Edouard Michelin

Unassuming tyre company head
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The Independent Online

Edouard Michelin, businessman: born Clermont Ferrand, France 13 August 1963; married (six children); died off Ile de Sein, France 26 May 2006.

Industrial relations these days are mostly chummy or confrontational. Old-fashioned paternalism has vanished, even in France. Or not quite, it seems. On the local radio in Clermont Ferrand at the weekend, a trade union leader spoke, with tears in his voice, of the "death of the father". The "father" in question was Edouard Michelin, president and director-general of the world's largest tyre company.

Despite having become a multi-national giant with 130,000 employees and operations in 120 countries, Michelin remains a family-controlled firm. Outside shareholders are welcome, but they have no voting rights. Edouard Michelin once praised this approach as a way of building for the long term and avoiding a short-term obsession with profits and shareholder value.

Michelin did not look or act like an old-fashioned, paternalist boss. He cut his teeth in management in the United States. He had brought an international, modernising and somewhat more transparent approach to the old family firm in the last seven years. His nick-name within the company was "L'Américain".

None the less, in Clermont Ferrand, a town synonymous with Michelin for more than a century, "young Mr Edouard's" death has been felt as a family bereavement, even a family tragedy. Townspeople, from the mayor to the humblest Michelin worker, have paid tribute to a man who restored the pre-eminent world position of the French tyre giant while remaining - a great compliment in France - "simple" or unassuming.

Although one of the highest paid businessmen in France, he lived in a relatively unpretentious house in the centre of Clermont. He shopped for his large family in local shops and drank his morning coffee in a workmen's café. He refused to have an entry in the French Who's Who.

Edouard Michelin was born in 1963 in Clermont Ferrand, one of six children of François Michelin, who had developed the world's 10th largest tyre company into the biggest. Like his father, Edouard was educated at the Clermont Ferrand lycée and one of France's premier engineering schools, the Ecole Centrale de Paris.

"Jeune M Edouard" was not the oldest child but was marked out to take over from an early age. Two of his older brothers became priests. Another works for Michelin on the technical and research side. After working on the factory floor in Clermont Ferrand (another family tradition), Edouard was sent to head the American operations of the company in 1991. From 1999, at the age of 36, he took over from his father as the "co-manager", but de facto boss, of Michelin.

In almost his first action for the company he committed what he later admitted was a dreadful error of public relations. He announced, in the same breath, that profits were up 20 per cent and that he planned to cut the European workforce by 10 per cent.

Although Edouard Michelin became for a while a hate figure on the French left, he gradually won over workers by investing in high-tech research and a revamped headquarters building in Clermont. As part of his strategy of positioning Michelin at the top end of the tyre market, he took the company back onto the Formula One race track for the first time in eight years.

Michelin's racing tyres proved enormously successful, equipping both the winning driver and the winning manufacturer last year. But Edouard Michelin had fallen out with Formula One in recent months, announcing that Michelin would abandon the circuits again at the end of this season. His disagreements with Formula One management came to a head at the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis last year when he ordered all Michelin-equipped cars to withdraw from the race for safety reasons.

His wider strategy of concentrating on top-of-the-range tyres, while building factories in China, India and Latin America, proved hugely succesful. Two years ago, Michelin regained its lost position as the world's largest tyre manufacturer, by value, with a share of 20.1 per cent of the market. In recent months, however, Edouard Michelin had warned that the company faced a potentially difficult squeeze between booming rubber prices and poor sales, and forced cost-cutting, in the automobile industry.

Last weekend, Michelin went with his wife and six children to the family's second home at Fouesnant, in western Brittany. He persuaded the president of the local fishermen's organisation, Guillaume Normant, to take him out line fishing for sea bass. Normant's 24ft boat, the Liberté, sank in unexplained circumstances 10 miles west of the Pointe de Raz on the Ile de Sein. Michelin's body was found in the sea later that day. Normant's body has not yet been recovered.

John Lichfield