HEC Paris dean Peter Todd on his plans for the business school

The Canadian says the institution must compete with the best in the world

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When Peter Todd accepted the role of dean at HEC Paris, he was aware that he would have a difficult and unusual act to follow.

The 57-year-old Canadian, the first non-French head at HEC, took over in September last year from Bernard Ramanantsoa, who had ample time to shape a powerful legacy at the business school. Prof Ramanantsoa had been in the job for 20 years before retiring last summer, a lengthy tenure even for a business school dean.

The institution that Prof Ramanantsoa left was much more internationally focused than the one he inherited, having distanced itself from its local business backers and greatly expanded its student intake.

The transformation is most obvious in the faces of the students around the campus today, who come from almost 100 countries. Barely a third of the teaching staff were born in France, a reversal of the situation when Prof Ramanantsoa took charge.

Given the depth of the changes his predecessor made, it is understandable that Prof Todd might take some time to work out what he can do to make his mark. His first few months were “more about listening than action”, he says. “We work on academic time.”

From the calm comfort of Prof Todd’s large office, it is easy to grasp how time could run more slowly at HEC’s semi-rural 340 acre campus.

Given that HEC already enjoys the number two position in the FT’s rankings of European business schools, behind London Business School, it is hard to see how it could make a significant difference compared with his continental rivals. Instead Prof Todd looks further afield for his points of reference.

The goal, he suggests, is to raise HEC to match the best business schools in the world. “I want to do more and I want to leave the place in a better position,” he says.

“If we’re really successful, I want to be in that conversation with Harvard, that conversation with Wharton, Chicago Booth, with London Business School and Insead, with the great schools of the world.”

Prof Todd arrived at a critical moment for HEC as it launched a partnership with Université Paris-Saclay, a new state-owned university created using resources from French grandes écoles, research organisations and the Systematic Paris-Region technology start-up cluster. “We can build on this fantastic foundation with top quality researchers, top quality students, a network of some 50,000 alumni around the world today,” he says.

“I am in a place that is certainly of France, but it is of the world and it is international in really important ways and a school that because of its history with the Chambre de Commerce in Paris [which founded HEC] is also well-connected to the business community,” he says. The school has more than 40 corporate partners associated with it that help build novel programmes, sector-specific certificates and opportunities for students, he adds.

One of the first fruits Prof Todd hopes to produce, in partnership with Paris-Saclay and École Polytechnique, the leading French engineering grande école, is a €60m venture capital fund to support start-ups coming out of these institutions.

Entrepreneurship has been the buzzword among business school deans for the past decade. Paris has struggled to match other European cities in its development of an entrepreneurial cluster. However, 11 of the French capital’s most successful tech start-ups were founded by HEC alumni, Prof Todd notes.

The “great opportunity” is to blend the teaching on HEC’s entrepreneurship programmes with the engineering and science expertise being generated by Université Paris-Saclay, Prof Todd says.

Online teaching is another area for expansion, although it could also be seen as a threat by campus-based business schools such as HEC. As an expert in information systems, Prof Todd is no technophobe and sees a chance for HEC to lead the debate on where the digital world will take us.

“Everybody’s thinking about disruption,” he says. “We have scholars in information systems, in operations management, in strategy, who do work in innovation and we want to build out our capacity in that.”

The day of our interview, HEC is hosting a conference on the implications of big data, attracting an audience of about 600 academics. Prof Todd says the school is also holding similar events focused on finance, for example one on high-frequency trading, in partnership with Financial Technologies, an Indian-based financial services company.

Such initiatives began while Prof Todd was still emloyed in his previous role as dean of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal.

Although he says he is still developing his strategy for HEC, early on he had to react to the terrible events of November 13 last year, when a series of terrorist attacks on the Paris streets left 130 people dead.

The violence had a personal impact at HEC, which lost a student in the mass shooting.

“We all went through a very difficult week,” he says.

“What was amazing for me was the way a community of people here at the school came together, a community of alumni as well [as] . . . the community of partners around the world. I had messages from dozens and dozens of schools around the world.”

At moments like these, the rush to achieve legacies seems somewhat less important.

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