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As a youth in rural France in the 1970s, Jean-Pascal Tricoire never ventured more than 20km from home — “basically, where my motorcycle could go”. Since then an obsession with “going beyond the 20km” has helped take him and Schneider Electric, the energy management company he heads, to every corner of the globe.
“I come from the deep countryside,” he says. “My family was in farming. I was not really exposed to business. Coming from that environment, I just wanted in my life to go overseas — that was a childhood dream because I wanted diversity, contacts, cultural meetings with others.”
In his 28-year career with Schneider, which has included positions in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, Tricoire has always sought to widen his horizons. He led the company’s operations in China in the early 1990s as the country opened itself to the world, was based in South Africa a decade ago and in 2011 became the first chief executive of a CAC 40 company to move out of France when he relocated to Hong Kong.
The laid-back 51-year-old does not conform to the stereotype of a French business leader. His route to the top did not start on one of the grandes école courses, the traditional programmes of the country’s elite. Indeed, he jokingly says he is “not very educated — it’s a sad reality”. Nor is he fond of hobnobbing with establishment figures, or spending too long at his desk. “I don’t believe very much in corporate offices. I believe in leaders who are with their customers and their people,” he says.
After engineering school in Angers, Tricoire says maybe he “could have tried” for a grande école programme. “But I was not the most studious — probably at that time in my life I didn’t have the focus to do those things,” he says. Nevertheless, he decided to do an MBA at what is now EMLyon, and the move brought about an “inner revolution”.
“That was an awakening — an awakening to what is a company, what is business. I took an international course, which for me was like the other side of the moon. And the guys: some people were doctors, some lawyers, some of us were engineers, some Chinese, African, so we were all taking a different approach.”
The course broadened Tricoire’s view “on the world, on companies, on the softer elements that are the most important in companies — like leadership, teamwork, emotional intelligence”. But he insists his experiences “in the field” were “more educational and more shaping than any formal educational background”.
Even in his free time, Tricoire likes to travel with his family to countries where Schneider is active — although he gave up backpacking, a long-time passion along with white-water kayaking, several years ago.
“When you go for business you just see the airport, the offices, cities,” he says. “You never see what 80 per cent of the population does in a country, so if you want to understand what Indonesia is made of, or the depths of China or India, you have to go and see.”
Tricoire believes companies and business schools should be more open to what he calls “alternative” applicants. “When I see people with an interesting gap year, if they can explain it, if they can justify it, if they can show what they’ve learnt from it, it’s sometimes more profitable or more intelligent than having been through a traditional, continuous race from high school to the end of university,” he says.
Tricoire also sees a disconnect between business and the world of schools and universities, particularly in his native country. “One of the curses in France is lack of contact between the life of companies and education,” he says. He would prefer to see a German-style embrace of apprenticeships. “All countries should learn from that,” he says.
He says Schneider, which is one of Europe’s largest engineering groups, aims to make energy safer, more reliable, more efficient and greener for its customers. The company’s systems range from smart homes and smart buildings (in which, for example, electricity-sapping devices automatically shut down when not in use) to transport management systems that minimise the time vehicles spend in congested parts of road networks, to larger projects such as airports and oil refineries.
A shortage of applicants with the right skills for its rapidly evolving suite of energy “solutions” means Schneider has set up its own school in Grenoble, in south-east France. “We didn’t always find the right courses, so we have specific courses [tailored] to the new business that Schneider is inventing — all of those things that are new technologies, and people have not been trained for,” Tricoire says. However, he adds that it is Schneider’s customers, rather than the company itself, that tend to hire those coming out of the school.
The company has long had a culture of promoting people through its ranks, but a string of acquisitions under Tricoire’s leadership, including the £3.4bn takeover of British engineering group Invensys completed last year, has added to the talent pool.
“People say: ‘You don’t recruit enough.’ I say: ‘I don’t recruit? We make acquisitions,’” he says. The people from those acquisitions are taking responsibility at the highest level in the company and bring a different culture, a different approach, a different knowhow.”
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Schneider’s future is tied to the battle against climate change. Tricoire says that with energy consumption set to double by 2050, and the need to halve greenhouse gas emissions over the same period, the world needs to improve by a factor of four its carbon intensity (a measure of how efficiently polluting fuels are used). He insists the easiest and most effective way to do this is to reduce consumption — “the low-hanging fruit is energy efficiency . . . everywhere”.
When Tricoire became chief executive in 2006, Schneider’s revenues were a third of their current level and the company’s focus was still transatlantic. The opportunities offered by Asia’s rapid industrialisation, economic growth and mass migration from the countryside to cities were obvious.
“The core [growth] of urbanisation, of manufacturing, of the population and therefore of digitisation was not happening where we were at that time,” Tricoire says, so he drove Schneider, “with a great sense of urgency”, to develop its presence in the new economies.
Tricoire moved to Hong Kong along with several members of his management team. “We had an obvious miss in Asia,” he says. “You can tell your team, ‘go to Asia’, but if you’re not there, people don’t go — so I moved there and they followed.”
He explains the urgency: by 2025, he says, almost two-thirds of the world’s cities with populations of more than 1m will be in Asia and Africa, and a third of them will be in China alone. Cities, he continues, account for 80 per cent of the world’s emissions. “The battle for the environment will be won or lost in the cities, and we are going to build as many cities in the next 40 years as we have since the beginning of history.”
With China now Schneider’s second-biggest market, is Tricoire worried by its slowdown, which a growing number of economists believe is going to be much sharper than expected? “I’m not concerned by China in the mid term,” he says. “What China is doing at the moment is the right thing. It might be a bit bumpier in the coming quarters, but China has been here for 5,000 years and Schneider has been here for 180 years, so we can go through some bumps.”
As global emissions continue to rise steeply, particularly in China, can localised gains in energy efficiency really help avert the prospect of catastrophic climate change?
“The capacity of human beings to go to catastrophe is limitless,” says Tricoire. “But the biggest, cheapest, easiest potential that everybody agrees on is on energy efficiency. I’m a lazy guy in life: let’s do the easy thing — and the cheap thing.”
1985 Electrical engineering degree, Ecole Supérieure d’Electronique de l’Ouest, Angers
1985–86 Positions at Alcatel, Schlumberger and St Gobain
1986 MBA, EMLyon
1986 Joins Merlin Gerin (now Schneider Electric)
1988–99 Schneider Electric positions in Italy, China and South Africa
1999–2001 Head of global strategic accounts and of Schneider 2000+ programme to promote growth and reduce costs
2002–03 Executive vice-president of Schneider’s international division
2003–06 Chief operating officer
2006 Appointed chairman and chief executive
2011 Relocates to Hong Kong