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The Times: The Frenchwoman with a taste for business and Thatcher’s Britain

October 09, 2006
By Angela Jameson

Christine Morin-Postel was expected only to be a housewife, but her savoir-faire has become a key asset to the boards of Shell and 3i 
 
IT’S AUTUMN and, had things worked out differently, Christine Morin-Postel might have been in Paris, in the Marais perhaps, somewhere chic on the Left Bank, sipping treacle-thick coffee or a glass of rosé. In fact, it’s a wet Monday afternoon in London and Madame Morin-Postel is entirely at home at the Reform Club on Pall Mall, ordering tea and taking it the English way, with milk.
 
She might have had a very different life, too, that of the content, if well-educated, wife and mother, busying herself with the million and one things that that terrifyingly misleading “job” description entails. In fact, for much of the past 20 years she has, in addition to having a family, played a busy role in British corporate life — from her days in charge of English water companies in Newcastle, Gateshead, Durham and Essex in the 1990s to now, when she sits on the board of two of the most important British corporations — 3i, the venture capital firm, and Shell, the Anglo-Dutch energy giant. Given that record, Madame Morin-Postel’s familiarity with English traditions is hardly surprising. 
 
Yet as a young woman, she had no overwhelming, burning desire to go into business. There were other things to worry about. Aged 22, she finished her studies at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris in May 1968 — but the country was in turmoil.

“I missed the diploma, I never graduated,” she recalls, telling how her university was closed for a time. “The entire country was on fire. It was very stressful. Anyway, there was no diploma and I was supposed to be getting married in September. To be honest, I was probably thinking more about that.”

Eventually she got a chance to sit her exams, but she failed them. No matter: whether she had intended it or not, a life in business beckoned.

She began her career at the regional chamber of commerce and industry of the Haute Normandie region. Then she moved to Anvar, a government agency devoted to financing research and development projects, where she was responsible for the small and medium-sized business sector.

It was a steep learning curve. Moreover, she juggled learning business with having two children. Her marriage ended in divorce while the children were still small, which merely motivated her further.

“With two children, my first duty was to push harder. I don’t think I started with the feeling that I was going to be a career woman. I had the intellectual appetite, yes, but to say I really want to make money, I want power — I don’t think I had that early on,” she says.

Her experience with small businesses evolved into venture capital and in 1976 she joined Sofinnova, France’s first venture capital group, which provided investment for technology firms in the United States and France. By 1979, she had joined Lyonnaise des Eaux, where in the 1990s she helped the firm to buy British water assets. Her photo can be seen in the first annual report from Ofwat, the water regulator.

Did she find the British way of doing business very different to that in France? “I think there are differences, but they are going to disappear because the rules are getting closer and closer — especially with globalisation.”

Unlike many of her compatriots, Madame Morin-Postel was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, who set in train the privatisation of water, amongst other industries. “I think that sometimes a country can need that kind of push. She came in with good common sense and a simple way of setting goals and developing action and with no fear to tell people about reality,” she recalls.

Privatisation of public assets, particularly in utilities, is about 20 years behind in France. “Privatisation of public assets has started under [Lionel] Jospin and it will continue. It’s light-touch, less brutal [than in the UK], but it is there, because why should the State own assets which could be privately managed?”

Madame Morin-Postel believes that France has to come to terms with accepting globalisation and that may involve giving things up that previously had been regarded as sacrosanct. “What counts is not your small internal problems, it’s how you’re going to fit for the next ten years into this new picture,” she says.

After 14 years at Lyonnais des Eaux, she joined Banque Indosuez, where she threw herself into mergers and acquisitions for the first time. From there, she was hired for various troubleshooting roles at Suez. At 57 and after spells at the top of Société Générale’s Belgian office, she decided to step off the executive treadmill and to take on a portfolio of non-executive directorships.

She is an ardent advocate for the role of the independent non-executive in keeping executives on the right track. “In the case of Shell, the board has been adamantly leading the restructuring, because that is a board duty. One should always remember that when you are on a board there is no room for complacency.

“Economic life can be a bumpy ride. What is important is figuring the equation of the board in such a way that when that happens, the way people work together as a team is so good that you treat the problems quickly.”

From time to time, she likes to be closer to the business action than a governance role can allow. Recently her daughter and son-in-law have taken a master franchise for a Spanish tapas restaurant in the South of France. They are trying to buy their first sites.

“They come to me for advice and I am going to put some seed money in as a small shareholder,” she says.

Such an investment decision is a fraction of the size of those that 3i, another company in her remit, must make every day, but she is unconcerned that venture capital and private equity companies are biting off more than they can chew and believes that they are a vital stimulus to the economy.

“Private equity took a long time to really take off, but now, suddenly, they are very big players and I think they are a very good complement to the stock market,” she says.

Madame Morin-Postel turned 60 last week and soon will have a large party in Normandy to celebrate. She is still one of only a handful of senior women in Britain’s boardrooms, but that, she believes, will change. “[Being younger] was more an issue to me than being a woman. Of course, the first time they look surprised, but the fact is you have to get on with what you are being asked to do. You have a contract to deliver and if you do that I don’t think the gender matters at all.”

The leader in ten questions

Q Who is or was your mentor?

A I have several, but I won’t say who they are. People in the UK, in the US, in France from whom I sought advice. They are bankers, industrialists — people who I trust and I feel I could ask. When you do that, you are welcomed. I do the same now, with some of the younger people that I meet on my various assigments.
Q Which businessman or woman do you most admire?

A There are many who are known for their achievement. In the UK, I have a lot of time for Sir Nigel Rudd. As managers, you are there for an interim period and then you pass on to the next. You should not be the star.

Q What is the most important business event, good or bad, to occur in your working life?

A The first time I visited the US was a huge influence on my way of doing things.

The way I was welcomed by this team was memorable. The French are not seen as people who work as a team. At one point on my first trip, I asked a question about an investment and I phrased my question very negatively and immediately I was asked by the chairman to rephrase my question so that it was fair.

It was a huge lesson to me and I have tried to do that ever since.
Q Do you read books on management? If so, which has influenced you the most?

A I learnt more reading Business Week and Harvard Business Reveiew than all those books. I read some of them, but I forget which. You are not going to see one book that fits all situations. You have to take things from everywhere.
Q Which is more important: what you know or who you know, and why?

A You need to know things, especially through experience, but a social network is also very important. But having a network if you don’t have the experience and the skills is not going to bring you very far. You don’t necessarily need to know everything, though. You have to make sure that around you you have the knowledge.
Q What does leadership mean to you?

A Being able to have the key elements and ingredients in place to make the achievement, especially in larger organisations. Keeping the right skill levels in place and going through difficult times without losing the goals.
Q If you could change one thing about the business, financial and commercial environment, what would it be?

A We are entering into a very highly regulated world — it may be too much. I don’t like the litigation culture, I prefer good sense.
Q Does money motivate you?

A There was a part of my life when I had to earn it. It was necessary and now I know what it means. I am not negligent about it, but also it is not something I would treasure first.
Q What gadget/piece of technology can you not do without?

A My Mac and the internet. I couldn’t do what I do today without it, because you have to be in touch. When I jumped out of my executive life, I was not used to touching computers so I had to get myself some training.
Q How do you relax?

A The big difference in my life is not having to wake up at five or six in the morning. I spend more time with my family and organise trips. I have a country house in Normandy and one near Cognac. I’m only ever in Paris en passant. I ride horses and used to breed them. I’m also a member of my local council in my village.

Power CV

Age: 60

Homes: Paris, Normandy, Cognac

Education: Institut d’Études Politiques, Paris; Institut de Controle de Gestion

Career: Non-executive director at 3i Group, Royal Dutch Shell and Alcan, the Canadian alluminium company. Previously held non-executive directorships at Pilkington, Rank Group, NFC, International Pepsi-Cola Bottler, Fortis, Arlington Capital Investors and Tractabel. 1979-93: various roles. 1993: joined Banque Indosuez. 1996: joined Compagnie de Suez to restructure its real estate branch. 1998-2001: chairman and chief executive, Société Générale de Belgique. 2000: joined executive board of Suez as executive vice-president of group human resources. 2003: retired from Suez

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