About four years ago, Goodyear (GT) announced it was going to close its passenger car and farm tire plant in Amiens, France. It solicited companies that would be interested in acquiring the tire side. Needless to say, nobody showed up except yours truly, Titan (TWI). Titan is a collection of formerly closed factories, bankrupt companies, and companies losing millions. We make the steel wheel that the tire goes on and we also make tires.
We worked with Goodyear for about a year on a deal, but under French law the unions had to approve it first. There were 10 unions at this factory; the largest was the communist group, which was led by a Michael-something but who I called Spike because his hair was spiked way up high. We flew over and met with about 30 people there. I assured the unions we wouldn’t cut wages but told them we were going to produce more. I said, “We expect workers to come in for seven hours a day. You’ll get paid for your lunch hour and break, but I’ve noticed that currently you work about three good hours in the day and the rest of the time you remind me of a beauty parlor with all your chit-chat and milling around.” Well, Spike got up and said, “You do not understand—that is the French way!” I proceeded to tell him that the French way, my friend, means you’re going to lose your job. And we will not be taking over this factory. So Goodyear announced the total closing of the factory, and all those people lost their jobs.
The French ministry wrote me letters and e-mails trying to get Titan back to the table. Then the industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, sent me a particularly bulls––– letter about it. And I thought, I’m sick of politicians. So I sent him a letter back explaining that we tried to save the jobs, but you guys in the government did nothing. Titan will invest somewhere else. I’m looking at buying a Russian company now.
When the French actually work, they work just as hard as Americans, Germans, and the English. I have a factory in Normandy with a great workforce. But when you’re dealing with some of these unions in the older industries, they have all these arcane rules. If they don’t get their act together, all the high-paying industrial jobs will leave France. You want to know how the automotive industry in America went down? The UAW had a stranglehold on Ford (F) and Chrysler and GM (GM). Ask me about that some day. — As told to Claire Suddath