François Michelin, the Humanist Entrepreneur

Few knew that as a child he had wanted to be a meteorologist, because of his fascination with nature. He always smiled when someone asked him what beauty there could be in making tires… Of course there was beauty, as there is in all work done in generous service to others, by applying technique and a certain art, a certain craftsmanship.

He did not indulge in interviews, preferring not to have a public profile. But in this case, he felt a certain responsibility; he saw the opportunity to leave a written record of what he thought, believed and felt about the reality of work.

For starters, his work at Michelin had shaped him as a man, and as a husband, father and grandfather; as an entrepreneur and manager; and as a peer to all his workers.

He would begin by talking about his initial experience at the factory as a worker, under a pseudonym so he would go unrecognized. He wanted to get to know his grandfather’s company inside out, since he, now an orphan, was going to inherit it.

He would discuss that decisive moment, which would completely shape his view of the reality of work. In his grandfather’s office, the day of the big protest organized by the communist unions in front of the company headquarters. Piles of burning tires blocked the entrance, as they clamored for a manager to go down there and negotiate. That is what François was about to do…

—What do you see out the window, boy? —his grandfather asked before he came downstairs.

—The Communists on strike.

—Take another look…

—The workers, demanding better wages.

—Take another look.

—Monsieur X and Monsieur Y are at the door, asking to negotiate.

—Now go down and negotiate with them[1].

The anecdote had a profound impact on him: an event that would guide any analysis within his scope of managerial responsibilities.

The other major event he would likely be asked about was the now-epic decision to market radial tires, despite not having the board’s backing. “If those tires are so good, if the engineers’ tests are valid, we’ll sell fewer units and we’ll have to shut down factories…”

He remembered it vividly. A decisive moment, one that would change the fate of the company he had inherited from his family. A company that was created with a clear purpose…

“Is this innovation good for customers? Yes or no?” The answer was obvious…

“Then let’s market it.”

He could never have risked so much without being clear about what he was working for. Who was the ultimate owner of the company. Who did all the workers—starting with himself—serve. Without customers there would be no company. If any company fails to give them more value than the competition, it is destined to disappear.

The reporters were going to interview him because the result of that decision had catapulted Michelin, a French family-owned company, to the top of the tire industry worldwide. A new paradoxical proof of the power of thinking beyond short-term self-interests. That is why it was absolutely essential for them to understand the man behind the decision. The soul with a conscience behind the job title. The humanist behind the businessman.

Michelin left behind many life lessons, including these highlights:

  • Business and people are just opposing realities in the brains of dehumanized people.
  • In reality, fully understanding the beauty of a business allows us to look at the people who build it and those who it serves in all its dignity, and vice versa.
  • The idea that the priority of a business should be to serve a client fosters a human vision about all aspects of the company.
  • Being consistent with the mission (function) of a business brings an unfettered openness and creativity that prevents falling into the deification of form (short-term metrics).

[1] François Michelin, Empresa y responsabilidad. Ediciones Encuentro.