French auto CEOs bring age of enlightenment

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TOKYO - Top executives at General Motors made an important discovery. To get U.S. car sales moving after Sept. 11, GM offered 0 percent financing on its cars and trucks.

"We had a lot of incentives out there that had been confusing the customer, confusing the dealer and, truth be told, confusing us," said GM Chairman Jack Smith during an appearance here. "We now see the power of keeping things simple."

American car bosses usually aren't good at that. But neither are most German and Japanese chief executives. CEOs who keep the message - whatever it is - direct and unvaried are remarkably powerful. Clarity is the key to top-down communications, and the best articulators in the auto world now are the French.

You come away from any conversation with a French CEO feeling that you know a lot about the company and its objectives. Maybe it's because the French don't use jargon when speaking other languages. More likely it's because in any language, they speak more precisely and more eloquently than their counterparts.

The three French auto bosses in the world today - Louis Schweitzer of Renault SA, Jean-Martin Folz of PSA/Peugeot-Citroen SA and Carlos Ghosn of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. - all come from an intellectual tradition. They know how to frame an argument and how to persuade.

They reduce the complexity of the car business to pure logic - not with cliches but with accurate thinking and fresh imagery. At the Tokyo International Automotive Conference, Ghosn was asked why he is successful. One reason, he said, was because he had worked for a supplier (Michelin) before joining a carmaker (Renault) - the opposite of the usual path in Japan.

"A car company has a living room and a kitchen. When you are a supplier you come in through the kitchen," said Ghosn, apparently off-the-cuff. "You see the inconsistencies and the triple agendas. The key is to get rid of these rather than find something remarkable in the way of organization."

American, German and Japanese execs never express themselves so well. They tend to use the same idiom when talking publicly that they use in internal strategy sessions.

The French have a strong tendency toward logic, lucidity and mathematic exactness. Ghosn has exposed the motives of a foundering Nissan with pitiless clarity and a mixture of sympathy and cynicism. It is like Jean Paul Sartre plunging into a study of the absurdities of human behavior.

Louis Schweitzer used the same kind of refined thinking to revive Renault - a sophisticated yet common-sense touch that may have owed something to his great uncle, Albert Schweitzer. His strategy may not be as important as the fact that he communicates it so well - to everyone from senior executives to shop-floor Communists.

By the way, Swiss-American Robert Lutz brings some of the European intellectual tradition to the American auto industry.

PSA's Folz does not head ACEA, the European automakers' association. But he seems to have become the industry's main spokesman on block exemption. Is it a coincidence that the debate is beginning to turn the industry's way?

I once criticized French carmakers for taking their leaders from a small clique of elitists who trained at the most exclusive schools and began their careers in high government posts.

Maybe I was wrong. The fluency and directness of these men help them get clear messages across every day. They function like philosopher-kings, leading their companies with powerful ideas.

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