman in 1985. He made tremendous progress on reducing costs and his successor, Raymond Levy, focusedon quality. Now it is Louis Schweitzer's turn, and his chosen element is speed.

'You don't need management theory to realise that speed is vital for success. It is a stimulant for creativity. Anything that lies around waiting to be done is wasted. This is important in a big company, and especially now that we are linking up with Volvo, which makes things even more complex.'

So how doeshe define his management style? 'I listen well, I like learning,' he said. 'And I attach great importance to trusting people I work with. People give what you expect of them. If you treat them with disrespect, they will behave accordingly.'

He turns to the example of his father, whom he greatly admired, who was also a senior French civil servant and a director-general of the International Monetary Fund. 'He was a profoundly nice man. And he was courageous. But he never needed to be tough. I know managers who believe in the value of toughness. I do not at all. I am far too reserved for that. But this does not mean I do not do what needs to be done.'

Profoundly nice. Those are precisely the words those who know 'Loulou' Schweitzer use to describe him. His courtesy is legendary. There is an unusual mildness about him but no trace of weakness. When it comes to taking decisions, he is an inveterate loner, a characteristic that infuriates close colleagues. And when he encountered attempts to bar his path to the summit at Renault, this paradigm of meekness showed another, well-hidden side: of strong ambition, and the ability to fight and win.

Louis Sc hweitzer was born in 1942 in Geneva while his father was active in the Resistance. Even if he was not exactly born into power, he was certainly surrounded from his earliest years by people who were larger than life. His great-uncle was Albert Schweitzer, the missionary doctor in Africa and Nobel peace prize-winner; his cousins were Jean-Paul Sartre, playwright, author and existentialist philosopher, and Charles Munch, a great French conductor of his day.

'It is strange,' muses Mr Schweitzer, 'for we were not a grand family, but country pastors from Alsace. And then along comes this extraordinary generation.' Asked about them, the Renault boss is apologetic. 'People always expect great tales, but I have none. I hardly knew Sartre, met him just once or twice, but he really was not a family man. I knew Albert better, seeing him in Alsace when he was not in Africa. The most puzzling thing was that even though they were so different, the two of them got on well.' Beyond thatMr Schweitzer is not keen to reminisce.

The young finance inspector was propelled into the fast lane in just half an hour in 1981 when Laurent Fabius, then Budget Minister in the Socialist government, asked Mr Schweitzer to become the head of his private office, the real centre of power in a ministry. It was the beginning of a close, five- year relationship that took him to the Industry Ministry, and finally the Matignon - the Prime Minister's office. Although Mr Schweitzer always refused to join the Socialist party, the two men became friends and their families holiday together.

On 23 June, 1984, Mr Schweitzer summoned Raymond Levy, then head of the state steel firm, to his office at the Industry Ministry and sacked him. The decision to get rid of him was made in the Elysee after Mr Levy had publicly criticised the government's plans for restructuring the steel industry, and Schweitzer was merely the messenger. But just two years later, shortly after he had moved to Renault, Mr Schweitzer found out that the new chairman was to be none other than Raymond Levy.

Happily, Mr Levy respected the plans of Georges Besse (the old chairman, who had been assassinated) to promote Mr Schweitzer. He then went on to further his protege's career until, at the end of 1990, Schweitzer was made general director, and became the heir apparent.

Then his career abruptly ran into a mighty obstacle in the form of Edith Cresson, appointed Prime Minister in May 1991. Mrs Cresson absolutely loathed Mr Schweitzer. She was determined to prevent the man she called ET (she claimed he looked like the creature from the Spielberg film) from becoming head of Renault. She pushed rivals in front of him, and tried to get Mr Levy to stay on.

But Louis Schweitzer fought back, picked the rivals off one by one, and conquered. In May 1992, the man who in his Industry Ministry days could dream of no better job than running the French railways, became the head of the country's premier car company.

Mr Schweitzer's real passion appears to lie beneath the arc lights of suburban theatres, to which he steals off twice a week during the season. 'I don't play golf, and in the five hours a game takes, you can see a couple of plays,' he said. He largely shuns mainstream theatre, revelling in the avant- garde typified by Peter Brook and Bob Wilson.

But there are those inside and outside Renault who are less convinced of Mr Schweitzer's flair for the avant- garde when it comes to leading the car- maker into the 21st century.

Raymond Levy was acknowledged to be a risk-taker, a visionary. He forged the ties with Volvo, took Renault back into Formula One, and backed the company's new and highly acclaimed small car, the Twingo.

While Mr Schweitzer was certainly an active supporter of the first move, and will now oversee the meshing of the two companies into Europe's fourth biggest car-maker, in his role as finance director he voiced grave doubts about the other two. He took a lot of persuading on the Twingo, and never had much faith in Renault's future in Formula One racing.

Yet both have turned out be sources of immense pride. One cannot move in the Paris headquarters for video screens blaring the company's Formula One triumphs. And the Twingo is a hit in France: a large model of it dominates one side of Mr Schweitzer's office.

Would he have made those visionary decisions had he been chairman a few years ago? And does he have the skill to maintain Renault's current success? The answers will only emerge in two or three years' time when the company's next generation of models, developed under Mr Schweitzer's chairmanship, begins rolling off the production line.

(Photograph omitted)