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← 10. Chapter 10 : Interlude
12. Chapter 12 : being my own boss and owner of a large number of companies →

11. Chapter 11: How to develop knowledge and experience for my future career

old bob%s's Photo   old bob, 21 Nov 2011

My memories bring me back to the guy I was in 1964: a young wolf, trying to impose myself in an environment with which I was not familiar. I really wanted to make a career and affirm myself. I had to fight on two fronts, to be accepted in Lausanne and to convince my parents that I had married a person 'worthy' to be my wife.

My parents did not appreciate her for two reasons: her religion and her background. Not only was my wife not Jewish, but her family was Catholic of strict obedience, living in an area where Catholicism was an official religion. Her social background, as a daughter of a family of workers and peasants, was even worse.

All parents are the same: their true joy is the arrival of grandchildren. The birth of three boys, ensuring continuity of the name, was a primary reason for their change of attitude. At the birth of Catherine, my father discovered his qualities as Grandpa, and fell in admiration of his granddaughter. I had no more problems with him.

We had become used to spend our vacation in the mountains, in Vercorin, a small village overlooking the Rhone valley, which we had discovered when I worked in Chippis. It was the beginning of a tourist boom. Real estate brokers and bankers in the area were in search of customers likely to buy land and build holiday cottages. Offers of generous financing and of land in a good position were not lacking. That's how we became owner of a small cottage that was for a long time the
delight of our kids. For many years, we spent holidays and weekends there, until I had to sell it for reasons I will talk about later.

I divided my time between my activities for the USNC and the continuation of my 'development strategy' that I mentioned in the previous chapter.

Within the framework of the JCES I became an 'official’ of the Junior Chamber International, responsible for its development in Northern Europe. I could thus meet many executives in Germany and could even participate in a conference in Helsinki, Finland. I went first by car, alone with my wife, driving through Germany, Denmark and Sweden, taking the opportunity to take a vacation. We were in June, the month of mosquitoes (!) and I still remember, fighting against these critters
in the camp sites where we spent the night.

My abilities as a teacher and facilitator of courses in the fields of management and leadership development were often utilized. I was able to give seminars at the request of employers' organizations with some success, due to the fact that instead of giving lectures, I asked them questions. Above all, I managed in this way to bring the participants themselves to be actively involved, so that they had the impression of being their own teachers.

The director of a technical high school, training technicians and engineers, hired me to teach a course to final year students on entrepreneurship and management. We were at the beginning of computing and the school had an IBM 1130 computer that filled, by itself, a whole classroom. Role games on the topic of my course existed in the literature and I was the first in the school to create with the help of students, software to play these games on the computer. Everyone was enthusiastic, as well as the students as the director, and I had full freedom to organize and to conduct my course.

After spending with my students long hours at the computer, we were all tired, and I allowed myself to innovate. Instead of staying in the classroom, I led the students in a bistro near the school and I continued my course after paying for a drink for every student The discussions were much more free and that freedom of expression resulted in the participation of all. The director, at first a bit surprised, finally approved the way I did it, but I had to deal with the jealousy of other teachers.

Several years later, I met some former students (I had even hired one or the other in my companies) who told me how they had good memories of my teaching.

The activity of the technical service of the UNSC, which I directed, was oriented more towards the construction of fuel depots. We had a lot to do and I had to hire staff specialists in this field. I had thus more freedom to take care of the development of my own business. I came to an agreement with officials of the USNC. I was allowed to prospect new customers outside of the members, provided that the fees received for my work were paid to the USNC.

I did not have to look far. Through my activity with the USNC, I had become friendly with the secretary of our international association, who was also the contact in Switzerland of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, a forum of countries committed to market economy. Its aim was to seek answers to common problems and co-ordinate policies of its members. To achieve its objectives, the OECD had the habit of sending experts in the field for missions of information or advice.

Thanks to the intervention of my friend, I was lucky to be designated as technical expert for a mission in Slovenia, then a member state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a country dominated by the Communists. Yugoslavia had the particularity to maintain for most of the Cold War a policy of neutrality. Slovenia enjoyed the same rights as a state of the USA, therefore some degree of independence. It had requested the assistance of the OECD to obtain external funding to
support the development of its industry. My mission was to analyze the situation of this industry, to seek every opportunity to improve profitability and cost effectiveness and thus see how the granting of these loans was justified.

A peculiarity of the political system was that each plant was owned by the community of workers and employees who worked there, the former owners having been forced by the Communists to surrender their rights to workers. Managers (from the manager to the supervisors) were elected by the community. I thought that with this system, the political opinion of the candidates would be decisive for their election. On the contrary ! The workers were concerned about the survival of their plant. In a small factory near the border with Italy, the former owner and founder of the company, was immediately elected as Manager and still was when I visited the factory.

I was received everywhere as a prince. I made many friends, despite the language barrier, because most Slovenes spoke only their own language. Prior to my studies, I had done an apprenticeship as a mechanic, and so they soon regarded me as one of their own. I was made to feel  'at home' everywhere and I learned to know the Slibowiz, a Yugoslav plum brandy, of which I brought back a few bottles on my return. In my expert report, I could present a positive opinion on the items
requested and a number of rationalization proposals. However, I feel that all these elements were lost in the bureaucracy inherent in all international organizations of this kind.

As I said in Chapter 9, the conference themes I addressed at a national conference JCES (problems of implementation of industrial areas and electrical energy supply) had put me in contact with the Office of Spatial Planning of the canton. This office was responsible for establishing an inventory of industrial companies in the canton and to draw up long-term forecasts on the development projects of these companies. The task was to determine future needs and to recognize the problems of implementation of new industrial areas.

So I got a mandate to make a survey of all industries in the Canton so they could respond through my report to the questions asked by the Office. The Association of industrialists of the canton asked me to present the findings of this report, which I was able to do at a general meeting of that association. Not only was my report was very well accepted, but, more importantly I was able to make the acquaintance of many important Chief Executives, which was later the opportunity of new mandates.

1964 was an important year for Lausanne, the year of the Expo. The Swiss National Exhibitions are held every twenty-five years. They are the "mirror" of the Swiss Society at a given time. In 1964 in Lausanne, the "Expo 64" was more focussed on the future. In times of Cold War, national defense was once again highlighted as embodied in a house shaped hedgehog. Another symbol of this exhibition was the 'Gulliver project' : a computer expected to provide the results of a survey conducted among visitors; asking them their opinions on political concerns.

A team of engineers and architects had as early as 1959 started preparing for the Expo. The location at the lake was going be completely modified and arranged so that it could be used after the Expo for the development of the city. This team included many of my friends, members of the SIA, who would later, in 1968, allow me, through new mandates, to take a significant role in the development of reclaimed land after the closure of the Expo.

I still remember the many visits to the Expo, with my family, Nicolas in strollers and the three other children running in all directions to admire the pavilions and gardens. As for me, I was particularly interested in the 'Gulliver project'. It was the first time I saw a computer in action. It was an IBM System/360, fed with punch cards, far too complicated for me to understand its functioning. I anticipated all the importance of such a machine for my future activities. We were at the beginning of
business computing and I began to follow its development, waiting to have the means of acquiring a computer suitable for my needs.

The previous section is very dry. I’m wondering if you can slip in some little personal anecdotes or experiences or something to break it up a bit

The period from 1964 to 1968 was a very pleasant one. I was passionate about my job, I had reached a balance between my work at the USNC which has become almost routine, and the new mandates, of the opening of my own company. But above all I had enough free time for my family and my children occupied an important place in my life.

I always regretted being an only son. A few years after my birth, my parents decided to have no more children. They were afraid of the anti-Semitism that was developing around under the influence of Nazi Germany. I never understood their reaction and I always wanted to have more children. The joy of watching them grow largely compensated for the worry of their education.

In 1967, Philip was 15, Gilles 11, Catherin 9 and Nicolas 3 years old. Each child had their own character and we tried to adapt our approach to each child to enable all of them to flourish. We attached importance to their independence and to the fact that they felt responsible for their actions. This meant that we gave them great freedom. In our mind, they had to be able to make their own life experiences and then to be able to bear the consequences. The fact that both Yvette and I had
experienced from our respective parents a very rigorous education brought us, maybe, to be too lenient with our own children (?).

As an illustration, some examples of problems encountered and solutions adopted:

The eldest, Philip, was the one who caused us the most problems. His hobby was moped customising. He began by modifying the engine of his own machine, increasing its power so that he could greatly exceed the legal speed limits. He won the admiration of his friends, who asked him to do the same with other machines, which he did buy 'buying' the necessary parts, ie by taking them on credit from moped merchants. He soon became a specialist, well liked by his friends. This went on until a merchant came to ask me to pay all the bills accumulated. Our response: suppression of pocket money as compensation for the bills and ban on moped for 3 months, according to the adage 'crime does not pay'. I had in addition a very long and 'real' discussion with him, starting with questions about what he thought of his activity and what he would do if he were in my place. This led him to think.

Today, I'm not sure that my method was the best. Maybe I should have better explained to him more in details that 'honesty always pays’. It seems to me that he mostly retained from this adventure two things: that it is important not to get caught, and that the parents are primarily there to pay the 'mess'.

Gilles was suffering from another disease: he was allergic to school. . As he was gifted and learned easily, he saw no need to waste time listening to a teacher explaining what he could find himself in his books. Occasionally, when he was tired of school, he fell ill with high fever and we had no alternative but to keep at home. Thus I learned the existence of the later so-called psychosomatic illnesses! His major interest was the cinema. Because of his grandfather, film distributor, he knew all operators of cinemas in Lausanne and they let him go free, even for restricted movies. He began to acquire an extraordinary film culture, which brought him, a few years later (he was 16 years old), to operate himself a cinema (but that's another story I will relate in another chapter ).

As for Catherine, age 9, she was a gem. Obedient at home, studious at school, nothing could be criticized. She was our happiness. Unfortunately, her fiery temperament took over later, from the age of 14. (but that's also another story I will relate in another chapter).

We were leading a quiet life, the friends I had made in the SIA and JCES were all married and Yvette had also become a friend of their wives. We had no financial problems, my future plans were taking shape slowly and our lives should have been uneventful.

But I had another kind of problem: severe migraine attacks. Curiously, this happened every time I had to meet my father or when he had to spend the weekend at my home. These attacks lasted for hours and no painkiller could make them go away. My deduction was that I had a problem with my father, a problem that I had to solve by a frontal attack. For our family doctor, a GP who had also training and practice in psychology,  this problem was simple to diagnose, it was the exact reflection of the psychological problems of my father, of which I will write later.

I was fortunate to have as a family doctor, Dr. Dreyfus, a practitioner able to conduct psychotherapies following the principles of Carl Gustav Jung. This doctor spent
most of his discussions with his patients by analyzing their dreams. I wanted to better understand his principles and I plunged into reading the major works of Jung, while beginning an analysis with Dr. Dreyfus.

Without going into too much detail, two dreams brought me the solution to my problem. In the first, I was in the place of the patriarch Jacob fleeing his brother Esau. I saw like him a ladder resting on the earth and the other end reaching to heaven. The meaning of this dream seemed to me obvious. This dream brought me confidence that my dad and I belonged to the same lineage and that my destiny was not to oppose him, but to pursue the same path by relying on him.

The second dream was a repeat of 'Jacob Wrestling with the Angel'. This is a complex episode of the Bible, chapter 32 of Genesis, which has given rise to numerous interpretations and debates.

'And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'

The conclusions I drew from this dream was that my opposition to my father was well-founded, and that my migraines were the manifestation of my refusal to fight against him, provoked by my cowardice in front of his authoritarian character, cowardice which was the reason why I couldn’t in the past fully realize myself.

From that moment I understood that, while fully recognizing the problems of his character, I could take my father as a model and build myself relying on his help.
Thereafter our relations became far clearer and I was even able to help him when he was diagnosed with a deep depression, about which I will write later.

I also learned more about myself. In this regard, the most interesting was the result of an astrological study, made blind by a friend for whom astrology was a passion. I could hardly believe it, but reading it brought me some insight into my own nature, especially as a complement to the results of my analytical cure.

Here some excerpts from this study:

'You were born under the sign of Gemini with Scorpio rising. It is a curious meeting of Mercury and Pluto. Your creative force, a taste for intellectual contacts face the Scorpion, which tends to break your development and to dive you into the depths of the world of the unconscious. Dominant in your chart are both fertility of imagination and self-destruction by excess of sensibility.

Your strengths: intelligence, skill, subtlety, language skills, creative sense. Your weaknesses: susceptibility, selfishness, constant doubt, inconstancy. You can pursue several goals at once and lose the point. You know to make lucidly your own self-analysis by taking a step back to yourself, without being too serious.'

All these features, I assume them. The future will show me later how much I had to beware of myself.

I must now get back to my father. His professional history, from 1962 until his death in 1969, was decisive for the rest of mine. He joined in 1926 a film distribution company, newly founded in Geneva, as a young salesman. From 1926 to 1960, his rise in the hierarchy led him to become managing director of the same company.

The activity of an independent film distribution company is to buy the operating rights of a film, usually before the film is completed, or even before the filming of this movie has started. The purchase price of these rights is based on the value of the film, its script, its director and its actors. Often, many distribution companies are competing to buy the same film. Each company has to make an offer by estimating the future performance of the film and by calculating the financial risks taken on it. It is not uncommon that the purchase price of a single film for a small country like Switzerland exceeds 250,000 Francs. A company needs often for its survival to purchase up to 20 films per year and runs very large risks.

By becoming the director of his company, my father took on his own the whole responsibility for purchasing. He could not bear the weight of that responsibility. He became ill. A deep depression rendered him unable to run the company and in 1963 he was forced to retire with an income of less than 600 francs a month.

It so happened that the psychiatric ward of the hospital where he was treated was led by Julian Ajuriaguerra, a French Basque neuropsychiatrist and psychoanalyst, one of the pioneers of 'sectorial psychiatry' in France. He enabled psychiatry in Geneva to greatly develop. My father was treated by him with success. I do not remember the drugs used but Professor Ajuriaguerra ensured my father that he would remain in good mental health as long as he would take his drugs. My father
became not only the active man he was before his depression, but he felt able to resume the management of his distribution company and assume all the risks that entailed.

It so happened that the director of another company, owned by the French actor Michel Simon, had died suddenly as the result of a heart attack. My father met Michel Simon, who hired him immediately. They soon became good friends and my father managed to buy several films that allowed the company to make lots of money. Michel Simon rewarded him by giving him 10% of the shares of the company. Having found a second youth, my father became more and more enterprising.

Next to his work as director, he took advantage of his contacts to create his own company and began to buy movies for countries other than Switzerland. In a few years, he managed to accumulate a fortune of nearly 800,000 francs, more than anything he had previously earned as an employee.

A few years ago, my father had made a pact with Michel Simon 'to the last survivor', that is to say that if one of them died, the other automatically became the owner of 100% of the company . My father accepted easily the agreement, Michel Simon being much older than him. Meanwhile, Ajuriaguerra had left Switzerland, and his successor, thinking it was a wise decision, advised my father to stop taking his medication. The results were predictable. In less than a year, my father became depressed again and was unable to make the decisions necessary for proper functioning in society. I had to intervene and to assist him in taking , I hoped temporarily, the direction of the company.

Unfortunately, my father's depression became so severe that he had to return to the hospital. We went, my mother and I to see him very often but he declined more and more. In late December 1969, I was in Paris to negotiate on his behalf movie purchases. I received a phone call from my wife. My father had just died that night. My first concern was to contact Michel Simon, who was filming a movie in Rome. I hardly had time to bury my father and I left for Rome. That was the end of a quiet period and the beginning of a new adventure.


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← 10. Chapter 10 : Interlude
12. Chapter 12 : being my own boss and owner of a large number of companies →