`The Cost Of Firing People Is Increasing'

Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Marc Vienot describes himself as "just a bank chairman." But few bank bosses wield anywhere near Vienot's clout. As head of France's Societe Generale, the biggest publicly owned French bank and the 15th-largest lender in the world, Vienot commands some $288 billion in assets and a branch network stretching from Toulon to Tianjin. But sheer bulk isn't enough these days. S.G. Warburg Securities Ltd. estimates that overhead eats up a hefty 66% of the bank's earnings--only the troubled Credit Lyonnais, at 71%, is worse off among French lenders. Such high expenses could leave Societe Generale behind other global competitors. So Vienot is mounting a tough campaign to shed thousands of Societe Generale's 24,000 branch employees in France, while increasing the bank's lending and securities trading in the U.S., Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Asia. While in New York to visit with investors on June 28, Vienot took time out to chat about his bank and the global economy with Senior Writer William Glasgall and Money & Banking Editor Kelley Holland.

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