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Mardis de l'ESSEC Report: Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total

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In January Les Mardis de l’ESSEC Debating Society welcomed Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total, who ably defended his controversial company.

The second most powerful CEO of the CAC 40 - behind Bernard Arnault of LVMH – portrays himself as a strong man who had to "get the job done" after the sudden death of Christophe de Margerie in 2014. LVMH may have recorded the biggest market capitalization in 2017, but Patrick Pouyanné wants to "beat them next year". The tone is set.

"In life, you have to rely on your strengths rather than try to correct your weaknesses"

Patrick Pouyanné draws his strengths first of all from his near-perfect track record: X-Mines, a ministerial staff position, and a CAC 40 company. Aware of belonging to an elite, he is nonetheless critical of the French education system: he considers the selection of talented people purely according to their academic skills, such as their ability in mathematics, outdated. He even claims not to know the universities his employees went to. Total, seat of a true meritocracy? Perhaps. Patrick Pouyanné insists that the key is to constantly strive to do better, not take things for granted and rise to every possible challenge "if you want to remain the best".

Which is why Total is now meeting the problem of energy transition head on and positioning itself as a leader in responsible energy. Patrick Pouyanné is aware that most of the necessary changes still lie ahead and that the road will be long and difficult, but applauds the “well-drafted” Paris Agreement on climate change. In so doing, he raises the question of the geopolitical role of a company such as Total, whose turnover exceeds the GDP of many countries.

"It’s not a question of making geopolitical choices"

Patrick Pouyanné is well aware that oil is no ordinary product; its exploitation is often a matter of state sovereignty. He meets with the top dignitaries of the countries he deals with, appearing alongside them in the media. "It’s the most fun part of the job of CEO", he comments - while asserting that his job does not consist of "engaging in diplomacy". Total is considered worldwide as the top French company, but the relationship the group has with states are first and foremost commercial: they are customers just like any others, who deserve the best service possible.

Patrick Pouyanné gives two reasons for his choice of neutrality. Firstly, he needs to show loyalty to his customers - and thus avoid debatable geopolitical choices. But he goes further: the political landscape "is shifting”, he says, whereas Total stays on course. By way of illustration the CEO recalls the origins of the company, founded in 1924 to manage the hydrocarbon deposits France had obtained under the Treaty of Versailles. The political context has changed since then, but Total is still there. And Patrick Pouyanné seems to have the necessary grip to steer the ship for a long time to come.

 

An interview by Bastien Privat (student)

 

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