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In between sips of red wine, Xavier Fontanet offers some alarming thoughts on his interviewer. “The quality of your writing will probably deteriorate, you will look well but won’t be well, and there’s a chance you will die two to three years earlier than would otherwise be the case,” he says.
Luckily, it is only a minor lurch into gloomy territory in a conversation over dinner at Le Laurent, a smart restaurant just off the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement in Paris. Mr Fontanet is holding forth on a topic he knows a lot about: how to correct for faults in people’s eyesight. As the chairman and main force over the past two decades behind Essilor, the world’s biggest maker of lenses for glasses, Mr Fontanet is an expert on the emerging trend of “mass personalisation”, a concept that tailors the product to the consumer, in a more nuanced way than even the familiar “mass customisation”. It allows economies of scale in the production process but adapts the lenses to the customer’s physiology.
Mr Fontanet’s digression follows my slightly mischievous provocation that he is extolling the virtues of mass personalisation only because he wants Essilor to sell more of the advanced – and expensive – types of lenses in which it specialises. Based on the “progressive” lens type that the Paris-based company invented in 1959, such personalised products correct for both near- and far-vision defects in a way uniquely tailored to the person. They are in contrast to cheaper standard lenses that are based on individual prescriptions but where many people will share the same lens design.
Mr Fontanet offers his dire warning. “If you don’t wear the correct kind of glasses, your brain will have to work harder to correct for the problem,” he says. “Your eyes will be affected by cramps [in the muscles] and your general health could start to suffer.”
On most topics, however, the 63-year-old engineer is much less stern. He is as eager to discuss his ideas on motivating employees and stewarding companies as he is to talk about technological progress and the details of lens design. He has just published a book – about to be translated into English with the title of Why We Should Trust Global Entrepreneurs – on how companies should operate with minimal bureaucracy and be as open as possible.
Born: September 9 1948 in Malestroit, Brittany
Lycée Sainte-Geneviève and LycéeSaint-Louis-de-Gonzague, Paris; Civil engineering degree at Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris; Master of science in management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston
1974-1981 Boston Consulting Group. Consultant, before becoming vice-president
1981-1986 Chantiers Beneteau, chief operating officer
Groupe Wagons-Lits, group vice-president of food services, then executive director
1991-1995 Essilor International chief operating officer
1995-1996 Vice-chairman and chief operating officer
1996-2009 Chairman and chief executive officer
Hobbies Tennis, skiing and sailing. Mr Fontanet is also a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor
Mr Fontanet, who stepped down as chief executive at the end of 2009 and is due to quit the chairman’s job early next year, is keen to play down his own achievements at Essilor, which he joined in 1991 as chief operating officer, becoming chairman and chief executive five years ago. With sales of €3.9bn last year and 43,000 employees, the company has been a stock market star, with its shares outperforming the CAC 40 index of leading French companies by 1,000 per cent in the past 20 years. “I’m a manager, not a genius. I’ve tried to follow my principles of treating people well and creating a good atmosphere,” he says.
To this end, when he leaves the company, he has no shortage of ideas about what he wants to do. “In particular I want to write a book explaining management strategy to 20-year-olds,” he says.
Some of Mr Fontanet’s thoughts on the best ways to run organisations go back a long time. His father, Joseph Fontanet, was a prominent French politician and cabinet minister who was shot dead in mysterious circumstances at his Paris home in 1980.
At the behest of his parents, the young Mr Fontanet was sent to two top Jesuit schools in the Paris area. “I learnt three points with the Jesuits: the art of listening; the ability to work in a team; and thinking of the [leader’s job] partly as form of service to the community.”
Later, Mr Fontanet followed his father’s career advice. “He told me, ‘Don’t do politics, it’s too tough. Start with engineering, then you can do whatever you want.’”
After a civil engineering degree at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, a top engineering establishment, Mr Fontanet did a one-year management course at MIT. As is evident from the slight contretemps over my choice of lenses, Mr Fontanet enjoys a discussion and he got his first full-time job after MIT partly because of his ability to spark an argument. Turning up for an interview in Paris in 1973 with Boston Consulting Group, Mr Fontanet was surprised to find he was to be quizzed by Bruce Henderson, the legendary management expert who had started the group a decade earlier. A former Bible salesman, Mr Henderson was renowned for turning the theory of the “experience curve” into a management tool. The idea is that the time and cost of performing virtually all kinds of production and service tasks will fall the more they are repeated, while the sophistication of the finished product is likely also to rise.
Since Mr Henderson’s lunch guest had failed to turn up, he offered to take the young potential recruit out for a meal – and do the interview at the same time. The atmosphere over lunch became somewhat heated. “I told Mr Henderson that the experience curve didn’t work as well as he thought,” says Mr Fontanet. “He was infuriated – so much so that he knocked his soup off the table and it went over his sleeve! But I must have impressed him because he gave me the job.”
After spending seven years with BCG, mainly advising big European companies, Mr Fontanet went on to work for two of the group’s clients, in the boating and food industries respectively, before being approached by Essilor. “I didn’t know much about the spectacles business but I thought it would be a challenge.”
Mr Fontanet says mass personalisation was already well into the development stage at the company and his role was to make it a more entrenched part of corporate strategy. It seems to have worked. Of the 320m lenses for spectacles that Essilor made last year (about a quarter of the global total) roughly 100m were made in a “personalised” way using a complex set of procedures developed by the company’s technologists. “To make a [personalised] lens we use 100 discrete [production and service] steps,” explains Mr Fontanet. “One of our key strengths is to turn round orders [from opticians] as quickly as possible. We can do certain processes now in 30 seconds that a few years ago would have taken 20 times as long.”
Mr Fontanet cautions that mass personalisation is not suitable for every business. In cosmetics and luxury accessories, for instance, people generally want items in the same product family to be identical. “People will be offended if their Gucci bags are not the same as what others are buying.” But in other sectors – such as food and clothing – the benefits of personalising products, assuming the processes can be made economic, are a lot more obvious.
As a result, Mr Fontanet thinks the ideas of mass personalisation could go much further. “In the medical industry, there is a lot of interest in ‘personalising’ drugs to fit them to the physiology of the body. The idea of fitting products so they do precisely what people want seems likely to be an important trend over the next few years.”
As for me, Mr Fontanet is utterly unequivocal: I must waste no time in making a special trip to the opticians.