Schweitzer, Louis

▪ 1998

      In February 1997 Renault SA, the French automobile-making giant, demonstrating the impact of decreased government control over business in a multinational economy, announced plans to close a plant in Vilvoorde, Belg., and eliminate more than 3,000 jobs. Thus, Louis Schweitzer, the chairman of Renault, was suddenly cast into the public eye, vilified by those who saw his actions as an expression of the human cost of unrestrained capitalism and praised by others for making difficult choices in an effort to increase the company's competitiveness. For decades following World War II, French industry and the French government had been closely entwined. In addition to being the majority shareholder in many of the nation's largest corporations, the government had set national economic policy in coordination with business and frequently intervened in disputes between companies and the powerful French labour unions. In the 1980s and '90s, however, as the booming global economy created a more competitive business environment, the government relaxed much of its control over industry. Although French companies became more competitive internationally, pleasing both company executives and shareholders, this increased competitiveness had a price, and Schweitzer appeared to be paying it.

      Schweitzer was born in Geneva on July 8, 1942. He was educated mainly in France and graduated (1970) from the École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), the elite school that produced the majority of that nation's government and corporate leaders. Following his graduation Schweitzer began a career in government, gaining a reputation for efficiency and honesty. By the 1980s he was a high-level government administrator, holding important positions in the Ministry of the Budget and in the Ministry of Industry and Research. He had also become a leading adviser to Laurent Fabius, a rising Socialist Party political figure.

      In 1984 French Pres. François Mitterrand appointed Fabius prime minister. Schweitzer became his chief of staff, a position he held until Fabius's resignation in 1986. Schweitzer left government service that same year, taking a position at Renault as vice president for finance and planning. His rise through the ranks of the corporate world was as rapid and assured as his ascent in government. He was Renault's chief financial officer by 1988, executive vice president by the following year, and president and chief operating officer by 1990. In 1992 he was made chairman and chief executive officer.

      Schweitzer inherited a troubled company. Outdated manufacturing facilities, increased competition, and reduced consumer demand had cut into Renault's profits, which plummeted 41% in 1995 alone. The closing of the Belgian plant was justified by Schweitzer as a hard but necessary decision designed to restore Renault's competitiveness. He also stated that Renault expected to cut some 2,700 jobs in France. Some observers felt that the government, fearful of a political backlash from French voters frightened for their jobs, would use Schweitzer's actions as justification to return to the interventionist policies of the past. In the end, however, the situation was defused and some jobs were saved.

JOHN H. MATHEWS

* * *


Universalium. 2010.

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