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Taking your chances

"Every woman who has the skills and the wish should be able to progress her career"

 

Patricia Barbizet is one of the few women to have reached the top of an international group.  How did she get there, and how can other women emulate her?

Patricia Barbizet’s current responsibilities make for exhausting reading. She is CEO of Artemis, the financial holding company of some €11 billion in annual revenue. The company owns auctioneers Christie’s; four exceptional vineyards including Chateau Latour and one in California; media and communications companies such as Le Point; a top-flight French football club, an insurance business and an investment fund in Asia; property interests; premium food company Michel et Augustin and other financial investments. Not to mention a controlling interest in a certain group called Kering.

And yet, surprisingly for such a vast and diverse portfolio of business interests, she is intimately involved in the day-to-day running of the enterprise.

Patricia takes a close interest in Christie’s – witnessing every major sale around the world, and attends countless board meetings of the Artemis entities. Indeed she travels “a lot” and likes to see the managers in each concern at least every two days. It proves her maxim: “the most important thing is people”.

Christie's, Modigliani

It’s all part and parcel of her hands-on her style and her impatience to “make sure that every day something happens”. While formal meetings cannot be avoided her preferred method of keeping in touch is by telephone. Conversations are easier, you can be more effective. She loves “checking, listening and connecting people – and empowering them”.

With such a hectic schedule, many lesser managers might get stuck in the detail but she is obsessed by the long-term. “I keep an eye on the objective: you need to make sure people know where they are” she says.

“You must look for the next move and adapt constantly. After all, why wait?”

 

Rare citing

One of the rare women to have made it to the top of a large financial holding company, Patricia is characteristically modest – albeit confident – when it comes to citing the reasons. She asserts she had the credentials to do the initial job, chief financial officer of Artemis, which was then “a small group” in 1989 “I have simply grown with it.”

Now, at 58, she seems as youthful, fit and dynamic as she must have been then. Which must have something to do with her success. That and her self-assurance, commitment and loyalty, “which works both ways”, and her working method.

Choosing the teams she needs is crucial, as is working with them on building a suitable business strategy. Then she ensures they have the correct technical support in terms of finance, tax, negotiating expertise. The third ingredient is to maximise the benefits the group can provide in terms of size, diversity, job mobility, connections and the sharing of experience, for example market entry into a particular country. Finally, the teams are given a degree of freedom and encouraged to get on with it.

Risky business?

Of course, she has had to overcome some obstacles as a woman. On being appointed CFO of Renault International Credit she was told, “Do you realise the risk we are taking in appointing you; you are so young and you are a woman”. With a winsome, almost understanding, smile she says “we were so few women then”.

Naturally, she doesn’t feel François Pinault, her future boss at Artemis, was taking a risk and doesn’t think he was necessarily enlightened in choosing a woman as his CFO. He was simply choosing a business professional with the appropriate temperament, skills and knowledge to do the job. She was after all a high-level financial expert with experience in a worldwide corporation.

Patricia Barbizet at the Women's Forum 2011, Deauville

Does she believe it has got easier for a woman to succeed in corporations? Yes and no. There has certainly been an increase in female experts and graduates. Hard to credit that as late as 1976 hers was the first year of women business school graduates.

But despite 82% of women having a job in France the proportion of female managers is well below that figure. But she is not angry or bitter, saying “It’s a pity: we are ignoring so much expertise” and “Every women who has the skills and the wish should be able to progress her career. We must fight for this principle: the right to access”. That means finding a solution to issues from mothers travelling on business to maternity leave”. She thinks every manager has a duty to make it happen.

Challenging the status quo is crucial.

“When we see an all-male management team, we must say: there must be something wrong!”

 

But gender parity is not the sole objective. We need broad diversity, in terms of background, culture and personality, as well as commitment and loyalty, “It’s the balance that is important”.

She insists that when François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, asked her to recruit three new board members, she chose them on merit – knowledge of China, economics and digital – as well as the need to balance youth with age. “It was coincidence that they were all women” she says.

The story continues here