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François Michelin — The Anti-Gordon Gekko

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François Michelin (1926-2015), former leader of the the world’s second-largest tire maker, died early today at the age of 88. Michelin was actively involved in the French tire company, Group Michelin, until 2002, driving unprecedented growth for the company. His “passion for innovation” and “his uncompromising attention to quality” no doubt caused the tire company to thrive. Automotive News reported a statement from current Group Michelin CEO Jean-Dominique Senard: “On behalf of the Group’s employees, I would like to pay special tribute to this exceptional man who was universally respected for his values, his convictions, and his vision.”

“He was one of the greatest French industrialists in the postwar years,” said French President François Hollande in a statement. “He understood the importance of innovation and of long-term industrial development. By developing the radial tire, he transformed a family and regional company into one of the biggest French groups and one of its best-known.”

Author of And Why Not? Morality and Business, Michelin was a devout Catholic whose faith played a huge role in his management and leadership. In 2002, he sat down with R&L and discussed many things, including his understanding of “work:”:

This question was once put to a little girl. She answered, “To work is to build.” What does it mean to build? To give yourself a target that you want to reach. It is finding materials to build a house—or producing tires. You think that you are building a family or a company. But, in the final analysis, it is yourself that you are building. In my own personal case, I believe I am working all the time. To work for a business is to always keep its objectives in mind, to assimilate anything that can help you clarify them, and to find the means to achieve them. It is also to ask yourself why things are the way they are. When you have properly understood the reason that things are what they are, you know how to make use of them. Reasoning by analogy is a marvelous tool. Quite often, different phenomena have something in common that connects them—an underlying, primary cause that allows you to understand a lot of things. You may merely be watching someone sweep the street, and you can be struck suddenly by an idea that will allow you to improve the machines that you use to make tires.

You know, the Bible says that it is the mission of craftsmen to complete creation. Isn’t this marvelous?

In his book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, Acton President Rev. Robert Sirico described an encounter with Michelin in a passage titled, “Beyond Gordon Gekko.”

Another way to reflect on the morality of business enterprise is to look at those who are economically successful, and attempt to discern their motivation. The Michelin Company is an international corporation with successful brands in products such as tires, heavy machinery, and travel and dining guides. Francois Michelin, the wealthy patriarch of this dynasty, is in many people’s minds virtually synonymous with globalized industrial capitalism. So when people find out that I have known the man for many years, I am often asked what he is like. One encounter, I think, captures the Francois Michelin I know.

In the spring of 2000 I was travelling in Europe and Mr. Michelin asked if I would stop off at his home town of Clermont Ferrand in central France and visit the world headquarters of the Michelin Company. As I alighted from the plane I was on the lookout for a driver holding a placard with my name on it– thinking I would be chauffeured to the company’s offices. Instead, once I retrieved my bags, I was greeted by the modest Michelin in his usual simple grey suit. The seventy-seven-year-old tycoon (clearly recognized by people in the airport) reached to assist me with my suitcases. I initially declined, but after some insistence on his part, I handed him one of the lighter bags, and we walked to the parking lot, where he approached a non-descript automobile and opened the trunk. As I circled around to the passenger seat, I glanced down to see if the tires were Michelin. I did not see the signature brand markings. Once seated in the car I joked with Mr. Michelin, “I see that you are not driving on Michelin tires.”

“Mon Pére (as he usually addresses me), let me show you something.”

He pointed to a contraption that sat between the two of us in the front seat of the car. It looked something like a taxi cab meter. He began to press various buttons on the device and as he did so, the readout changed each time, jumping from the front right to the front left location, then to the back right and the back left locations. Each time different numbers would appear.

“You are correct to observe these are not Michelin tires — not yet. This is a test car, and this meter lets me know the relative stress and heat on each of the experimental tires.”

“You mean you are not yet sure these tires are secure?” I asked.

“I hope you will not worry. Our scientists have worked hard on these tires. But you would not expect me to offer tires for sale to my customers to drive their families on, if I were not willing to ride on them first.”

At the time, the headlines in the newspapers were filled with details of the controversy surrounding reports of Firestone tires on certain Ford vehicles failing. The controversy would eventually end the hundred-year-old relationship between the two companies. In light of this, I asked Michelin if his business was good.

He replied with a frown, “It is a terrible moment for those of us in the tire business, terrible.”

This was an unexpected answer, since I thought his business would have benefited from Firestone’s loss of prestige. But Mr. Michelin’s instinctual reply was to lament the crisis. He said that any time an industry fails in protecting its customers it injures trust in the whole industry–a negative outcome for everyone involved.

This snapshot of Francois Michelin does not, of course, disprove the existence of unprincipled Gordon Gekkos in the world of high finance and enterprise. But there is nothing in business or the market economy that mandates a selfish dog-eat-dog ethic.

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Sarah Stanley

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