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October 23, 2006 12:04 pm

Peter Lorange: The vintage years for IMD

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Many factors have mixed to make IMD one of the world’s top business schools. But the presence and personality of Peter Lorange, its long-standing president, counts more than most, writes Haig Simonian. Appointed more than 13 years ago, he played a singular role in shaping the strategy that helped IMD rise from humble origins from the merger of two modest business schools in French-speaking Switzerland to form the powerhouse it is today.

Having just announced his decision to step down in 2008, Prof Lorange’s years at the helm will go down as a vintage period. During the 63-year-old Norwegian’s three terms of office, IMD has expanded intellectually and commercially, gaining a reputation not just as one of the world’s best business schools, but also one of the most profitable. IMD’s once heavy debts are now history and its current fortunes are reflected in a seemingly constant building programme at the small site into which it is shoehorned.

Revenues at the school, based in the leafy lakeside suburb of Ouchy in Lausanne on Lake Geneva, have tripled to an estimated SFr107m for this year, while IMD’s numbers have grown progressively to 55 faculty and 250 staff.

“The school is in better shape than ever before”, he says.

Educated at the Norwegian School of Business and Economics and with further degrees from Yale and Harvard, Prof Lorange is a leading expert on strategy. His career has included a decade-long affiliation with the Wharton School, as well as the presidency of the Norwegian School of Management, which he relinquished to take over IMD.

Norway, the US and Switzerland have been his three formative influences. Culturally, Prof Lorange retains a strong attachment to his homeland, whether privately through his family, or professionally, via the small five-vessel shipping company serving the offshore energy industry that he owns. The company, he says, is well managed and can be run at a distance, allowing him to devote the bulk of his time to IMD. The US, meanwhile, has had a strong intellectual influence. Whether through his long teaching relationships with US universities, his research and consulting for American companies, or, most recently, his ambassadorial functions on behalf of IMD, Prof Lorange has retained strong contacts with the world’s leading economy and melting put for management thinking.

But it is arguably his adopted Switzerland – and specifically the idyllic small town of Pully where he has a lakeside apartment – that has been a prime influence on him and IMD.

He praises the small alpine country’s intensely decentralised political system and Switzerland’s outward-looking, strongly pragmatic approach. Both are characteristics he has tried to mimic at IMD through flat, unbureaucratic structure and diversity. He stresses the cross-cultural strengths, whether in faculty, participants or companies that are clients. He argues that, unlike more “monolithic” cultures, such as the US, a business school in a place like Switzerland leaves it unbiased and more open to ideas.

Internationalising IMD has been one of his biggest achievements. Swiss citizens comprise only 10 per cent of students. The faculty is similarly mixed. And while Swiss companies – notably Nestlé, which set up one of the two smaller schools on which IMD was based – remain important, non-Swiss groups also play a big role. Prof Lorange says retirement will give him time for other pursuits – including the off-piste skiing that is one of his passions. He also intends to use his greater freedom for more writing. But, not surprisingly, perhaps, given IMD’s recipe for success, he intends to stay based in Switzerland.

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