On the Road in France

During my travels through Europe some of the preconceived notions heard about doing business in various countries proved to be false or highly exaggerated and others tended to be right on target. The Germans for example aren't as secretive and the Swiss as humorless as I had heard. The postal service in Italy lived up to its poor reputation and the Spanish seem to have no concept of being on time. The reason France was left for last had to do with the stories heard about the arrogant French refusing to do business in the universal language of business: English. This had been reinforced first hand several years earlier when visiting Montreal, Canada where I was treated with disdain at several French-speaking companies.

Big business in France means having your head office in Paris. Except for three, all other companies visited in France were headquartered in or around Paris. France's second and third largest cities (Lyon and Marseille) had zilch big companies to visit. Business-wise, Paris is the all mighty center of the universe.

The French countryside is drop dead beautiful. The French people are great--that is--except if you're visiting head offices in Paris. It's a runaway landslide victory for Paris in winning the title of "Worst City Visited". My receptions in Paris were horrible.

On the road in eastern France

Though I don't have companies to visit, it's a real treat going through the various picturesque cities and towns in eastern France oohhing and aahhing at the sights. Metz, Nancy, Besancon and Colmar fall into this category. Within a mile of the German border lies Strasbourg, a beautiful city teeming with tour buses. Can't blame the visitors for wanting to stroll amid this large well-preserved German-influenced Old Town anchored by its huge cathedral.

Strafor Facom

Three miles from Strasbourg's city center finds me in a large industrial park whose entrance is restricted by a security guard. Though the guard doesn't speak English I'm waved through after mentioning "Strafor Facom".

Strafor Facom manufactures hand tools (competitors include Stanley & Snap-On), bakery equipment (#1 in Europe) and forging-stamping & mechanical equipment. Strafor Facom also owns a 50% interest in Steelcase-Strafor, which distributes Steelcase's office furniture in Europe. Revenues in 1995 were 8.5 billion French francs with 12,000 employees.

Company offices are in a company-owned, five-story dark glassed building built in the 1980's.

CEO Henri Lachmann received my advance material but since he isn't in today Lachmann's secretary escorts me to Jean-Baptiste Fauroux's office. Though Fauroux, company comptroller, has no advance briefing of what I'm doing he graciously agrees to meet with me.

It's not a big head count here with only 20 employees working in the top two floors of this small building. However, over 2,000 employees work in the large plant less than 50 yards away.

The nearest freeway is less than a half-mile way and the airport a quick three miles down the road.

As expected, the furnishings in CEO Lachmann's top floor corner office are modern-the style you'd expect to find in a company selling Steelcase office furniture. The top floor affords him an unexciting view of the nearby plant and I count a half dozen family pictures, no plants or computers and several modern paintings. Fauroux says Lachmann's a big fan of Charles de Gaulle, which explains the various de Gaulle memorabilia around the office including several framed photographs of the general.

**Sidenote

Though Fauroux had no advance knowledge of my arrival or my project he 's a very hospitable man and I accept his invitation for dinner at his home. Walking over to his place I'm in a quandary as to what to bring. Not knowing my French wines dare I bring a bottle? Would bringing a bouquet of flowers be acceptable? I've got it! I'll stop at one of the many marvelous pastry shops. Hmmm, was it going to be just his wife and him or will there be other guests? I pick up four pastries.

Fauroux's wife turns out to be a superb cook and makes a fantastic casserole. The wine is super and so is the homemade cherry ice cream. How were the pastries? I wouldn't know because I luckily brought four--one each for their four young kids who joined us at the dinner table to make this a fun family meal.

Michelin

Lyon, in the middle of France, lies about 80 miles southwest of Geneva, Switzerland. I spend only two days in Lyon, France's second largest city and am eager to move on because the city lacks appeal, which is probably why big companies dismiss the place as a headquarters center. Heading 70 miles west of Lyon gets me to Clermont-Ferrand, with a population of around 100,000. The terrain has changed dramatically with the desert-like surroundings reminding me of New Mexico.

The downtown area of Clermont-Ferrand sits on a small hill. I find Michelin's headquarters/plant complex a few blocks away where the ground levels off. Except for one building, entrance to the plant and other buildings require going through a guard gate. I enter the building outside the grounds and turns out it's the reception area. The receptionist at this international tire company with over $13 billion in revenues doesn't speak English and I end up waiting over 40 minutes for someone who does. It's a pretty unexciting reception area with three truck tires on display and a glass display case filled with items stamped with the Michelin logo: small clocks, lighters, pins cards and dominos.

My wait for someone who speaks English proves a waste of time as a woman informs me they have no record of receiving my advance material and the company's corporate communications people are all located in Paris. I try explaining how my questions concern the company's headquarters here and I don't want to go to Paris to obtain the information but they couldn't care less about my predicament.

Getting to Clermont-Ferrand on a bicycle was a real pain and it's frustrating to finally arrive here only to be given the brush-off.

Don't Touch That Bike!

It's in downtown Clermont-Ferrand where I have one of my all-time worst temper tantrums. I go inside the Hotel Mercure to inquire about a room and upon coming back outside I find my locked-up bicycled moved from it's spot leaning up against the building to a spot 10 feet away against a pole. Now, my bicycle with it's four panniers (saddlebags) is extremely heavy so, what this IDIOT did was drag, not carry, my bike the 10 feet. By dragging the bike it allowed the six-foot cable & lock to wind itself several times around the rear wheel and chain. This IDIOT also chipped off my paint job when he leaned it against the metal pole. Upon seeing this I'm FURIOUS and looking around I try to figure out who did this. Next to the hotel entrance is a small tobacco, newsagent shop. I enter. The guy behind the register is probably in his early 50's and doesn't speak English. I point to the outside and say; "Did you move my velo? (Velo is French for bicycle). The man nods and I proceed to let loose with a loud, profane barrage of words. I go back outside and look at my bike again. I can't unlock the lock because it's lodged in the backside of the spokes. I go back inside and yell some more instructing him to call the police. I go inside the hotel and ask the front desk to call the police but they refuse. I go outside asking people passing by if they speak English but everyone says no. I look for a policeman but as usual when you need one you can't find one. As I'm standing outside I see a couple on bicycles ride up, park their bikes the same spot where I had mine and proceed to go into the store. I go back into the store and start yelling again pointing out they have their bicycles in the exact same spot I had mine and why doesn't he move theirs? Of course all my yelling is for naught since nobody understands what I'm saying. I go back outside, look at my messed up bike and proceed to get riled up again. I go inside the store again for the fourth time and proceed to hurl profane verbal abuse. Well, evidently this time the guy had had enough of me and holds up his hands and says something which I was able to translate means "that's it". He then starts to reach under the counter and thoughts of "he's reaching for a gun" are racing through my mind. He whips out a three-foot long piece of metal with a chain attached to the end of it and chases me out the store with it. Standing next to the bike I'm resigned myself to the fact it's a "lose, lose" situation for me. If the police were to show up, I'm sure they wouldn't speak English and, whose side would they take a local or some foreigner on a bicycle passing through town? I still don't understand why he moved my bicycle.

Docks de France

Tours, with a population of around 100,000, lies 130 miles southwest of Paris. Headquarters for Docks de France, one of France's largest food retailers, lies four miles from downtown in an industrial park. It's a fenced-in site though the entrance isn't manned or restricted by security guards or gates. Behind the 1960-ish building is a big warehouse/distribution center. A main road passes along the front of the building and directly on the other side of the road a river flows past.

Entering the small lobby, a big triangle-shaped aquarium catches my eye. It looks a bit forlorn with six-foot long plants inside but zero fish swimming about. Neither of the two receptionists speaks English as they call CEO John Toulouse's secretary to the lobby. Toulouse's secretary arrives and doesn't speak English either and motions to have a seat while she finds someone who does. I wait on one of the eight black cushioned chairs.

Francois Alain arrives and says they never received my advance material. More importantly, Alain says Auchan; a supermarket concern headquartered in Lillie (northern France) has acquired them. This later piece of information is particular frustrating sine I tried to visit Alsacienne de Supermarches earlier in Strasbourg only to be told the company had been bought by Docks de France. Now, Dock de France has been bought. Revenues in 1995 were over $10 billion. Stores include Atac, Mammouth, a chain of hypermarkets, and Miami, a chain of restaurants.

On the road in Paris

After London, Paris is my single biggest stop with over 50 companies to visit. I too, like everyone else, find Paris a seductive place. Visiting companies in Paris however, is a disaster. Receptions on the whole were rude, indifferent and sometimes downright nasty.

To be fair, Paris didn't receive my normal attention given cities containing a large number of companies to visit. This was due to four main reasons: 1). I was only able to spend two weeks (10 working days) instead of the planned four weeks trying to visit the companies due to hotels not being able to put me up. As mentioned before I'm doing a side project on the business traveler and wrote to various hotels asking for complimentary accommodations on an "if space is available" basis. November seem to be prime time in Paris and hotels weren't able to accommodate me and rooms are not cheap in Paris. 2). The weather was horrendous. It rained 10 out of the 14 days in Paris and I'm talking rain not drizzle which made getting around the city on a bicycle even more of a challenge. 3). In big cities (New York City, Chicago, London) I initially physically visit each company on my list to see where they're located, find out if I'm expected and if someone will see right away. I then proceed to continually stop by each company (sometimes every day, sometimes every other day) until I obtain a meeting (many times I'll end up stopping by seven, eight, nine times). As a last resort, I set-up an appointment. Making appointments messes up my flexibility. If I had to make an appointment with all 50 companies I'd be here for four months! Anyway, because of time constraints and lousy weather many companies only received one or two chances to meet with me instead of the customarily five, six seven eight attempts. 4). I just gave up. In big cities I usually get a mix of good, bad and indifferent receptions but in Paris the majority were just plain awful.

Elf Aquitaine SA

Using the Arch de Triumph as a center point and heading west down Avenue Charles de Gaulle, it's a straight, two mile ride to the other side of the Seine River-the starting point of La Defense, Paris's main corporate center. I asked dozens of dozens of people and no one is able to answer why the area is called "La Defense". I assumed it was duly named due to the French government having its defense department here, but that's not the case.

The La Defense area measures about a mile long and half a dozen blocks wide. The buildings come in all shapes, sizes. Many of the high-rise glass office towers are brand new, others eyesores from the 1950's.

In terms of its $43 billion in revenue, Elf Aquitaine gets to call itself France's largest company. I guess it's only fitting that this oil and gas company occupies what looks to be the tallest building in Paris. The good-looking, blue reflective glass tower easily rises over 40-stories and can't be more than half a dozen years old. The name "Elf" atop the building in big letters lets everyone know whose top dog.

Judging by the four receptionists wearing matching uniforms manning a long desk, the place gets plenty of visitors. The receptionists all speak English and as I stand around the large expansive lobby, one calls up the secretary to CEO Philippe Jaffre to find out who end up with my advance material. I'm informed Jaffre's secretary is too busy right know to track down by letter and I should come back tomorrow.

I don't return until a week later. The same receptionist helps me and places a call to Jaffre's secretary again. Iím again told Jaffre's secretary still hasn't gotten around to checking into it. Hmmm, what's the big deal? Most companies log in their mail. All she has to do is check the computer for my name and find out to whom the letter was passed on to. I return the next day for a third time and believe it or not I get the same excuse. Even the receptionist shakes her head. Wow, I realize in the scheme of things I'm not very important person here but you'd think there'd be a little common courtesy. I ask if I could talk to Jaffre's secretary myself but am told it's not possible. How about corporate communications? No, I have to have a person's name.

Elf, France's largest oil concern was privatized in 1991 and just this month the French government sold off the remaining 9.1% interest. Judging by the lack of speed shown dealing with me, methinks they're still a slow-moving, ponderous bureaucratic mess.

Total

Not more than a couple hundred yards away from Elf 's tower stands Total's nice looking granite-clad headquarters building. Like Elf, this gas company with over $27 billion in revenues also has it's name atop the 20-something story building.

Security is tight here as I'm shooed away from locking my bike near the entrance doors by three security guards. I end up having to lock it next to a bench in the plaza area.

Entering the building one can't help but notice the large four-foot by four foot red Total credit card on the wall behind the two receptionists. I'm asked for an identity card.

****Sidenote

Being asked to produce an "identity card" is common at almost every company visited in Paris. For foreign visitors this means forfeiting your passport while doing business in the building. The receptionist or security personnel file the passport alphabetically in a manila folder file and then issue you a visitors badge. Your passport is returned only upon exchanging the visitors badge.

As you know I collect visitor badges and with the extreme security measures encountered here my success rate in getting security and reception personnel to part with voided out badges is practically nil.

Hanging down from the tall ceiling directly above the two receptionists is a large steel sculpture. They don't know who did it or what it's called but it looks like a giant moth. The not very large lobby area contains four bright red pillars and two half-circle black sofas.

Total, like at Elf, I visit on three separate occasions and leave frustrated. On the first visit the receptionist calls CEO Thierry Desmaret's secretary and is told they have no record of receiving my advance material. I leave additional material and check back four days later. On the second visit I'm told Jackie Franchom from corporate imaging would be the person I should get in contact with, though she isn't in now. My third visit ends on a sour note after spending more than 20 minutes on the lobby phone being transferred to various departments with everyone seemingly feigning understanding what I'm doing.

One piece of information I've gleaned from visiting companies in Paris: Everyone is so indifferent here. Whereas in most other countries if my advance material hadn't been received the next question is "what can we do to help you? Or, what do you need?" in France it's more a matter of how quickly they can dismiss you.

Ciments Francais

Nothing of note at Ciments Francais's head office especially when I find out it's only a subsidiary of Italcementi, the European Union's largest cement producer, who I visited in Italy.

Ciments Francais occupies floors 3, 4 & 5 in Tour Generale, a 33-story high-rise tower in the La Defense complex. Built in the 1970's I find no displays of concrete in the lobby. Meeting with Jean-Pierre Naud, Director of Communications, it's a relief to find he has my advance material sitting on his desk. It reassures me that the introduction material sent five weeks earlier to all the Paris companies had arrived, which means I can dispute them if they say they never received my advance material.

Sligos SA

In a low-rise glass building near Ciments Francais I find the offices of Sligos, 1995 revenues 4.3 billion francs. The lobby/reception area has no sense of class or style and looks sloppy and cheap-looking not the image you'd expect from a company doing business in information systems, payment systems, credit cards and checks.

Besides the long off-brown colored leather couch, I count 11 planters filled with fake trees, plants and flowers with a vase of real flowers on a coffee table. Four framed 2 foot X 2-foot copies of company ads hang on lobby walls.

I've found the image a company projects also reflects on its employees. Sloppy lobbies, begets sloppy employees. The security guard, acting bored is yakking away with a passing employee, the receptionist, while friendly, just doesn't project a professional manner.

The receptionist calls up CEO Henri Pascard's secretary but finds she's not in. Phone calls to other people prove fruitless as the receptionists suggest I come back another time.

 

Pechiney

The 11-story pink granite-clad headquarters of Pechiney sits somewhat tucked away amongst the taller towers in La Defense. It's a good-looking building not more than a few years old.

The receptionist doesn't speak English and buzzes for Yvette Mugnier, another receptionist, who steps out to the lobby and helps me. Mugnier heads off with one of my postcards (which explains what I'm doing) to try and find out who ended up with it. Meanwhile I check out a small glass display showing some of the company's products but its frustrating reading the placards because they're in French. One item displayed is a piece of fuselage from the Airbus 320. Visitors cool their heels in a small waiting area furnished with four yellow & black chairs on a blue rug.

The friendly & helpful Mugnier returns with bad news. Nobody seems to know about it or has time to meet with me. She suggests I call and make an appointment to speak to Mr. De Tesseres, office manager. She cautions however, that if he does have time it may be difficult because De Tesseres speaks very little English. Hmmm, I'm already pressed for time and her comments put getting back here for another visit on low priority.

The French government owns 11.5% of Pechiney. Revenues last year topped $15.5 billion. Pechiney is the world's fourth largest producer of aluminum, the largest producer of two-piece beverage cans in North American and Europe, as wells as one of the world's largest producers of packaging materials for the food, personal care and beauty industries.

Saint-Gobain

The unimpressive low-rise dark glassed headquarters of Saint-Gobain looks like it was built in the early 1970's and hasn't been touched since. By that I mean the building's exterior and interior could use some touching up which one would think would go without saying since Saint Gobain is an international glass & building materials group with over $14 billion in revenues. Not a very impressive performance either by the unhelpful receptionist who acts irritated that I've ask her to call up CEO Jean Louis Beffa's secretary. The receptionist rings up Beffa's secretary but evidently there's no answer. I ask if she could try corporate communications or public relations. Instead, I'm told she hasn't time and gives me a yellow "post-it" pad on which she takes an ink pad stamp to it with the company's name, address and phone number. I ask, "Is there a phone in the lobby I can use?" "No" is her answer. I then ask, "Where is the nearest pay phone?" "I don't know" she answers in a couldn't care-less voice. Boy, times like this I wish I had an undercover video camera to record her performance.

Rhone-Poulenc SA

Occupying a riverfront site in the La Defense area, chemical/pharmaceutical concern Rhone-Poulenc's 15-story blah-looking headquarters belies it's standing as the world's eighth largest chemical company. I'm surprised to find out it was built in 1973 because it looks older.

Four receptionists and a security guard man the reception area. My initial visit is for naught as I'm told no one received my advance material. I leave more material and return a week later. This time they try to contact someone in corporate communications but no one's around. The receptionists make several more calls and Sophie Arbonnier agrees to answer my questions though, it turns out she isn't very high up on the hierarchy pole. After surrendering my passport to the receptionists I'm walked to the back of the slim building near the rear entrance loading area (where smokers hang out). It's in a corner room where I meet Arbornnier, who has something to do with building services and speaks very little English. Of course by know, I realize this will probably be the extent of my tour of the place and it turns out I'm right.

About 1,800 employees work in this 288,000 square foot building which the company leases. Employees get free parking and there's a fitness facility, which I'm not allowed to see. Smoking is allowed in the building, there're executive dining rooms and a cafeteria (which I can't see) no corporate art collection and I can't see the CEO Jean-Rene Fourtou's office or boardroom due to "meetings going on". I do learn there was a Mr. Poulenc and the Rhone part in the company's name comes from the Rhone River.

**

So far, I've visited nine of the world's ten largest chemical companies. What kind of grades do I give 'em?

Du Pont (USA with $37.6 billion in revenues)-- B

Hoechst (Germany with $36.4 billion in revenues)--A

BASF (Germany with $32.3 in revenues)--B

Bayer (Germany with $31.1 billion in revenues)--A

Dow Chemical (USA with $21 billion in revenues)--A

Ciba-Geigy/Novartis (Switzerland with $17.5 billion in revenues)-- D-

Mitsubishi Chemical (Japan with $17.1 billion in revenues)--haven't been there yet

Rhone-Poulenc (France with $17.0 billion in revenues)---D-

ICI (England with $16.2 billion in revenues)---D-

Akzo Nobel (Netherlands with $13.4 billion in revenues)----B

 

Peugeot SA

It's on the wide Avenue Charles De Gaulle leading from La Defense to the Arc de Triumph where I find Peugeot's 10-story headquarters. The wide boulevard contains a mix of low-rise office buildings and retail establishments. Matter of fact, I mistake Peugeot's building for a car dealership due to the seven cars prominently on display behind large ground floor picture windows.

It's 9AM when I enter this ugly 1960-ish building. The two-story lobby is nothing like the exterior and has been thoroughly modernized, looking very much like a typical car dealership showroom. I check in with the two receptionists wearing red uniforms and then take a seat while they try and track down who's my contact person.

A large rear projection television as well as several other smaller televisions entertains visitors with Peugeot car commercials. Sitting in one of the eight blue chairs I note the two giant vases filled with bright red silk flowers. There's also an unusual glass counter filled with water and goldfish. Looking down through the counter past the goldfish one can see snapshots of happy car scenes pasted on the bottom.

After a 15-minute wait a receptionist says they checked with the secretaries of CEO Jacque Calvert and Roland Peugeot, President, and neither had seen the letter. I'm told to wait and the receptionists will check around some more. It's now 10:15 AM and they're going to try to locate someone from public relations to meet with me. Time is ticking away, it's now 10:45AM and I'm getting antsy and irritated--if I see one more of those continuous rewinding stupid Peugeot commercials on the television I'm going to strangle someone. I get up and tell the receptionist I'm leaving and I'll try another day. The receptionist says "oh no, don't go, they're in a meeting and it should be almost over. They're very hard to get appointments with and this is your best chance". I sit down. ANOTHER 30 minutes go by and I'm starting to fume because of time wasted, it started pouring rain an hour ago and, my plan of visiting three, maybe four companies this morning has been foiled. Finally, Catherine Ramanantsoa from the communications departments steps out to the lobby. I learn she has no clue as to who I am or what I'm doing and wants me to leave background material and come back another day. This sets me off, "I've been waiting in this stupid lobby for two and a half hours and the only reason I've waited around was because I was under the impression you people in communications were the ones who ended up with my letter. It sounds to me like you have sloppy in-house mail service because I know my letter is here somewhere. I've been doing this for almost 10 years and Paris companies have been the absolute worst. Nobody wants to help you here, everyone's so indifferent". My tirade goes on for another two minutes. I finally calm down and apologize for my outburst. Ramanantsoa says to have a seat and she'll try to answer my questions. This sets me off again, "Oh great, you have no background material on me and of course this means I won't get past the lobby. Am I right?" She nods. I don't know why I bother going through the questions because I've lost all interest.

Over 2,500 employees work here, which I find totally amazing because from the street the building doesn't look very big but Ramanantsoa says the building is deep and goes back quite a ways. Smoking is allowed, senior management gets reserved parking spots and though Peugeot has no company art collection, there's an old car collection. Revenues for this carmaker in 1995 totaled over $33 billion.

 

The Seine River is a zigzagging flow of water, which snakes it's way through Paris. I'm on the waterfront with the Eiffel Tower about three miles up river. In front of me stands a complex of modern office buildings with, to my delight, headquarters for three of the companies visiting Saga, Renault and TFI-TV adjacent to each other.

Saga

I strike out at the reflective glass clad offices of Saga, a freight forwarding/postal services/shipping concern. Just after counting the 20 flags on display in the lobby (19 different countries plus one company flag) I pick up the lobby phone and get the word from a woman from public relations who won't divulge her name, "we're going through lots of changes. We hadn't received your material and we're not interested".

Renault SA

I don't fare any better at Renault. To get on the grounds visitors pass through tall iron gates manned by non-English speaking security guards. Once that is accomplished it's then into the large lobby where I have to deal with two uniform wearing receptionists, neither of whom speaks English. Wow, here's this global company with almost $37 billion in revenues and they have no one here who speaks English, the international language of business. Whatís also frustrating, is having to speak through a stupid hole in the glass to the two women receptionists sitting behind their enclosed glass booths. I'm put on the phone with a secretary from the senior management area who, says I need appointment to meet with someone here. "How can I make an appointment if I don't know who I'm suppose to make an appointment with? I sent a letter here over a month ago addressed to CEO Louis Schweitzer and I'm trying to find out to whom my letter had been referred". I wait standing up next to the glass booth. In the large waiting areas I count nine antique Renault cars on display. Though it's neat to see these classic cars it makes me wonder why they don't have their latest model cars on display. Fifteen minutes pass by and I'm put back on the phone with the secretary who says they can't find my letter. I leave background material and say I'll be back in a few days. A week later I return in pouring rain and after a 20-minute wait in the lobby, learn they aren't interested in meeting with me.

*** What grades do I give the car and truck makers visited so far?

Renault ---F

Peugeot---F

Fiat---F

Daimler-Benz---A

BMW---D-

Porsche---B+

Volkswagen---C-

Volvo---A

Paccar---F

General Motors---F

Chrysler---F

Ford---D+

 

TFI-TV Francaise

Next door at TFI-TV Francaise's reflective glass tower with its name in large colorful letters, I fare just as bad. I guess being a television company explains why security is paramount here with security guards patrolling the perimeter sidewalks of the building. I mention this because it's raining and they refuse to allow my bike to be parked near the building. I luck out when no one questions my locking it up in the loading dock area.

It's a marbled floor lobby as I approach the two unfriendly receptionists and two security guards. Four televisions mounted on a wall flash four different programs as I look around the sleek and slick-looking lobby. A receptionist tries to brush me off when I tell her I don't have an appointment. After explaining what I'm doing the receptionist makes a half-hearted attempt to track down my letter and after one try she gives me a piece a paper with the company's phone number on it and says for me to call myself. Asking if there's a lobby phone I can use. She answers with a chilly "no". "Is there a pay phone, I ask. "No", the twit answers again.

Canal +

Still along the riverfront but within a half-mile of the Eiffel Tower stands the block long, bright white, eight story headquarters of Canal +, the cable & pay TV company with 1995 revenues of $2 billion. The company's name in small letters near the entrance is the only identifying mark on this modernistic high-profile building, which can't be more than a few years old. Then again, I could be wrong and for all I know there could be a big sign atop the place but I can't see because the cold rain is coming down so hard.

It's lunch time and the three-story white atrium lobby has two large televisions tuned to Canal+ programs plus, about two dozen visitors and employees hanging around the lobby with at least two-thirds of them smoking away.

The receptionist connects me to Anne, secretary to CEO Pierre Lescure. Anne recalls my letter but doesn't know what Lescure did with it and he isn't in. I wait while she calls around to see if someone can see me. Calling back she apologetically says no one's available. Anne's been very nice and helpful and I ask for her last name but she declines to divulge it. I ask for an annual report and a minute later Anne is in the lobby. Anne apologizes again for no one being able to meet with me. I tell her she's been most helpful and mention how I'd like to get her last name so I could mention how helpful she's been. She declines.

France Telecom

My visit to France Telecom will probably be a joke. I mean, if you look at the lousy receptions I've been receiving at publicly-held companies in Paris, can you imagine what'll be like at a large government-owned and run bureaucratic monster with over $30 billion in revenue?

This is strange. I'm in one of Paris's many small neighborhood centers several miles from Notre Dame cathedral and haven't a clue as to why France Telecom has their head office here. It's not an office building area and it's not like it's strategically located next to a train station. Must be a historical reason. Coming upon the building and I'm surprised to find it's a new seven-story structure. You enter past a gate guarded by a security guard and into a courtyard where you check in at a small security room off to the side. I tell them I want to speak to CEO Michel Bon's secretary and end up getting directed to a new unmarked seven-story building directly across the street.

The slim granite and glass-clad building has a tiny lobby equipped with one small sofa, four tall plants in pots, a receptionist and three security guards. The receptionist calls up Bon's secretary who refers her to a secretary in corporate communications. I get on the phone with this communications secretary who says their department didn't receive my advance material and, she doesn't have the time to help me track down who has it. I get the feeling it has more to do with her being just plain lazy.

L' Air Liquide SA

Boy, things are not going very well for me and I've yet to receive a warm welcome from a company in Paris, but my luck is bound to change.

Though I'm still along the Seine River it's now a different part of town with the National Assembly several blocks down the street and several museums nearby. It's along tree-lined quai d' Orsay where I find L' Air Liquide's seven-story headquarters. Built in 1931, beautiful large black wrought iron doors greet visitors to these low-key offices as I note the exterior is completely void of any plaque or sign identifying the occupants. Air Liquide, with over $6 billion in revenues and 28,000 employees, is an international concern deriving 66% of is revenues from industrial gases, 11% from healthcare and another 12% from welding.

Entering, you walk up a small set of steps to the receptionist. I start to explain what I'm doing and before I'm halfway finished, the receptionist abruptly interrupts with "it's not possible". Taken aback I ask, "How can you say it's not possible when you haven't even let me finish explaining why I'm here?" I then go on to explain how I'm on a four-year bicycle trip around the world visiting corporations and sent a letter, along with some news clipping over a month ago to the CEO. I ask if she could call up CEO Alain Joly's secretary to find out who ended up with the letter. She again says, "it's not possible". Standing next to me at the reception counter is another woman who also says, "it's not possible" and uses hand gestures to say the CEO's top man in the company. The two women act as if the CEO is some type of God and I, a mere mortal, have the gall to try and speak to him. Those two keep reiterating the "it's not possible" chant and I say, "I don't want to speak with the CEO I only want to speak to his secretary to find out to whom my letter was referred". She makes a call (it's 1 PM), nobody answers and the receptionist says she's still at lunch. I take a seat in a waiting room off to the side. I notice the other woman, who had kept hand gesturing to me about the CEO being top man, goes behind the reception counter so evidently she works here--I initially thought she was a nosy bystander. On a coffee table stands a three-foot tall metal replica of the Eiffel Tower done by an Italian artist. On a wall are two bronze, coin-shaped busts of the founders, one is Paul Delorme, the other Georges Claude. Looking outside through a window I see an enclosed courtyard and count six company cars parked inside it.

It's 2:45 PM (almost two hours have elapsed since arriving) and the receptionists haven't once stepped into the waiting room to give me an update. I go to the desk and now count four women sitting behind the counter. Only one seems to speak fluent English as I inquire about how much longer I have to wait. It seems there's a meeting going and they aren't sure when it'll end. I go back to wait and get this funny feeling they seem to be hoping I'll get tired of waiting and just leave. I seriously think about leaving, but it means having wasted two hours.

After another 15 minutes I step over to the reception desk and explain how I'm on a tight schedule and just want to find out who's my contact person. I return to the waiting room and a minute later, a man comes bursting in. I stand up to shake hands and find his isn't forthcoming. Then, in a brusque, sarcastic, condescending manner he says, "we received your material, we're really impressed by your project but we're not interested in meeting with you". He then hands me an annual report and waits for me to exit. I ask for his name and he refuses to give it. We then go back and forth over his refusal to tell me who he is. "I come halfway around the world to visit your company, wait two hours in the lobby and then you come in here telling me your company isn't interested in meeting with me. I'd like to know who you are so I have a record of who I dealt with here". He refuses and says he left the middle of meeting to come down here. According to him I should just identify him as "someone from communications". I swear if I looked up the word "jerk" in the dictionary there'd be a picture of him. After another minute or two of trying to get his name he just turns and walks away. I watch him go over to the reception counter and say something in French. I'm still reeling from the very nasty way he treated me and though I could leave without another word, I'm interested in obtaining this man's name. I walk over to the reception counter and say I didn't catch the spelling of the last name of the man I just met with. The receptions all look at each other then, one picks up the phone. Aw jeez, she's calling him. I turn around and walk out after deducing he had told them not to give out his name. This "no name" man from communications puts Air Liquide on the inside track for the title of "Worst Treatment Received at A Company".

SEITA

As expected, the reception/lobby area of SEITA reeks of cigarettes but then again, what was I expecting to find at the world's eighth largest producer of tobacco products, fourth largest in Europe and France's largest? The six-story building is similar in age and design to Air Liquide's right down the block. Large black wrought iron doors greet visitors but here the windows also have black wrought iron bars over them.

One of the two receptionists wearing matching uniform speaks a little English and I'm directed via hand gestures to have a seat. Several coffee tables, believe it or not, have "no smoking" signs on them. Of course the cigar smoker sitting next to me completely disregards the signs as does everyone else who enters the building-they're either smoking or light up upon entering.

I note the jar of matches, the two six-foot tall glass displays for Gauloises-a French brand of cigarettes and the three giant vases filled with fresh flowers as I sit on one of the six black leather chairs. The building is part Art Deco and it's evident in the beautiful wrought iron, gold-colored railing leading upstairs. Tobacco leaf designs are imprinted

In the railing.

Privatized in 1995, the French government still owns 12.5%. Revenues in 1995 were 16 billion francs.

After a smelly wait of 40 minutes I get up and leave.

Credit Commercial De France

Avenue des Champs-Elysees, it's wide-boulevard awash with tourists as well as locals strolling up and down it's just as wide, tree-lined sidewalks, definitely qualifies as a high-profile address. Credit Commercial De France, the10th-largest bank in France, occupies a seven-story building along this high-rent corridor.

Built in 1920, it's a listed (protected/historic) building which was previously a hotel who's guest list included, that infamous female spy, Mata Hari. Entering the place I'm somewhat confused by the less-than helpful receptionist who directs me across the street to another building. Turns out she thought I wanted to open a foreign account.

Returning to the first building I meet with Chantal Nedjib, Director of Communications, who actually gives me a warm welcome and acknowledges receiving the advance material! I know I'm sounding cynical but these awful receptions in Paris are starting to wear me down. Though I'm treated nicely, there's not much to say about the head office of this 102 year-old bank which, by the way, was originally founded in Switzerland.

About 700 employees work here. I can't see CEO Charles de Croisset's office or boardroom due to meetings going on, though Nedjib does walk me down several floors. The company does have a photography collection and believe it or not, in this smoke-crazed country, smoking isn't allowed.

Remy Cointreau

From Credit Commercial I look across to the other side of Avenue des Champs Elysees and eye Remy Cointreau's headquarters. It's easy to spot thanks to a large sign with their name on it hanging from the fourth floor of the seven-story building, which obviously was a former turn-of-the century home for a wealthy family.

Entering the building means ringing a buzzer and the door opens into a long marbled hallway, once a passageway for automobiles heading to a former parking area in the rear. Rather than leave my bike outside in the pouring rain and in sight of possible thieves passing by I wheel my bike into the hallway and lock it up. I then walk up a set of creaking stairs up to the small, second floor reception area. Other than one tall plant and a small glass display case embedded in a wall, they've done a poor job in the reception area giving visitors information about their product lines. Remy Martin, Cointreau and Piper-Heidsieck & Krug champagnes are some of their more famous brands of spirits. My reception here doesn't leave me in good spirits as one of the executive secretaries steps out into the lobby and says, "we're not interested". "Any special reason why", I ask. She doesn't know, but that's what she's been told to tell me. Revenues in 1996 were 7 billion francs. Before leaving I ask the receptionist if it's okay to leave my bike in the ground floor hallway because it's raining outside and the next company I'm visiting sits right across the street. She gives me the okay.

Publicis SA

Back across the Champs-Elysees to visit drugstore operator Publicis, whose headquarters entrance is next door to one of their stores. The indifferent receptionist puts me on the phone with CEO Maurice Levy's secretary, a real nice lady who says she thinks what I'm doing is really fascinating and enjoyed reading the news clippings enclosed with my advance material. She then goes on to say her boss (Levy) would like to set up a time next week to meet with me. I agree to call her the beginning of next week.

Unfortunately, I never call back the following week as mentioned in the beginning of my Paris stories, bad weather, no hotels to stay in and lousy receptions marked an unplanned early exit.

Upon returning to Remy Cointreau to retrieve my bicycle I find it missing. Frantically looking about I find some stupid idiot had DRAGGED my locked bicycle out the back door into the former parking area and left in the pouring rain. Though I'm upset about my pannier laden bike being completely soaked by the torrential downpour I'm REALLY upset about my cable and lock, once again (see Michelin story), becoming wrapped around the inside of the wheel and gearing. A security guard, who had seen me leave earlier when I went across the street, appears and I start yelling at him. He disappears because he knows I know he was the one. It takes me over one hour to untangle the lock and chain.

AXA

Headquarters for AXA, one of the Europe's biggest insurers, isn't very large but, it's tony location and prestigious neighbors probably makes anything bigger too expensive--even for this big insurer. A block away from this five-story, late 1800's building stands the heavily guarded Palais De L' Elysee, the French equivalent to our White House. Right around the corner stands the very large and also heavily guarded U.S. embassy.

AXA, with over $275 billion in managed assets and revenues in 1995 of over $26 billion, has a global reach, owning such well known firms as The Equitable Life Assurance Company in New York and National Mutual in Australia.

Boy, with Paris being so security conscious I'm surprised to find no one manning the gate or harassing me as I ride my bike into the small entry driveway and park it next o the entrance door. Upon entering, one immediately takes note of the full-size horse standing next to an oriental screen in the lobby as well as a 15-foot tall wood carved totem pole. The receptionist, a young woman who doesn't speak much English, seems to know who I am and gives me a warm welcome--which is a big relief because I'm getting awfully tired of cold receptions.

After a brief wait a woman appears who also greets me warmly. She then asks what I'm doing here. I give her a "you don't know? look". I quickly learn they know nothing about me. It seems last year the company sponsored an around the world bicycle trip for handicapped kids and adults. They thought I was one of the bikers dropping in for a social visit.

This snafu turns into my advantage as Louis Deroye, vice president and assistant to CEO & Chairman Claude Bebear, shows up and after hearing what I'm up to, graciously invites me up to the boardroom where we sit down and go through the questions.

Though the building dates from the 1800's, AXA bought the place and moved in only ten years ago. It used to house a bank, which surly explains why there's a wine cellar in the basement.

I can't see the CEO's office because Deroye says I've picked the worst possible day to show up. "Why's that?" I ask. Deroye wants to know if I've read today's paper and I reply, "no". It turns out AXA announced today it will be buying Union des Assurances de Paris, creating the world's second largest insurance company after Nippon Life of Japan. Combined, revenues will be $61 billion and will replace Fidelity Investments as the world's largest asset manager. I guess this means canceling my visit to UAP's nearby head office five blocks away. Deroye says many items of the takeover have yet to be settled such as where the combined head office will be located or if there will be a name change.

I don't think the 80 people working here have much to worry about. I'm sure whatever happens they'll still get covered parking (it's underground here), executive dining rooms privileges, use of the company's Falcon 50 aircraft and access to the company's international art collection.

LVMH

Visiting LVMH, the world's largest branded goods company, sounds like fun. We're talking some famous heavyweight names here: Louis Vuitton, Hennessy cognac, Christian Dior. As expected, headquarters commands a fashionable address (avenue Hoche) near the Arc de Triumph. The entrance area is all torn up as a whole new lobby is being put in. Stepping around construction I make my way to the two women receptionists, both in their mid-20's, and both wearing matching red uniforms sitting behind a large glass enclosure. One doesn't get past the lobby area unless the receptionists buzz you past glass doors.

I don't know if it's an image thing or what, but the one receptionist I deal with turns out to be downright snobby b**** (twit). This unfriendly, unsmiling receptionist barely acknowledges me and refuses to help because I don't have an appointment. She declines to call up CEO Bernard Arnault's secretary to find out to whom my advance material was sent or for that matter, call anyone else. I don't know if it's because I'm not wearing an Armani suit, but she's downright abrasive and rude. I ask, "Is there a lobby phone or pay phone I can use?" "No" she answers. "Do you know where the nearest one is?" I ask again. "No", she replies. Even the other receptionist looks over at her and asks why she can't give someone a call. This smug receptionist seems to enjoy sitting behind the glass and I wonder how many other visitors have wanted to give her a smack. Is management aware of the image she's projecting?

Compagnie Generale Des Eaux

Considering its size and breadth of businesses this conglomeration operates in, I'm surprised by Compagnie Generale Des Eaux, low-key offices. Then again, I'm finding low-key to be the norm with Paris companies.

With over $32 billion in revenues and 219,000 employees, it qualifies Generale des Eaux as one of the big boys in France. This global behemoth and its many subsidiaries operate in a wide range of industries. These include being the world's largest distributor of water, one of Europe's largest waste management operators, France's second largest private passenger transport company and, operates France's second-largest mobile telephone network. Also, France's largest car-park operator, manages over 8.5 million square feet of property (mostly in Paris), is one of Europe's largest construction groups, provides cable television, owns and operates almost 500 hospitals (largest in Europe), one of Europe's largest providers of heat management and environmental-related services and, even finds time to own 27% of Parc Asterix, a theme park.

Though situated near the Palais De L'Elysee (where President Chirac resides) the six-story building has no name on the outside and, only two security guards standing outside the entrance. The interior of the lobby I would describe as Italian modern. The ceiling contains little square tiles with gold around the perimeter. Large vases of fresh flowers brighten the room. Scattered around the lobby are four pieces of metal art encased in glass displays which themselves stand on four concrete pedestals

I meet with Alain Delrieu from external relations, who initially wants to set up an appointment for next week but I persuade him to meet now. Sitting in the lobby we zip through the questions and since Delrieu made a point of telling me he can only spare 10 minutes, my requests for a quick tour and a peek at the boardroom & CEO Guy Dejoeany are quashed. Judging by what I see in the sleek lobby I'm disappointed in getting a look/see. Between 500 and 1,000 employees work here in this large older building.

***Sidebar

When sending my advance material to companies I include my La Jolla, California mailing address and a phone/fax number to leave a message. Why some companies elect to respond by letter instead of fax I don't know. Two weeks AFTER my visit to Generale Des Eaux I receive a nice letter from Ann Liontas from the company's international public relations department saying she'll be glad to meet with me. The letter was dated before my arrival in Paris. Unfortunately, the letter was mailed to California, which then had to be forwarded back to wherever I am in Europe--sometimes taking six weeks.

Havas

The triangle area encompassing the French President's residence, the Louvre Museum and The National Opera House (several miles square) is home to many companies and the overwhelming majority are housed in turn-of-the-century structures.

The five-story head office of Havas, the world's fifth largest media and communications group with almost $9 billion in revenues, is an exception to this rule. Built in the 1970's, the building has a sleek modern look.

In the marbled floor lobby manned by two receptionists are four black sofa & chairs along with a 6-foot tall by 12-foot long rear projection screen spewing company propaganda.

Jean-Francois Poilleux, Secretaire General Delegue, greets me in the lobby and speeds through my questions. About 80 employees work here. I ask to see the CEO's office, boardroom and quick tour of the place, instead, Poilleux gives me a name of a woman to contact and set up a time when she could show me around. As usual here in Paris, I don't get past the lobby.

This and a Lot of That

As you have noticed by now my receptions in Paris were horrible. Then again as I mentioned earlier, Paris didn't get the full treatment from me. My usual modus operandi is to keep popping back to visit companies sometimes seven, eight or nine times until I get someone to meet with me. In Paris, because of continuous cold heavy rain and no (free) hotel rooms, I left several weeks earlier than planned. I made initial contact with companies and in many cases never made back for follow-ups. What follows are company blurbs.

Worms & Cie

Founded in 1848, Worms & Cie, an insurance and financial services company, occupies a building near the Palais De L'Elysee. Stop by twice in the pouring rain, in each instance having to strip off my rain gear, go inside, only to passed around to a variety of people on the phone, then go back out in the rain to don the cold gear. I do like the 10 foot long SS "Ville de Metz" model ship on display in a glass case. In the late 1920's the company dove into ocean shipping.

Cie Financiere de Paribas

One of France's biggest banks with revenues in 1995 of almost $22 billion, Cie Financiere de Paribas wins the award for coldest headquarters ever visited. I'm wearing ski gloves, a winter coat and I'm actually shivering waiting in the lobby area. The two receptionists don't speak English but I can tell they're complaining to a man, who looks to be their boss, about the cold. Lucky them though, they have portable heaters next to their legs. I don't know if the building's heating unit is broken or if the company's trying to save a few bucks.

I can't believe this small waiting area I'm in is the waiting room for visitors to this international bank. I count five issues of Business Week and two Financial Times on a coffee table for my perusal. There's also a brochure on the history of this site. Inside there's a photo of "The Orangerie", a spectacular looking covered courtyard which according to the brochure was created in 1960 as "a hall for receiving the Bank's visitors". Looks like I was right. The five-story, block long by block wide building is actually several townhouses built between 1715 and 1725 connected together. In 1872 the bank moved in here.

Jose Saint-Georges from corporate communications steps into the lobby and says he's on his way to a meeting and I should call next week to set up an appointment.

Insurer GAN's head office has been on the same site in Paris's old financial district since 1902. With over $31 billion in revenues it's a biggie. While GAN is partially owned by the French government, AGF, with almost $22 billion in revenues and headquartered nearby, is completely owned by the government. Both seem to be clueless in helping visitors as I leave both in frustration.

I try visiting Alcatel Alsthom (a telecommunications and engineering biggie with over $32 billion in revenues) across the street from Worms & Cie on Rue la Boetie and find an empty building. A neighboring business says they moved several weeks ago yet, there's no forwarding address. Showing up at the addresses I have for Schneider SA (over $11 billion in revenues), Lafarge Coppee, and Club Mediterranee SA I find empty buildings and no forwarding addresses. Turns out the address I have for cosmetic giant L' Oreal (over $10 billion in revenues) across from ritzy Place Vendome is a company office but not the head office which is back near the La Defense area. Ditto for Societe Generale. This bank recently left it's drop-dead gorgeous, five-story, turn-of-the-century main banking branch and moved the big cheeses to two brand new 40-story glass towers in the La Defense area. What's frustrating is having been in the glass towers a week earlier looking for another company.

Master List

Having been in Europe for almost two yeas now I realize companies are all the time moving. Arriving in Paris I dropped by the offices of Bloomberg Business News and, using The Bloomberg terminal, punched up data on the companies to update my names and addresses. What's strange is going to the addresses of some of France's biggest companies and finding they've moved and don't even notify a press agency like Bloomberg.

I visit Banque Nationale de Paris's seven-story building near the National Opera house twice. The first time Michael Pebereau's secretary comes to the lobby though she says they hadn't received my material, is very helpful and gives me the name of a woman to contact in corporate communications. I return again and ask for the corporate communications woman only to be given the runaround. I'm surprised to find a small non-descript building housing food giant Daone (almost $16 billion in revenues). The atmosphere is chaotic and my search fruitless in getting the receptionist to contact anybody in any department. Visitors do get to have free cookie samples. Offices for beverage concern Pernod Ricard are nearby in a beautiful turn-of-the-century building. Everyone's out for a two-hour lunch at Pernod Ricard, which seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Ditto when showing up at Marine-Wendel's headquarters, a beautiful former home. This industrial holding with 1994 revenues of 26 billion francs traces its roots back to 1704.

Visiting Lagardere Group's (over $10 billion in sales) unmarked offices, which are within spitting distance of the Arc de Triumph, I 'm told they never received my advance material. Never make it back to visit the world's 10th largest defense contractor and a global media company which is the largest non-American magazine publisher in the USA with such magazines as Car and Driver, Premiere, George, Woman's Day, Road & Track and Popular Photography.

Food market behemoth Carrefour, with almost $29 billion in sales, occupies space in an unmarked beautiful brick building near the Seine River and the Eiffel Tower.