IT IS a story that astonishes everyone. And everyone is delighted to be astonished. A man borrows a modest sum of money from his father and from his father-in-law. He founds a building company with 10 workers, and he runs it from a small flat in the suburbs of Paris. Forty years later he has more than 80,000 people working for him and his company is worth nearly 80,000 million francs. This is the story of Francis Bouygues.
There was much else that caused Bouygues to be a national hero in France. Although he was born in Paris, he always spoke of himself as coming from Auvergne, like his grandfather, and being, like all Auvergnats, reluctant to spend money. When he acquired the privatised television company TF1 he had to write out a very hefty cheque, and as people congratulated him on winning the battle to win TF1 he would reply, 'I'm from Auvergne, do you think I enjoyed signing that cheque?' He was very much a family man, and went to considerable lengths to keep his enterprises as a family business. It was a blow to him when his son Nicholas left the company.
But as a father he could be difficult and he had fits of anger which have been described as 'Homeric'. He was often pessimistic and viewed any new enterprise in a gloomy manner. And he was also innocent. When he moved into television he met people who were famous throughout France, but he had no idea who they were. When he moved into producing films it is said that on being introduced to Jeanne Moreau he asked her what she did 'dans la vie'. But he was patient, and was very far from being an all- dominant, interfering personality.
Francis Bouygues qualified as an engineer at the Ecole Central in Paris. It is said that the first contract given to his firm was the renovation of a sugar refinery in the Paris suburbs, but it was in the late 1960s that the big expansion began, when he built the present Parc des Princes with more than 50,000 seats. Bouygues moved into the provinces and abroad, particularly to the Middle East. Not everyone likes the hypermarkets or the American-style commercial centres (like that at Parly II) that now mark the entrance to most French towns, and not everyone likes the towers at Nanterre or Bagnolet. But they were built by Bouygues. More successful is La Defense, with its giant arch, the original airport of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, and the congress centre at the Porte Maillot. He himself was particularly proud of the bridge that links the Ile de Re to mainland France, and the extremely modern and daring building that became his headquarters at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
Naturally, Bouygues was attacked. It was said that he was a political intriguer in order to get contracts. Socialists claimed that TF1 had a bias against them, but it was a Socialist Minister of Finance, Jacques Delors, who presented Bouygues in 1982 with the award of the best manager in business. Naturally Bouygues had his failures, particularly with his film-production firm Ciby 2000, which he formed in 1990. But at the last film festival in Cannes it was his film La Lecon that won the highest award.
Stories about Bouygues abound. It is said that when he won the contract to build the University of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, a cheque for dollars 343m was flown by Concorde, to be deposited in a New York bank. But it was agreed that when the work was finished the money would be transferred to Bouygues in francs. When this happened the dollar had increased in value by more than 40 per cent. It was what the Franch call 'Le Jackpot'.