The French General Electric Co. executive thrust into the forefront of the company’s contentious Alstom SA bid is a petite mother of nine with sterling government contacts and a published romantic novel entitled “S’il suffisait d’aimer,” or “If Love was Enough.”
Clara Gaymard, chief executive officer of GE France since 2006, is central to the industrial giant’s efforts to navigate France’s singular political and social landscape. Dressed in a flouncy salmon-colored frock and black leather jacket, Gaymard, 54, accompanied GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to an April 28 meeting with French President Francois Hollande. She then helped Immelt write a follow-up letter to the president, laying out the company’s offer.
“It’s my job as head of GE France to explain what’s at stake in France, allow a better understanding of political issues because the local backdrop is important,” Gaymard said by phone on May 1. “Jeff Immelt and the head of M&A drove the project,” she said, downplaying her role in the deal.
GE, which on April 30 made a $17 billion bid for the energy assets of Alstom -- a French crown jewel -- must ward off a rival offer from Germany’s Siemens AG, French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg’s preferred contender. It also needs to reassure Hollande’s Socialist government, faced with record jobless claims, that it will seek to expand Alstom and that France’s energy independence won’t be compromised.
Since the deal was announced, Gaymard has hit the air waves with interviews on RTL radio, i-Television and elsewhere, selling the deal to the French public.
“Clara is an excellent go-between as she knows the business world as well as the high-ranking French administration and the French political world,” said Laurence Parisot, former head of the country’s business federation Medef.
Gaymard is one of only a handful of women in the top echelons of French business. Others include Anne Lauvergeon, former head of nuclear-reactor builder, Areva SA, referred to as Atomic Anne in French media; Dominique Senequier, founder of AXA Private Equity; and Patricia Barbizet, vice-chairman of Kering SA, owner of the Gucci fashion house. There are no female heads of companies on the benchmark CAC 40 Index.
That novelty hasn’t protected Gaymard from her detractors.
Bankers involved in the talks say she played only a marginal role in the discussions leading up to GE’s Alstom bid. And Cyril Caritey, a representative of the CGT union at GE’s energy plant in the eastern French city of Belfort, said she’s a figurehead and owes her job to political connections as the wife of Herve Gaymard, a former finance minister.
“The less she talks, the better,” said Caritey, who has attended workers’ council meetings with her. “As far as decision-making goes, she’s only reporting. She has no power. You’ve seen it. It’s Jeffrey Immelt who flew in to hold talks. Immelt is running the show, not her.”
Gaymard is unfazed by such criticism and says she’s pushing hard to show that the GE deal better addresses the concerns of the government on jobs and investments than the Siemens bid, which was solicited by Montebourg to find a European suitor for Alstom.
The GE deal combines “the best of both worlds,” she said, pointing to French “creativity and commitment to find solutions, and a U.S. culture that includes a lot of methods, a lot of financial means, access to international markets and technology.”
Her efforts to build bridges between the company and the government brought rare praise for GE on the floor of the French parliament from Montebourg, who said on April 29 that the U.S. company has acted “totally correctly in this affair.”
During Hollande’s state visit to the U.S. in February, Gaymard had quietly pulled Montebourg aside at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, telling him that GE was interested in Alstom, people familiar with the discussions said. She assured the minister that GE would keep the government abreast of any discussions.
“My role with Arnaud Montebourg and other ministers was to gauge whether GE was welcome,” Gaymard said. “We weren’t in talks at the time. The idea was broadly to know if GE would be welcome if talks with Alstom were to start.”
For all Gaymard’s political savvy, GE was unsuccessful in a 2009 attempt to buy Areva T&D, which makes power-grid equipment. Government-controlled Areva instead sold T&D to Alstom and Schneider Electric SA for 4.1 billion euros. GE said at the time it was “disappointed in the outcome.”
GE was more successful in 2011, when it paid a group of private equity firms $3.2 billion for a power-conversion business that Alstom had been forced by the European Union to sell in exchange for a bailout by the French government.
People who’ve had business dealings with Gaymard say she is smart, personable, and efficient.
“She knows how to get on the phone and say the things that need to be said,” said Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of Air France-KLM Group, a GE customer. “She knows how to establish links and reinforce them. She knows how to manage relations with clients, and is very accessible.”
Gaymard isn’t afraid of speaking her mind. At an annual gathering of France’s economic decision makers in the idyllic southern city of Aix-en-Provence in July 2012, she didn’t mince words. Addressing the group, which included government officials struggling with a slumping economy and rising unemployment, she expressed views French politicians don’t like to hear.
“People still think that to preserve jobs, we must make it hard to fire people,” she said, with a chorus of cicadas singing in the background. “It’s exactly the opposite.”
Since the announcement of the Alstom deal, she has adopted a more conciliatory tone.
“The president and Arnaud Montebourg expressed their legitimate concerns about employment, decision centers, and possible co-investment with French companies, and our letter addresses those concerns,” she said, adding that GE’s offer was improved after the meeting with Hollande.
A graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, and France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), alma mater of many of the country’s top political and business leaders, Gaymard held several government posts before joining GE.
The wife of another ENA graduate -- who quit as finance minister in 2005 amid a scandal over the cost of his official apartment -- Gaymard started her career in 1982 in the office of Jacques Chirac, at the time the mayor of Paris. She has worked in the government’s audit office and the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, and she headed an agency called Invest in France, her last public post before joining GE.
“She is a frank, quick and talented woman, and she is audacious,” said Christophe Lecourtier, who was deputy chief of staff to former Finance Minister and the current head of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde. “Put together, these qualities are not so common in France.”
Born in Paris, Gaymard is the daughter of Jerome Lejeune, a geneticist who discovered the chromosomal anomaly of Down’s Syndrome. An avid roller-skater, cyclist and skier, Gaymard says she’s currently re-reading all of Balzac’s novels. She has authored books including one on her father’s life. Her novel “If Love was Enough,” was written under the pen name Clara.
Discussing the novel in a Los Angeles Times interview in 2005, Gaymard said the book “started with the idea that we all have three lives. We have one official life, one personal life and an interior life.”
With GE’s Alstom deal dominating French political debate, it’s Gaymard’s official life that’s getting the most scrutiny. And in that role, the consummate insider is going all out to strike the right note.
“It’s a friendly deal,” she said. “We heard the message of the government and we addressed it.”