LES ÉCHOS FEB 12TH
Patrick Pouyanné Total new managing director
Total: Patrick Pouyanné’s first hundred days
ANNE FEITZ / JOURNALIST – ON FEB. 12TH
Three months and half after Christophe de Margerie’s death, Total new managing director presents the oil group annual financial statements for the first time this morning. Even if he has already proven his capacity to settle the policies and to take control in a thorny context, Patrick Pouyanné needs to win a more personal challenge: taming his temper.
His eyes brighten, his voice shakes and his words come less easily when he calls back the memories of that night of October 20th, when a plane crash caused the death of Christophe de Margerie, Total CEO. The group new managing director, who presents the 11th world company financial statements for the first time today, reckons: “We were present here, waiting, in a surrealistic atmosphere. All of us felt lost… In the same time, somewhere in my brain, I told myself my life was about to shift radically”. Thus on the following morning at 10 am, Thierry Desmarest, the former CEO, who has been still Total administrator, announced to Patrick Pouyanné that he will be appointed and he asked him to keep this secret. “ I was idly all day long in my office, I could not concentrate”, says the new boss. Emotion is not far. Behind the rugbyman-like giant, the fast intellectual machine, there is a sensitivity on edge… which sometimes flows over in a dramatic way.
His first weeks in Total management don’t give him much time to muster. Patrick Pouyanné has a kind of obsession: showing that Total has got a firm hand and a strong direction. To cope with all his duties, this former student from X-Mines (highest college of France in the field of managing industrial sectors, like mining) mobilises all this talents, among which a Cartesian mind, perfectly shaped. “Immediately, I started to schedule all the indispensable meetings of the first two months, to avoid a maelstrom”, he says.
A firm-handed manager
He makes lists: which countries he must visit, who he must meet. Abroad, in France, in and outside Total. Investors, major oil producers, politicians, managers of the group. According to his reputation of a tremendous workaholic, he carries on with decisions, meetings, travels (Abu Dhabi, Qatar, OPEC summit in Vienna, then Russia, Angola, Nigeria, Congo, etc) in a tense run against time. “The first days, I went step by step, focusing only on the next step”, he reckons. One of his first decisions, namely, Philippe Sauquet’s appointment at the head of the refinery-chemicals branch, is taken in a few minutes. The handing over of office is settled in a hotel room, just before a meeting in London. “Within four hours, I taught him the basics of refinery-chemicals”, he smiles.
Work done. Nobody questions it today, the 100,000 staff oil group is managed by a firm-handed man. “He has taken the helm. He decides, he solves problems”, observes a trade union representative. The 10th December statement made in front of the 300 first managers of Total, written by himself and spread in the group largely, has been widely cheered. “He spoke with energy and gave reassurances”, said a manager. “This day, he made a highly appreciated managerial act”. Some of his decisions aroused anger (reduction of professional travels and expenses, freeze of employment, particularly) but the ship has got a captain.
Outside Total, Patrick Pouyanné meets with success. In late November, his meeting with Vladimir Putin was heralded as a great piece of work. “When you embody the company, no choice is left to you, you just have to maintain your rank”, he reckons simply. Carefully, he prepared the meeting (as he always does), he took information about the Russian president’s tastes, then drafted a plan in a few points, which, surprisingly, met perfectly with the preliminary statement of Vladimir Putin, he reckons.
During these first weeks, Patrick Pouyanné has to tame his temper, as he is not fashionable at all and as he does not care to show his impatience when he notes that he is losing his time. The first time he met with an armada of journalists and photographs after a public intervention programmed for a long time after his appointment, he left running. “I quickly answered a question, then I escaped. That was too much”, he acknowledged . During a dinner given by Philippe Villin, a banker, in early November, where all CAC 40 presidents and famous politicians were heading, he suddenly discovered “many new friends”, he said ironically.
“The function builds the man”, he keeps repeating. “Even if you know that managing a group like Total has nothing to do with the responsibility of one of its major division, living it is a world else. You find yourself immediately under the attention of the public, you become a public man, people want to draw your portrait…!”, he sighed. Nevertheless he measured his new duties. “One of the main awareness coming from Christophe has been to make all the group managers aware that Total is not only an oil company, aiming at producing wealth and products. It’s also a big ship, impacting on environment, city’s life and this dimension must be taken into account.”
On the verge of suggesting a new governance for Total on October 21st, Thierry Desmarest came to the conclusion swiftly. “We have spoken of him with Christophe de Margerie. Taking into account his past and all his results, Patrick Pouyanné was the right high-level manager ready to take over”, said Total former CEO, who has taken over the presidency until the end of 2015. “Papou”, as it is his nickname among his followers, has got a clear and edged intelligence, out of norms, and one of his collaborators even qualifies this intelligence as “hallucinating”. He worked in ministerial cabinets, from this of Edouard Balladur then that of François Fillon, he has the easy-going feature and the network to navigate freely in France power circles. He entered the oil group in 1997 (in Elf, before the merger), he ascended all the scales at a running pace, among the royal branch of exploration-production and was expatriated several years, in Angola and Qatar.
An extremely demanding manager
His years at the head of the refinery-chemicals branch, where Christophe de Margerie appointed him in early 2012, were decisive years. “Within less than a three years’ time, he unified the branch, he settled back profitability and prepared the upcoming restructuratings. He has got a true experience to share: Inside Total, for many people, the choice of the future CEO was already decided since one year”, says an in-depth analyst of the group. Merging both refinery and petrochemicals activities, reducing costs, Patrick Pouyanné has not ceased to handle his troops to make the accounts profitable once again. “I was sure we could do better”, he insists. “You’ll see: on February 12th, we will publish excellent results for the branch!”.
In the same way, his managing of Carling vapocracking, to be closed next summer, is already heralded as the model to be followed for other capacity reductions which shall affect the refinery sector in France. “Everybody told me: it’s forbidden to touch Lorraine, he reckons. But that should be done either way. We anticipated, we play time to avoid brutal decision, we prepared the redeployment of the site, we informed the staff and the politicians….” Finally, the 210 job cuts in Carling have not been difficult to manage, even making Dunkerque refinery closure trauma already forgotten, in 2010 (before his appointment to the direction of the branch). A staff representative does not hesitate to herald his “human qualities”.
With no doubt, his “hundred days” allow Patrick Pouyanné to show his ability to manage during a difficult situation, in a thorny market context where oil price fell by 60% within a six months’ time. Now he needs to confirm his own vision about the group future on the long term. “For now, all the decisions are implementing the strategic plan defined by Christophe de Margerie”, says an attentive observer. No need to hurry. Total new strong man, aged fifty one, has all this time to print his personal brand.
But there is a question, which has regularly arisen since his appointment, and which may darken the situation: As he has reached a summit, can Patrick Pouyanné master his fiery temper? His dramatic angers are his weak point since long, as thought Christophe de Margerie. “I saw people coming out of his office crying. Many of his collaborators, exhausted, did not dare to contradict him”, says a manager, who worked with him several years ago.
Without any reluctance, Total general manager hammers and justifies his extreme requirements to his teams. Nevertheless he acknowledges that he must pay more attention to the way he speaks to people and he would reportedly have got some personal coaching sessions (he refuses to confirm this nevertheless). “My temper is blastering sometimes, too quickly”, he explains. “I know that and I pay attention.” Nevertheless several recent testimonies show that it’s difficult to reform one’s inner self. In December, in his statement to the 300 managers, he invited Total high-level directors to “say things straightforwardly”, and to be “audacious.” To the point to oppose to his disconcerting explosions of anger?