© Charlie Bibby

When De Beers was looking for a new chief executive in 2011, the most obvious qualification that Philippe Mellier had for the job was probably “outsider”.

The world’s best-known diamond miner wanted to bring in a leader with a fresh perspective to prepare it for a new era. In Mellier — with 30 years in cars, trucks and trains behind him — the headhunters certainly found one.

The 60-year-old Frenchman, then working at French industrial group Alstom, recalls plenty of industry scepticism about whether someone with no experience of diamonds or mining could sparkle in the role. Four years later, he has gone through big changes — including De Beers’ ultimate ownership — and has embraced the mystique of the world’s most coveted gemstones.

“I always try to work with products I love,” he says. “This little bit of rock . . . becomes the biggest store of value in the world. And the name De Beers on top makes it very special.”

It is 35 years since Mellier left Insead, the French business school, and embarked on a globetrotting career: first with Ford, the carmaker; subsequently with Renault; and, immediately prior to the move to De Beers, eight years with Alstom.

At the end of all that, he points out, he could bring plenty of relevance to De Beers even without knowledge of mining. He had experience of dealing with brands and of businesses with substantial government influence (the government of Botswana is a De Beers shareholder).

Even De Beers’ sales structure — it selects clients for a series of buying opportunities known as “sights” — reminded him of car dealers, also often family-run and with long associations with a manufacturer.

“I ticked many of the boxes — I had to learn only 20 per cent. In any case, I was surrounded by the best diamond experts in the world,” he says.

As a student, Mellier’s ambition was to be a doctor but his father and grandfather, who were both engineers, pressed him to follow suit. He attended one of France’s grandes écoles specialising in engineering, yet quickly realised it was not the way he wanted to spend his career.

“I saw a lot of doors closing,” he says. “I learned how to learn, but to be an engineer was not exactly my cup of tea.” The phrase betrays his Anglophilia almost as much as his Mini-shaped cufflinks: this is Mellier’s fifth career stint in London, where two of his daughters were born.

Cutting edge: Philippe Mellier wants to recruit people who bring something beyond technical expertise — and not ‘yes-men'
Cutting edge: Philippe Mellier wants to recruit people who bring something beyond technical expertise — and not ‘yes-men' © Charlie Bibby

What changed Mellier was his stint at Insead. Unusually, he attended with no career experience. “I left my engineering school in June and in September I entered Insead at Fontainebleau,” Mellier recalls.

There, he says, he loved the greater breadth of the study, with exposure to new fields — business, finance, marketing — and fresh cultures, working with students from around the world.

“Suddenly I discovered that this is what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “You are with more mature people, you talk business, you talk finance, you talk marketing . . . you are talking and working with people who know what it is about.

“You learn very quickly how to work within a team, which is not something you really learn when you are in a French grande école. And you are in a very multicultural environment.

“I discovered what business life was all about — and at the same time what the world was all about. In 1980, to work in a multicultural environment was really new and certainly very new for me. I learnt a huge amount and when you get out of there, life looks very different.”

What does the man from the Insead class of 1980 seek in today’s young executives? The main thing, Mellier says, is “to recruit people who are going to bring something extra on top of their technical expertise. And I am not the type who tries to hire lookalikes. I don’t want yes-men.”

For those leaving Insead in 1980, Mellier says the “golden path” at the time was into consulting. Mellier was torn — the self-confessed petrolhead was also wanted by Ford. At one stage, he decided to accept the offer of a consultancy role — and went to tell the carmaker that he would decline its offer. Instead, Mellier recalls, he was told flatly by a senior Ford manager that he was being an idiot.

“I will remember all my life,” recalls Mellier, “He said, ‘how can you pretend to give advice as a consultant when you have never worked before? It is a joke. Come and learn and after that you can become a consultant when you want to.’ I thought about it for a few days and I thought that he was maybe right. So I started as a supervisor in the automotive world.”

Working at Ford marked Mellier deeply and he speaks highly of bosses such as Jac Nasser, the group’s former chief executive. “I had an outstanding working life with them,” he says fondly. “Ford is such a good school. It was my real executive education. The blue blood doesn’t go away.”

Innovating early in his career with bringing computerised sales records into Ford, he says he realised that “you can make a difference even if you are not the boss”. He was later posted to places from Mexico to New Zealand.

Mellier finally parted ways with Ford when he declined for family reasons to relocate to Detroit. His career took him into ever heavier vehicles, first trucks with Renault and Volvo, then trains with Alstom, the French industrial group. A treasured memento in Mellier’s office is a model of the Alstom-built high-speed train that hurtled through France in 2007 at a world record speed of almost 575kph. “It was unbelievable, like a missile,” recalls Mellier, who was on board.

After eight years at Alstom, all he knew about his next step was that he wanted to go to either London or New York. Then he took the call from the headhunter appointed by the Oppenheimer family, then De Beers’ owners.

De Beers in 2011 was recovering from the global financial crisis, when demand plummeted, but was having to get to grips with the longer-lasting uncertainties caused by the end of its dominant position in supplying global diamonds, following regulatory moves against the company. Then shortly after Mellier’s appointment, De Beers was taken over by Anglo American. Since 2013 Mellier has been reporting to a new boss at Anglo, Mark Cutifani.

Today Mellier’s brief ranges from the need to explore for diamonds; run mines from Canada to Botswana as efficiently as possible; maintain relations with customers; and build up De Beers’ retail venture and Forevermark consumer brand. “This is what makes this job very interesting. You go from an extremely technical job — talking about mining shovel efficiency and this type of thing — down to the market and what is selling and not selling. You do not get bored for one second,” Mellier says.

In the parts of De Beers’ business that Mellier characterises as “upstream” and “downstream”, he believes the company is well positioned — though he would love De Beers’ geologists to find a big new diamond mine.

The midstream part of the business — where De Beers sells to big jewellers as well as diamond polishers and traders — is “still too fragmented” and needs consolidation, he argues. “The trading business still has to evolve. It is going to be a long journey.”

Mellier believes he has time. “When I was hired my brief was ‘You have 10 years to prepare De Beers for the next 100 years’. It was my contract,” he recalls. “I am nearly half way through.”

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