The boss of Veolia wants to motivate and innovate after the murderous takeover of Suez

Estelle Brachlianoff, new chief executive of French utility group Veolia, has a desk in her office where she displays an unusual selection of corporate memorabilia.

They include a recycled plastic milk bottle and two small vials containing palladium powder and platinum pellets, often used in catalytic converters to help automakers reduce carbon emissions.

These are products that Veolia has developed or mined with new recycling methods that Brachlianoff touts as innovations that have transformed the water and waste management industry as it tries to tackle climate change.

For Brachlianoff, named this week as the utility company’s new boss from July, such moves will be key to motivating staff after a fierce battle for control of French utility industry rival Suez. water since the 19th century, which sank in the courts.

“Our first mission is to sweep [former Suez staff] in our project, in our enthusiasm,” she said in an interview at Veolia headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, where the company is located near more glamorous groups such as Chanel, the luxury fashion house French.

Brachlianoff, 49, is polite and collected and at her most enthusiastic when discussing the innovations needed to help companies improve their environmental records and recycle waste once deemed unrecyclable, as befits her engineering background.

Her appointment after 17 years with the company also marks a broader milestone in France, where she is only the second woman to become chief executive of a CAC 40 company, alongside Catherine MacGregor of energy group Engie. .

“It’s something we all need to make progress on,” she said, adding that she favors mentoring projects within Veolia as a way to help women move up the career ladder.

A graduate of France’s elite École polytechnique, Brachlianoff, whose mother was also an engineer and the first woman in her company, cut her teeth at Veolia when she ran her UK business from 2012 to 2018.

But it was the Suez saga that was decisive in making her the obvious candidate for chief executive, said a person closely involved in the talks.

As number two to chairman and CEO Antoine Frérot, she was a formidable adversary and a steely operator, said another person who also crossed paths with her during the takeover.

“The merger talks are really when she gained notoriety, working industrially and on antitrust issues,” the first person added. She showed determination in the talks, working around the clock and helping Veolia close the deal with an uncompromising approach, all attributes to lead the group even though she might have to develop a more compromising edge as director. general, they said.

“It always had to be someone inside [to take over as chief executive]“, continued the person, because the top priority for the group was to integrate Suez and Veolia before addressing other strategic considerations such as the pivot of the company towards areas such as energy.

Axel Dumas, chief executive of luxury handbag maker Hermès, of which Brachlianoff is a board member, told the Financial Times that her appointment was “uplifting”. She is an executive with a strong vision that combines “empathy with endurance”, he added.

Veolia pounced on Suez in mid-2020, first taking a 29.9% stake in the group. It preceded six months of bitter wrangling as Suez executives tried to fend off a takeover.

A deal worth almost 13 billion euros was finally reached last April, which will involve the spin-off of some Suez assets into a separate entity, largely its French water business which would have caused problems. competition and employs 50,000 people in the country.

The enlarged Veolia group will have a turnover of 37 billion euros and a global workforce of 230,000 people, as well as a leading market share, albeit only 5%, in the management sector. water and waste.

Frérot will remain as chairman, but said he wanted the CEO’s succession after 10 years in office to coincide with the post-merger “new adventure”.

Brachlianoff now faces antitrust scrutiny in the UK, where possible asset sales are not ruled out.

Elsewhere, integration will begin this month, with workers seeking guidance on planned investments in research and development and potential budget increases, said Florencio Martin, a CGT union representative at Veolia.

On the integration, Brachlianoff is optimistic, pointing out that many Suez employees had asked to join Veolia, even if some had initially been part of the spin-off project.

The main priority would be to get existing teams to work together and then find strengths to propel innovations, including in areas such as agricultural water treatment and organic fertilizers where the two companies had complementary expertise, said she declared.

“You really feel like these teams want nothing more now than to talk,” she added. “The first thing we’re going to do and what I’m going to do is, [so that] we are benefiting from the innovation that the merger with Suez will bring.

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