strategy and business

The thought leader interview: Jean-Dominique Senard

It is odd, perhaps, that Jean-Dominique Senard is not already a household name among global business leaders. But that is beginning to change this year. On May 17, Senard, who is 66, retired from a role he has held for seven years, as chief executive of Compagnie Générale des Établissements Michelin. In January, he was elected chair of Renault; in March, he became board chair of the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi alliance, the industry leader in auto sales (and a top producer of electronic vehicles). The alliance has been in visible turmoil since its former chair and CEO, Carlos Ghosn, was arrested in Japan in November 2018, on charges related to appropriation of funds. Senard’s first months involved efforts at reconciliation and a proposed (but unaccepted) merger with Fiat Chrysler.

Senard’s accomplishments at Michelin include a doubling of shareholder value during his tenure. This was an especially noteworthy feat for a 130-year-old premium tire company — the world’s second-largest by revenue, after Bridgestone — in a highly competitive, discount-oriented business. Senard also led the company through a digital transformation, fueled by a series of shrewd acquisitions, establishing it as a proficient innovator in materials, tire design, and analytics. For example, Michelin uncorked a new revenue stream from advanced technology for trucking and logistics, using cloud-based networks of sensors to monitor vehicle performance, shipment locations, and transport conditions around the world.

While Senard settles into his new role at Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi, his other signature issue — a high-minded, passionately held perspective on the purpose of corporations — is being tested in a separate context. In April 2019, the French parliament approved a corporate governance framework called PACTE (Plan d’action pour la croissance et la transformation des entreprises). This framework was partly inspired by a report coauthored in early 2018 by Senard and Nicole Notat, the president of Vigeo Eiris, a French not-for-profit agency that rates corporate practices on nonfinancial measures. The report focused on the role of corporations in relation to the common good, encouraging them to take on social and environmental responsibilities alongside their commitments to profits and shareholder returns.

Senard recognizes that if his approach to corporate governance catches on more broadly, it could change. Responsible capitalism, as he sees it, is a necessary remedy for the kind of corporate overreach that has led to nationalist, populist, and anti-globalist movements. Without a more earnest effort by major companies and investors to broaden prosperity and quality of life, Senard warns, there will be more backlash against free enterprise, more authoritarian governments, more arbitrary regulation of companies and markets, and more stringent restrictions on free trade.

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