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Europe

French business culture meets German ingenuity

For a decade, German businessman Frank Esser headed French mobile phone company SFR. After his tenure, his staff is now familiar with German ingenuity - and Esser knows what it's like to deal with French regulation.

A career counselor would have likely told Frank Esser that he didn't stand a chance. To succeed as the head of France's second-largest mobile phone company SFR, without even speaking a word of French? A fairly absurd idea - and yet, Esser managed this feat, despite it not even being his idea in the first place.

Esser was recruited by former Vivendi CEO Jean-Marie Messier, who was looking for a new manager for his mobile subsidiary. The offer came at a good time for the former Mannesmann manager, who needed a change of scenery after losing a takeover battle with Vodafone. In 2000, Esser - along with his wife and two children - decided to take the plunge and trade the banks of the Rhine for the Seine.

SFR LOGO

Esser joined SFR with less than fluent French skills

Fellow managers thought Esser, now 54, wouldn't survive more than a few months at his new job, but they thoroughly misjudged him. That's not to stay it was smooth sailing from the start, despite his doctorate in economics.

"The biggest surprise for me was how difficult it was to learn a new language, despite living in the country," says Esser, who devoted two evenings a week and part of the weekend to his language study.

Esser says the first time he spoke to his staff in French he was forced to read his remarks from cue cards. But after each presentation, his employees would always come up to their manager and congratulate him on his progress. "It was important to speak French, but more important that I made an effort," he says.

New language, new culture

A new Language wasn't the only thing Esser, a reserved and unassuming Rheinlander from the city of Erkelenz, had to adjust to. There was also a completely new business culture.

"In Germany, efficiency and keeping focus are key criteria. Once a decision has been made, all that's left is to carry it out," he says. "In France, on the other hand, values such as creativity and flexibility are rated much higher." This approach could end up leading to problems, as decisions were made and not implemented in the hopes that an even better solution would come along.

Esser came up with action plans for his Paris team, along with other German business traditions. "Team-based management has been very important to me," he says. "Not having someone at the top, who knows everything and makes all the decisions, but instead works in a team."

As the head of one of France's most well-known companies, Esser was soon granted access to the country's most important social circles, even joining the elite Le Siècle social club after only three years.

At the time, he was often asked to speak about then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's controversial reform program (Agenda 2010), particularly the plans for the business reforms about which "the French were envious." The French answer to Schröder's plan has yet to make an appearance, though the media continues to speculate about whether President Francois Hollande will dare to make a similar leap and implement his own reforms.

'Laws that make life difficult'

It's this French political culture which has probably given Esser the most trouble. Even the basics are different from Germany, with the French state seeing itself as the protector of its citizens.

"This is evident from the consumer protection organizations, but also in other areas," says Esser. "The German state provides guidelines, but in France the state spells out everything down to the smallest detail." After 10 years at the head of SFR, it was this French tradition that ultimately cost Esser his job last March.

A year ago, a new mobile provider, Free - supported by France's benevolent regulations - was preparing to dominate the French market with predatory pricing, and the SFR board and Esser had different ideas of how they should respond to the threat. They parted by mutual agreement.

London Innenstadt Big Ben

Could the next stop for the German businessman be London?

At the moment it's still unclear whether Esser's next job will also be in France. "I'm enjoying my time in France, but I've always felt more like a European, as a German in France. For me, this is the future - to be able to work as a European in Germany, England, France, etc., but still be German," he says.

It's quite possible that he could land in England for his next job. But wherever it is, Esser wants to be working in a dynamic sector - perhaps for an Internet business. After many years in Paris, his children have decided to return to Germany, at least for the time being. They have enrolled at Cologne University - back to their roots, to where their father was a student.

A country with potential

Unlike many of the alarming articles in the media, Esser doesn't believe his adopted country is headed for a financial crash. With its excellent infrastructure, an overall good education system and motivated people, he can only rave about France.

However, Esser doesn't gloss over the shortfalls: "I have concerns about the lack of enthusiasm for reform in labor and other areas, which are not addressed but simply postponed," he says.

On the other hand, Esser also points out how the country is changing. The education sector is trying to introduce a dual system in vocational schools and businesses, following the German model, and the need to catch up in the small and medium-sized business sector has been recognized.