Getting stuck outside Waterloo train station isn't the best of omens en route to meeting Pierre-Yves Cros, the French-born UK chairman of Capgemini. Relations between the English and the French have been up and down over the centuries, so I was already wondering what it was to be the French man taking on the role of the voice of the customer for the UK.
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"I am here as a representative of all the customers," insists Pierre-Yves Cros. "And I'm here to make sure that companies that are not customers of Capgemini understand what we are. We are a global firm, but we are local. There is a cultural difference between the French and the British of course. It just wouldn't work if we tried to impose the French culture on the rest of the world! In fact, I say that Capgemini exists to acknowledge different cultures. We are all of us becoming experts in multi-culturalism."
I am the chef
But Cros clearly relishes his role as something of an Anglophile. "I moved here in 2000 and am married to a British woman," he says. "We live in Surrey and the kids go to school in Kent. I am a taxi driver for my children, my main job at the weekends like all other dads. I am the chef at home, my main way of relaxing at home. In fact my neighbours call me the best restaurant in town."
It's all about fitting in, he argues. "The first thing to understand about a culture is to become a part of it," he insists. "My kids are raised and educated in an English way, not a French way. When I came here, I tried to understand the British system. I like it and I think that people notice that. As a company, we try not to have people become ex-pats for a couple of years then go off back to Paris. A Capgemini employee is a citizen of the globe, someone who is able to work multi-culturally. "
But there's no mistaking that Cros is French to the core. "I am a French graduate with a classical French education," he declares. "I was an engineer first of all. It's a common thing - you become an engineering graduate at the Grande Ecole, then you do what you fancy. A lot of my contemporaries did an MBA and then went into government, but I wasn't keen to do that. I started out as a diplomat. You had to do military service - they let you finish your education then send you a letter telling you to be a tank commander. I ended up as a scientific attaché in Western Germany which was better than being a para commander in Asia.
"It was an extremely exciting time to be there, to be part of the time when mobile telephony was coming to the fore. You remember the big bricks of phones? The government said that they were only suitable for being used by truck drivers! It was only the younger guys, like me, who could see that mobile phones would work for everyone.
"The second thing I was exposed to at this time was the green movement. Germany was very much into that at the time. We learnt a lot at this time about what we now call global warming,´" he recalls. "The green issue is now something that customers have started to worry about. Europeans in particular are very focused on it. It's something I feel passionate about myself individually and Capgemini as a company. If you go into our offices in Wardour Street, there are no dustbins, everything is recycled. It's definitely something that makes a difference. That sensibility can make you closer to the customer."
Future of green IT
But will green remain such a dominant factor in the competitive landscape, or will saving the planet have to go on the back boiler while you save your companies as cynics would suggest. Cros has a little more faith. "Yes, if you are in a financial institution and you're struggling just to survive, then green will not come first in your thinking," he concedes. "But we are talking about a long-term trend here. I've been looking at green issues for the past 25 years and in all that time I've been told many times that it's all just a fad. But if so, it's a fad that always keeps coming back.
"It's something that we all of us have to address. It could be put on the back burner for the next five years, but there will be opportunities. Can you do the same thing you need to do for your company but do it with renewable energy? If it ends up being 20% more expensive then you don't. But if it doesn't, then you do. When you talk to car manufacturers, the only way out of their current problems is to put new green cars on the market. In private I am the senior adviser of a friend in Texas who has a renewable energy firm. With Obama in the White House, this will be huge again. Energy has to be generated in the western world. Now that it cannot be demonstrated that invading the Middle East is an option nor relying on Russian gas is an option, we have to find an alternative."
Alternatives were also needed when it came to the way Capgemini had been operating in the UK over recent years, a challenge which Cros faced when it came to be managing what he calls the transformation of his own company. Despite his accrued experience of working with clients on just such a process, this was somewhat different, he recalls. "It's like a doctor treating his own children," he jokes. "The emotional distance that you have with clients isn't there as much. We had a lot of post-merger challenges. We needed to embrace the outsourcing side of the business more. Another challenge was to embrace offshoring, but in a different way. It was not going to be enough to copy Infosys. We had to find a new model which is that we call RightShoring. We don't view India as a source of labour, but as a source of grey matter. This attitude has fuelled our growth as a company."
What Capgemini looks for in an employee
Cros reckons that Capgemini looks for very particular characteristics in an employee. "I fundamentally believe that it it all starts with the human being," he argues. "We are look for entrepreneurs. We give our people their own projects and their own funding. Like all good entrepreneurs, we allow people to fail. If something doesn't work fully, then it's not the end of it. It's more about how you lead and manage and innovate. It's about people's potential and spotting it and bringing it on."
Some might argue that it's a pity the wider European IT industry hasn't taken a similar tack, although Cros feels there is still much to be proud of there. "Twenty years ago there was more of a brain drain to Silicon Valley, but it's much more of a level playing field today," he says. "The growth of networking technologies means that you can connect more easily with your peers, but still be connected with your own culture. When I first started, you had to travel to meet your peers. Now there is no need to be completely expatriated from your culture.
"Yes, Europe missed the hardware wave. There's no doubt the winner there was IBM and now it's becoming China. We missed that wave because we had national champions and so we couldn't sell to the wider European market. But in software we have a huge player in SAP that has been embraced globally. We have multiple global champions in the services industry. In areas such as renewable energy and mobile telephony, we are well ahead."
Recently analysts have begun to talk of Capgemini in more favourable terms than for many years, something which pleases Cros. "The recovery of Capgemini is something that we are collectively proud of," he says. "It's certainly a good achievement. It's all been about having good people trying to do a good job."
Pierre-Yves Cros is CEO of Capgemini Consulting, the Capgemini Group's global strategy and management consulting practice. Pierre-Yves Cros was previously strategy and transformation director for Capgemini Group. Most notably in this role, Cros played an integral part in the conception and implementation of the Group's i3 Transformation project, starting with the ambition to make Capgemini an industry shaper by 2010. He joined the Group in 1988 as a corporate strategy consultant, and in 1997 was made an executive committee member of Gemini Consulting, in charge of Global Operations. Born in France, Pierre-Yves holds a Master of Science from the National Institute of Applied Science and an MBA from HEC School of Management.