Management

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

The first French woman to run a CAC-40 company and one of the seven all female co-chairs of next month's World Economic Forum, Isabelle Kocher was in the running for another distinction in 2018.

Kocher is chief executive of energy giant Engie SA -- making her one of Europe's most powerful businesswomen -- and her chairman Gerard Mestrallet is due to step aside in May. Until recently, it seemed probable that Kocher would then be upgraded to "chairman and chief executive," but the promotion's in some doubt. The French state, owner of 24 percent of Engie, wants to keep the two roles separate, according to a report in Les Echos.

While having both a chairman and chief executive is considered good governance in the U.K., it is less common in France. Mestrallet, who helped build the company known formerly as GDF Suez into a power and gas colossus, held the combined role before Kocher's promotion. Forcing her to accept another minder could be seen as a snub. She's chalked up some notable successes during her 18 months as CEO and her plan to transform the utility is shaping up well. 

Vincent Gilles, an analyst at Credit Suisse says "2018 is the first year that earnings will start coming from the new strategy. It's the first time you could really say this is Kocher's company."

A former adviser to French prime minister Lionel Jospin and GDF Suez finance director, Kocher didn't walk into the easiest of CEO jobs. Falling commodity prices, slumping wholesale power prices (linked to the rise of renewable energy) and weak electricity demand had forced Engie to slash the dividend and write down billions of euros on gas storage and conventional power plants.

Although you could blame some of this on the market, the writedowns took the shine off Mestrallet's M&A-driven empire building, which included the takeover of Britain's International Power Plc. Kocher seems less seduced by swashbuckling deals. She opposed a bid for Germany utility Innogy SE, apparently putting her at odds with Mestrallet. When reports of a rift emerged, the chairman later voiced his support for Kocher. Innogy's subsequent travails show her instincts may have been sound.

Engie's new strategy, based on cutting its exposure to fluctuating power prices and carbon-intensive energy production, was launched while Mestrallet was still CEO. But Kocher has wasted no time in enacting it and overhauling top management. Most of a targeted 15 billion euros ($17.8 billion) of asset sales has been completed and Engie is reinvesting the proceeds in renewable energy and energy services for businesses and households.

Portfolio Overhaul
These recent deals will help Engie cut carbon emissions and its exposure to commodity prices
Source: Bloomberg

It'll take a while for those investments to lift the bottom line, though, while the focus on regulated/contracted activities means Engie won't benefit as much from rebounding commodity prices. Recent profit warnings at Centrica and Innogy show that concentrating on end-customers isn't a panacea. "Retail has been pretty difficult territory for utilities in 2017," says UBS analyst Sam Arie.

For now, investors are backing Kocher. The shares have gained 19 percent this year after a long time in the dumps.

Power Down
Engie's shares are still two thirds below the peak but under Kocher there are signs of recovery
Source: Bloomberg

Still, the stock price isn't the only measure of progress. In a country renowned for its old boys' networks, it's striking that Engie's CEO and finance director are women. Kocher and Judith Hartmann are popular with investors, who appreciate their more down-to-earth approach. "There's been a complete change of attitude (at the company) and that's created a lot of goodwill," says Gilles. After years of value destruction, goodwill is one thing Engie could use more of.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Chris Bryant in Berlin at cbryant32@bloomberg.net

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