Bernard Tapie is one of a new breed of entrepreneurs who are changing French attitudes toward making money.
Tapie, who has become a self-made millionaire by the age of 39 by putting bankrupt companies back on their feet, is a success story of an unusual kind for a country that long has pretended to despise the nouveau riche.
"I'm not ashamed of being rich and successful," Tapie boasts. "Businessmen have been giving themselves a bad image; they were ashamed of making a profit."
With his deep tan and impeccable suits, Tapie now moves easily in the world of private jets and yachts, clubs and Rolls Royces. His origins, however, are thoroughly working class.
Reared in a Paris suburb, he became an electronics engineer before acting as management consultant to a private firm. In 1977, he decided to set up his own business, Groupe Bernard Tapie et Co., which dealt exclusively with financially troubled companies.
Today, from his headquarters near the Arc de Triomphe, together with a 19-man team, he runs a half-billion-dollar industrial empire that includes 43 companies in fields ranging from fashion to weighing scales to sports. His conglomerate churned out $13 million in profits last year, much of which was reinvested in new business ventures.
With the number of unemployed in France at 2.5 million and rising, men such as Tapie suddenly have become media stars. Their mission, as they describe it, is to destroy many of the shibboleths of traditional management and show that "filthy rich" is no longer a dirty phrase.
The new trend is being encouraged by French President Franc,ois Mitterrand, who has been attempting to stress an efficient, pragmatic brand of socialism. His new prime minister, Laurent Fabius, 37, is busy promoting the capitalist gospel that profit and modernization are good, protectionism and state interventionism bad.
"It's a kind of revolution," said Michel Leclerc, another successful businessman who owns a fast-growing chain of supermarkets. "We are now light years away from those decrepit bosses of the past. What is more, it has become important to publicize the winners."
What is seen here as a breakthrough for the values of private intiative may strike most Americans as meager. But it is significant for a country that long has believed in the virtues of state control over investments, credits, prices and wages.
"With a dozen Tapies, France would no longer have any industrial problems," wrote Liberation, a left-wing daily.
Saving bankrupt companies was once the prerogative of an all-powerful state concerned about rising unemployment. Tapie is attempting to show that insolvent companies need not be lost causes so long as they can be run efficiently.
Identifying himself with the American ideal of the "self-made man," he believes that the potential for success is greater in the United States than in France. "U.S. businessmen have a greater capacity to respond to challenge as well as a greater upward job mobility," he explained. "Here, if you're hired as a sales clerk, the best you can hope for by the end of your career is to be chief sales clerk."
To publicize his products, Tapie has begun bankrolling sports celebrities. French tennis champion Yannick Noah, soccer star Michel Platini, and bicycle racer Greg Lemmond are all on the Tapie payroll. His latest projects include publishing a magazine, owning a television channel and opening a fast-food diet shop on the Champs Elysees.
The importance of diversification may seem self-evident in America. In France, however, "It's considered illogical for anyone to have more than one sphere of activity," Tapie explained.
By promoting the image of a successful leader, Tapie believes he can induce young people to do the same. He even toyed with the idea of creating a school that would teach young people to discover hidden talents -- something he believes present academic structures have failed to provide.
"A head manager must be a creator of symbols," Tapie said. "In France, unlike Japan, the personality cult is greater than the cult of the enterprise. Frenchmen simply cannot identify with a corporate image. De Gaulle realized that, which is why he got away with so much." he said.
A shrewd gambler, Tapie knows to quit while he is ahead. He has announced that his furious buying spree (in the last two months alone he bought three companies) will end in December, and after that he will buy no more.
"Your eyes should not be bigger than your stomach," he said.