Joint Ventures and Corporate Capers

During the early 1990s, Simon Sykes worked on Cultural Integration and Awareness Programmes for the Executive of the first ever Franco-British joint venture, which was based in Portsmouth. These diary extracts offer an insight into corporate misunderstandings, miscommunication and misbehaviour.


Feb 21

Squared it with G, [Président Directeur Général] over dinner in Paris; on the back of the integration, the business transformation will ride – he told me about the two shareholders – how they will underpin all efforts to make a success of the venture… how they intend to expand the business. He confirmed his own commitment as long as, he adds, he has the helm…bit ominous.

Feb 22

The UK Exec members obliged me by agreeing to attend pre-programme workshops to establish a clear view of their respective operations; real struggle here, especially from the older British members; they see all this as a waste of time; they believe their tried and tested methods of command and control will prevail over the French if they just stick at it; the younger members defer to the older ones and keep quiet except for a few choice comments designed to enhance their careers… they’ll be lucky – it won’t be long before the changing alliances render any notion of personal security void..

Feb 24

On the face of it, the French members are much more amenable to my suggestions – they have the whip hand and feel duty bound to lead the way – as Europeans, they say. They also like the ‘creativity’ of it all and already the key differences are becoming apparent to all concerned – neither I nor the French think it odd that I quote from Baudelaire’s Le Voyage to set the scene for the adventure to come – the Brits however don’t register my quote from Julius Caesar except by the delivery…they are all getting frightened at the prospect of having to address this many headed beast of integration/reorganisation. G has produced a statement for the whole workforce to the effect that integration is the number one priority…it reads like a bizarre version of a wartime Gaullist BBC broadcast – ‘les Français parlent aux… [Anglais]’ (sic).

March 3

Submitted the two workshop agenda (French and British) to G in Paris. He is keen but fears non-cooperation amongst mes confrères en UK. We lunch in the site canteen, seen by all. We agreed it will all work out with proper planning…he laughed and leant across the table to pat my arm. He signed them off with approving nods.

He likes the big picture in all this – especially since it will enable him to re-organise the whole mess he has inherited. Mentioned as an aside that we may be looking at German, Italian and Spanish partners and a further British associate, (he means takeovers) – good grief! A truly European venture to take on the Americans, he enthused. I didn’t press him as to who exactly they might be. Anyway I’ve a fair idea – nightmare.

Ran around the top floor getting available dates from the Exec members – they know I have lunched with G so are very amenable.

Flight back through storm – women weeping as we almost crash land!

March 4

Met with UK Exec – showed agenda; explained basic premise (again). They displayed fear and began arguing over minutiae while masking their genuine apprehensions. Someone tried to rationalise their apprehension through an a-b-c-arian ‘treatise’ on The Dambusters as the epitome of British values – he’d lost his mind and the rest of us lost track; I suggested some individual ‘pre-pre’ programme meetings which they all agreed to.

March 5/6/7

Met individual UK members to explain exactly what the objectives are – just have to be honest, I tell them – no point in bullshitting. Several visibly went into ‘bunker mode’ at the prospect of revealing their lost domains to all and sundry.

March 9/10

Paris to meet the French Exec. They exuded confidence over their approaching ‘audit’ – they say they know their business. This is shaping up for a stand-off based on each side simply reinforcing their own notions of the way forward, no matter how full of holes…all have strengths…and weaknesses. I’ve said often enough that the future lies in maximising the strengths – typically they see their strengths as their weaknesses and vice versa.

April 15

London – hotel with British Exec. Much drinking after dinner and much philosophising about the joint venture – every opinion catered for – but it seems to be a simple case of measuring the odds – get in with the French or fail – get in with the French and fail. I reminded them they have no choice except to get involved – the French have the major share – but the strength of the joint venture lies in its joint capabilities…etc. More drinking was the solution apparently – a double tot before the battle. Later, three senior managers (independently) tapped me for information and my opinion. They are the three who find the whole thing the least attractive to them – now they are worrying and scheming instead of getting their heads around the challenges. I told them this much to their dismay – they’d better get organised – never done an integration that didn’t eventually lose the deadwood. It was late and I resorted to veiled threats…

April 17

UK workshop began with individuals giving a short explanation of their perceived operational place in the scheme of things. Because of, and despite, their own (obvious) pre-scheming, this proved very disquieting since the lack of coordinated thinking and practice was absolutely evident. The engineering and production representatives are at loggerheads over exactly what processes they are operating – it became clear that they are running little empires cut off from each other and are oblivious to the general requirements of the company. The Functional heads just said ‘we told you so’, and then got hammered for not organising adequate training/resourcing/financing etc. Blatant obsession with hierarchy which matches the French in substance but not in subtlety.

Depressing lunch accompanied by more arguing over roles and responsibilities.

I got them to suggest ways in which the house can be put in order. Together we resolved to establish a process map along with a jobs’ definition exercise. All slightly despondent at the end, but the objective has been reached. Playing the motivational card, I reminded them that if they can achieve some semblance of self-knowledge regarding their part of the business, they won’t look quite so stupid when they come to meet the French.

April 20

Began working with the British Exec in planning the process mapping/jobs definition.

I sought out M. [Managing Director UK] and suggested that we might give the UK workforce the opportunity to participate…he agreed and I suggested the setting up of a Panel of reps chosen for their free-thinking and open-minded approach to the integration, – (thin on the ground in this here vicinity), – to invite constructive suggestions for improvement from the workforce in general and to address the suggestions made. I intend to do exactly the same thing in France, but I didn’t tell him.

April 21

Somewhere in the Cher. Typically, the French workshop is held in a very select Chateau venue. My room is huge and reminiscent of a film set for a Revolutionary epic. The dinner was long and heavy and the Exec members took it in turns to complain about the wine. I was trapped next to CM, [Head of Marketing] who despite my protests concluded that I was simply an ‘eminence grise’ and that the integration campaign was simply a smoke screen – he is rather insecure and yet seemed oddly pleased at having erroneously confirmed his own fears.

Anyway, collectively they seem positive about the workshop. They all seem in good spirits, much due to their belief that they are more sophisticated in these matters than the Brits.

Take stock of some key cultural factors:

– no concept of the organic and the mechanistic

– poor language/communication skills and therefore no way in to each other’s psyche.

– greater pressure on the French to learn English; the upshot is they defensively pretend to know more than they do; (dangerous).

– very poor historical/cultural knowledge on either side

– never had to investigate value systems – these are engineers mostly and seem to think in compartments which they are unable to link – perfect reflection of commercial/working practices.

– heavy reliance on stereotyping and prejudice to reach simple conclusions and strategies.

The more they learn of all this, the more they will see the mountain to be climbed.

April 22

Workshop began. Only the obviously insecure acting up – a couple suffering from ‘fuck you’ syndrome. As in the UK, they each set out their stall, cannily demonstrating seamless process cohesion and functional interlocking. This is of course, nonsense. Unprompted, they nevertheless admitted to possible improvements to their systems, mostly involving expensive software applications and more staffing/office space.

At lunch, RV, [Human resources], drew me aside and intimated that all is not as well as it seems…he explained some very dire shortcomings in the process and general operations in France. I told him that everyone needed to be honest since when the programme proper takes place, if the Brits get a whiff of dishonesty it will simply reinforce already held negative perceptions…

With the seed planted we resumed. I resorted to producing some pretty awful figures relating to performance and sales which I asked them to comment on. As one, they became defensive and then began blaming one another. The transformation from the morning’s confident cohesion to outright hostility is a sight to behold. I suggested they work on this with some urgency – perhaps process mapping, jobs definition – Panel to involve workforce? In fact they are doing this in the UK – might be worth getting in touch…? Want some names…?

Truly in the same boat, but have failed to recognise the fact. I closed by explaining that the approach is one of creating a completely new culture – not the rehashing of the existing – yet necessarily derived from the existing…

April 23

Briefing to G at HQ. He laughs a little insanely when I tell him the Exec have more in common than we thought – meaning poor management and mediocrity in general. He muses that we will have to turn the whole world upside down to achieve this whole integration thing. The scale of the project is coming home to him. I remind him of our conversation a year ago that the whole objective is to improve the way we do business given the changed commercial climate. Cultural Integration is an all-encompassing vehicle, he repeats for my benefit and then asks me about the ‘blockers and obstacles’ – I maintain it is all about his managers. He is quick to suggest a cull – get a list up. I suggest we wait for the jobs’ definition to be completed since this will give us the necessary info. He says he wants to have a Company wide survey done and suggests I talk to someone at COFREMCA – will cost a fortune.

Settle some other stuff before he asked me about my time in Quercy – he’s a simple artisan at heart and that’s why I like him.

May 15

DC [Ops Director] took me through the process mapping results. They show catastrophic short-circuits; if we were making even something simple it would be disastrous – but the fact that we are producing complicated electronic kit…!

This revelation is reinforced by the massive amount of (often anonymous) info we have received via the Panel from the general workforce. Other than reiterating the operating shortfalls, some of this info has thrown up quite serious allegations of dishonesty and bullying by senior execs – one particularly about bullying by the Manufacturing Director UK which has caused loss of sleep and time off work etc. – don’t know about validity but handy ammo for my purposes – will have to investigate further.

May 20

More Panel stuff. Anonymous offering setting out some problems regarding the fact that a Frenchman is now in charge of the British Radar sensing division. The implication is that this character will give away lots of secrets to the French military and so to the detriment of British security – all a bit dramatic. Researched further and found that the French have expertise in Optics but not in Radar – Optics are no good if the ground is obscured. Playing it safe, I flagged it to R [MOD]. He called back and seemed quite agitated. Spent the next three hours explaining the whole situation to him. As an outsider, he frightened us both at the official ignorance as to the existence of the joint venture and at the possibilities for absolute chaos.

May 30

Endless meetings getting the mapping done. The jobs’ definition UK/France is a nightmare confirmed; in plenty of areas, the stated commercial needs of the company bear no relationship to the employees employed and the skills (un)available. This is a gross management deficiency which in the cost-plus days mattered little. In this scenario, G’s mission statement is so much tosh.

To compound all this, the French earn between 5 and 15 per cent more than the Brits for doing the same job…their subsidiary get lots more state subsidy – this will only further annoy the Brits.

June 12

Much consternation regarding the ‘organigramme’ G wants to put out. He quite aggressively justifies his plans regarding some very dodgy re-shuffling. I suggested we will have to become more tyrannical for this to work. He said, beyond using my charm, I should bang heads together. I replied that it will be counter-productive and suggested, perhaps too sarcastically, that it would be easier to sack them all and start again. It all got a bit heated but he agreed to hold off until after the holidays. He is understandably getting impatient – for every report I give him, he gets twenty others which are different – regardless of the fact he trusts me, he has to listen and consider other informants – some of whom he has known far longer than me.

June 13

Late arrival at the Chambres de Commerce colloquium. Got into my stride on the organic nature of true cultural integration being so complex that the mechanistic takes over – the systems are simple to construct and only require the people being told what to do…the organic is thus subsumed leaving only a residue of disaffection to come back and bite you on the arse constantly, etc.etc. Audiences always nod sagely at this. The Q&A produces the usual predominance of statements regarding strategies to short-circuit having to deal with people and all their frailties – mechanistic over organic – no questions – all are frightened of having no answers. QED.

June 14/15

Visited all five sites UK/France – palpably poor morale everywhere – general despondency even at high level. Most people simply want to know what is happening.

Inundated with requests for info high and low. Some satisfaction in some quarters at the lack of progress. Meet G – he too is despondent and holds no punches in blaming the Brits for dragging down the French – he’s all où sont les neiges d’antan?

Bad sign. Mad taxi drive to airport – just get plane after much argument with officious staff.

Met with MOD rep. on arrival in UK. He informed me that this Optics/Radar thing has gone to the highest level – mostly because no-one at Government level is the remotest bit aware of what the joint-venture as a whole actually means, let alone any military/security issues. In the lounge, he sat opposite me, eyes wide, arms outstretched and said; ‘How can two entrepreneurs simply decide to do this without so much as a by your leave?’ The way it is.


After some five difficult years of re-organisation, re-engineering and commercial expansion, some semblance of cultural integration had taken place.

A key feature of this was a constantly changing cast of senior Executives – (as coined; a cast in order of disappearance).

Inevitably and with time, the ever-changing commercial, political and economic situation rendered most of the progress made irrelevant.

Photography copyright Richard Williams