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France's Top Female CEO Becomes a Stranded Asset

Lionel Laurent

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Wanted: Knowledgeable and experienced CEO, preferably female, to take over the running of a $42 billion utility from a knowledgeable and experienced CEO, also female. No strategic shift necessary  — the last CEO got things broadly right. Close ties with Emmanuel Macron a plus.

That may well be the kind of job ad France’s Engie SA has in mind as it begins the search for a candidate to replace Isabelle Kocher, the only female chief executive officer in the CAC 40 blue-chip index. Her firing, barely four years into the job, says a lot about the consequences of trying to turn a fossil fuel-dependent energy utility into a greener, pro-renewables ally of sustainable, inclusive capitalism. Kocher’s strategy was broadly on target, but she ended up paying the price for the political, governance and financial problems that ensued. It’s a warning for her successor, and the industry.

The seeds of Kocher’s downfall were probably sown early in her tenure. Her appointment in 2016 was a landmark for several reasons: She was the first woman to run a CAC 40 company; she was pledging to sell 15 billion euros ($16.5 billion) of Engie assets and to exit coal and oil; and she was the first serious counterweight to the power of Gerard Mestrallet, who after more than two decades in Engie’s driving seat became chairman. Thus began a series of struggles between the two over strategy, management and style that never really subsided. (Mestrallet was replaced as chairman by Jean-Pierre Clamadieu in 2018, but the latter’s relationship with Kocher deteriorated too).

It’s always hard to make friends inside a company as you set about shrinking it. But Kocher’s revolution seems to have made enemies everywhere. Resentment built up among top managers, and she reacted by wielding the ax. Mestrallet, meanwhile, despite having groomed the CEO for the role, was reluctant to give her breathing space. In a clear example of “one rule for the boys,” she failed in her bid to take a joint chairman and CEO role — a position Mestrallet enjoyed for years. While Kocher’s style sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, Mestrallet’s sprawling Engie empire wasn’t easy to revamp. 

On the financial front, analysts endorsed Kocher’s plan to push deeper into renewables and services, reducing the risk of being lumbered with “stranded” fossil fuel assets. But the trade-offs of this kind of approach can be brutal in the short term. They mean selling unloved assets that still generate lots of cash, and buying pricey assets that don’t. Engie’s cash flow from operations has fallen from 9.8 billion euros in 2015 to 7.3 billion euros in 2018; Ebitda has fallen from 11.3 billion euros to 9.2 billion euros. Its shares have performed worse than its peers.

Yet brighter days might not have been far off for Kocher and the company. Analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg suggest that Engie increased revenue and operating profit in 2019, and that its shares are about 7% below their 12-month potential. Engie’s board is reportedly mulling a spin-off of its regulated gas assets, which could bring in about 10 billion euros at market prices, according to UBS analysts.

Unfortunately, nobody was prepared to wait and see. Politics proved to be the final decider on Kocher: The French state owns 24% of Engie, and the rift at the top was starting to make things awkward for President Emmanuel Macron. The government’s Engie stake has been marked for sale as a potential source of renewable energy funding; selling at an underwhelming price would be bad for taxpayers. Worse, Kocher’s allies in Paris — including Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo and several pro-environment politicians — launched a very public lobbying campaign to keep her in the job, which probably ended up hastening her demise.

Before making the final decision to oust Kocher, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire declared earlier this week that the state would use only “economic criteria” when settling her fate. That’s hard to believe, given that the clashes were mostly about personality and governance — and whoever replaces her will probably stick to the same strategy. Nevertheless, Kocher’s case does show the difficulty of mixing shareholder capitalism and the pursuit of purposeful profit.

To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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