Beffa, Jean-Louis 1941–

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Jean-Louis Beffa

Chairman and chief executive officer, Groupe Saint-Gobain

Nationality: French.

Born: August 11, 1941, in Nice, France.

Education: École Polytechnique, 1960.

Family: Son of an engineer and a teacher; married; children: three.

Career: Corps des Mines, 19671974, various positions including ingénieur des mines and ingénieur en chef des mines; Saint-Gobain, 19751977, chief operating officer; Pont-à-Mousson, 19771979, deputy manager and managing director; 19791982, chairman and managing director; Saint-Gobain, 19821986, chief operating officer; 1986, chairman and chief executive officer.

Awards: Elected manager of the year, Nouvel économiste, 1989.

Address: Les Miroirs, 18 avenue d'Alsace, 92096 La Défense Cedex, France;

Jean-Louis Beffa, CEO of the glass and building-materials giant Groupe Saint-Gobain, oversaw the company's privatization in 1986. In subsequent years he restructured the company, eliminating some 60,000 jobs while presiding over the group's diversification and expansion into international markets. Saint-Gobain grew under his direction into a group of some 1,200 different companies, and in the early 21st century it was one of the 100 largest industrial companies in the world and the world leader in building materials.

Established in 1665 as part of France's King Louis XIV's royal glassworks, Saint-Gobain manufactured the glass used in Versaille's Galerie des glaces (the Hall of Mirrors) and in 2004 was the only surviving company that had been created by Colbert, the finance minister under Louis XIV. In the early 2000s it manufactured an extensive line of building products ranging from pipes to flat glass, insulation, and glass containers. Its products were of both cultural and commercial interest. Saint-Gobain

provided the glazing for the architect I. M. Pei's pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre and produced some 30 billion glass containers a year.

Beffa's appointment as CEO of Saint-Gobain at the age of 45 made him one of the youngest people ever to attain such a high position in that country, and hence he was one of the longest-serving CEOs in France. He assumed virtually complete control over the group's activities during his tenure. Known for being meticulous and for emphasizing rational and conservative business practices, he still demonstrated complete confidence in his carefully chosen executives. As his appointed successor, Christian Streiff, said in Le Figaro, "He has a lot of authority, but he is not authoritarian" (April 7, 2003). Beffa's larger mission, as he saw it, was to protect and promote a French and European model of capitalism.


Beffa was educated at the prestigious École Polytechnique, which is administered by the Ministry of Defense and produces many of France's top CEOs. He found the military aspects of its educational system appealing, in particular the physical training provided by the staff, the ceremonial uniform the students wore, and the geographically and socially unbiased atmosphere. Both the military and scientific aspects of his training at the school strongly influenced his personal style as a CEO.

As a child, Beffa had a keen interest in history, but his growing interest in mathematics steered him toward the École Polytechnique, largely for the unique opportunities it provided to students who wished to pursue a career in business. He graduated in 1960 and continued his engineering studies at the highly prestigious Corps des Mines. There he rose to the rank of chief engineer and held a position in the Ministère de l'Industrie. Upon recommendation from the Corps des Mines, Beffa joined Saint-Gobain in 1974 at the age of 33.


Beffa's joining Saint-Gobain was an obvious and logical move. His temperament was perfectly suited to the prevailing culture at Saint-Gobain, given his love of the solid, the concrete, and the mathematically precise. He was appointed chief operating officer, which matched his fundamental skills to the task at hand: tightening budgets, making meticulous one-year assessments, and drawing up detailed three-year operational plans.

In 1977 Beffa was promoted to director and then to chairman of Pont-à-Mousson, a pipe manufacturer and a mainstay of Groupe Saint-Gobain. Acquired in 1970, the company was facing difficulties when Beffa arrived. He imposed an austerity plan, which involved cutbacks, elimination of jobs, and restructuring. His success there gave him confidence in his future as a potential director of the Saint-Gobain group.

Roger Fauroux chose him as his successor in 1982 over Alain Gomez, Jean-Marie Descarpentries, and Francis Mer. Fauroux based his decision on Beffa's reserved and prudent temperament, which seemed apt to steer the group through a difficult period of nationalization. Another quality that recommended Beffa during these trying times was his political neutrality. Beffa had a reputation for disliking conflict and refusing to engage in lengthy disputes. This made him appealing to a variety of French administrations. In 1986, as the group was being privatized, he was named CEO by the administration of Laurent Fabius and confirmed in that position later by the administration of French President Jacques Chirac.


Beffa's strategy for Saint-Gobain was completely in accordance with his character. A Catholic who regularly attended Jesuit meetings, he was something of a traditionalist who was distrustful of new industries like information technology and proud of the group's main, albeit unglamorous, businesses in the building-materials sector. In the 1980s the group made a hapless foray into computers and electronics with the acquisition of key stakes in Bull and Olivetti. Beffa, unlike his predecessor, did not regret that the government forced Saint-Gobain to backtrack and shed its assets in these areas.

Nevertheless, Beffa vigorously pursued Fauroux's diversification program while recentering the group's activities on more closely related industries. In 1996, for example, Saint-Gobain acquired Poliet, a leading building-materials distributor in France. Beffa dismissed initial criticism that he was blurring the group's focus on manufacturing while transforming it into a conglomerate. In the Financial Times he defended the decision to acquire Poliet as a point of strategy: "When you are in the specialized distribution of building materials, you know the consumer's needs. You are able to take account of these needs to prepare the new products of the future" (June 11, 1996). Acquisition of Poliet pushed Saint-Gobain to within the FRF 100 billion mark in total sales.

A salient feature of Beffa's long-term strategy was to reduce the business's cyclical nature by expanding into international markets and by promoting the Groupe Saint-Gobain as a bluechip stock to shareholders. In the early 1990s Saint-Gobain bought the North American abrasives and ceramics manufacturer Norton for FRF 11 billion; by 2004 it provided 20 percent of American households with insulation. Having consolidated a strong home and regional base in France and Europe, the group next set its sights on the emerging markets of South America, China, India, Indonesia, and Thailand.

This strategy, however, created a dilemma, which Beffa in part resolved through the acquisition of Poliet. Before this move, France accounted for only 29 percent of the group's turnover and had more employees in North America than in its home market. These figures conflicted with Beffa's vision of a French and European model of capitalism, which emphasizes less dependence on the stock markets in favor of greater fiscal autonomy and a greater accountability to society as a whole rather than exclusively to the shareholders. "If capitalism is to be acceptable, then so must its behavior," Beffa asserted in L'Express (October 10, 2002).

Beffa, however, was not without troubles of his own. In 1994 he was placed under investigation during the Trager affair. The scandal involved allegations that Pont-à-Mousson had paid an improper commission to the French Republican Party in connection with a public contract for a water supply system. Ironically, the incident resulted in Beffa's being uncer emoniously passed over in favor of Jean-Marie Messier as head of the state-owned Compagnie Générale des Eaux, later Vivendi-Universal.

The Trager affair was soon forgotten, and Beffa worked to secure his vision of French capitalism as he neared retirement in 2007. This vision was reflected by his choice of successor, the ferociously competitive and highly principled Christian Streiff. Streiff had spent most of his career in Germany and was 100 percent Saint-Gobain, making him the ideal representative of the European model of capitalism that Beffa devoted his career to promulgating and defending.

sources for further information

Beffa, Jean-Louis, "Comment réformer le capitalisme, conservons notre identité européenne," L'Express, October 10, 2002.

Owen, David, "Companies and Finance: Europe. How to Diversify without Becoming a Conglomerate: Saint-Gobain's Takeover of Poliet Has Not Blurred Its Focus, Chairman Jean-Louis Beffa Tells David Owen," Financial Times, June 11, 1996.

Rovan, Ann, "Jean-Louis Beffa: 'J'imagine toujours le pire,'" Le Figaro, April 7, 2003.

John Herrick