Gérard Detourbet: a Renault guy, out of the ordinary

The silent disruptor

Gérard Detourbet passed away last Thursday. In 2017, he had to hand over the final stages of the development of K-ZE, the electric version of his Kwid in China, to take care of himself and will not be there to watch his commercial launch. However, one can count on his colleagues trained at his school to ensure its success there and to make him travel to Europe.

Reading the dozens of testimonies this weekend on social networks, there is, among all those who worked with him, "before" and "after" Gérard. Carlos Ghosn himself acknowledged in his preface to the book that C. Midler, Y. Lung and I wrote on the Kwid, that he probably would not have decided to give the green light to the project if he had not had the man to lead it.
It was not only a matter of designing an "ultra-low cost" vehicle. It was a question of designing, at the same time as this vehicle and its alter ego at Nissan (Datsun's Redi-Go), a platform (the CMF-A), an engine and a gearbox, far from Yokohama and Guyancourt, and, for the first time, within the framework of the Alliance. Given the cost and time constraints under which the project was placed, it was obviously necessary to have an exceptional personality to meet the challenge, and Gérard Detourbet, Carlos Ghosn as everyone at Renault and well beyond Renault knew, had this personality.
When he took over responsibility for the refurbishment of the Pitesti factory at the very end of the 1990s, followed by the Logan project and the M0 programme, he had already spent almost 30 years in the company. He had just been put on the sideline by Louis Schweitzer who asked him to leave his prestigious position as Director of Mechanics where he had made too many enemies. He then accepted Romania as a kind of punishment at first but quickly took to the game: far from the Quai Le Gallo and the technocentre, leading small "commando" teams of experienced expatriates and local collaborators very keen to revive their factory by producing first the Solenza and then the Logan, he found, at over 50 years old, the formula that best suited him to express his talents and share them with Renault. He then became Monsieur M0 with the full support of Louis Schweitzer, whom he easily convinced to sell the Logan in Western Europe, to take it on a trip to Russia and Brazil and to give it three little sisters.
In his role as an obsessive of the manufacturing cost price, he excelled and took an obvious pleasure that went through a "power to say no" to the various crafts, a power that grew as the success of the product line became apparent. In addition to a commitment to his work that impressed everyone, his genetics as a researcher and mathematician constantly led him to wonder why such a part, such a vehicle function or such a process was designed the way it was. To earn a few euros or a few rupees, he would never cease to demand from everyone, in his teams and among his suppliers, that they reconsider the validity of what they were doing to verify that it was not possible to do as well or better for less. He then made "design to cost " not a stupid cost killer game but an incredibly intellectually demanding exercise for each manager.
To animate and lead his teams in this dynamic, sometimes with a certain brutality, he used to question them, challenge their solutions. For this he was served by an impressive intellectual agility. He also had years of experience that allowed him to have a little more than just knowledge on most perimeters. Very few were those who could therefore take shelter behind their expertise or speciality to protect themselves against its high standards.
C. Midler called this approach to working on projects "intrusive management": Gérard Detourbet actually had the ability to go into all of everyone's files and sub-files because he knew or felt that there was something to improve. For everyone, it was obviously extraordinarily uncomfortable since they were never satisfied and even if they felt they had done their job perfectly, they could be refused their copy. For those who were able to withstand it, it was also an extraordinary opportunity to showcase their talent, inventiveness and experience. They were grateful to him.
Without worrying about diplomas, past careers and the judgments of superiors, G. Detourbet would look in the company for those he thought would be able to integrate his machine and take advantage of this distance from the core of the Renault machine to bring more to the company by doing things with him that they could not have done elsewhere. Just as he was not very fond of those who did not integrate well into his system, he took obvious pleasure in seeing it work and, without having received any praise, those who gained his trust, who he asked to stay or whom he would pick for another project took a great deal of pride in it. When they came back into the core of the machine, they found their work a little dull.
We have sometimes read that G. Detourbet made his projects live in "start-up fashion". This is both true and false. It is true that to be able to make Sandero, Duster or Kwid a success, he partly freed himself from the rules and burdens of the professions as they are structured "centrally". His teams in India compared themselves to the crew of a fighter plane as opposed to the Renault liner. But the fighter aircraft had a base and its crew and commander could not have succeeded without the experience accumulated at the base and without being supplied with new talents and skills.
Gérard Detourbet was an extraordinary man, but he was obviously a Renault. His talent and heritage have shown that very large companies can welcome people like him, benefit from their genius and help him grow. He generously tried to offer this gift to those he was taking on board his fighter planes.
Goodbye Gérard, farewell.
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Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator, corrections by Géry Deffontaines


La chronique de Bernard Jullien est aussi sur www.autoactu.com.

The weekly column by Bernard Jullien is also on www.autoactu.com.

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