The wizened Frenchman stared blankly into the distance as he contemplated the situation he was faced with. The company was doing badly – rivals were outperforming them, profits were plunging and investors were growing increasingly jittery. It was a far cry to the highs he had experienced within a few years of taking over, nearly 13 years ago.
“It’s not fair,” he rued, “everyone else is buying success. Instead of investing in research and development, they spend millions and millions on ready-made, highly-tuned machines.”
It was 1996 when the Frenchman had been handed the reins of Dar as-sina’ah one of the leading companies in the country, just as it was going through a corporate slump. It was a company in need of a man with a fresh perspective, someone who could breathe new life into a giant that was lulling itself into a slumber.
The Frenchman was perfect for the job. He had just spent a year at a company in Nagoya, where he’d quietly transformed them from an unknown to one punching well above its weight. Many at Dar as-sina’ah were excited when they heard that the man from Strasbourg was taking over. He eventually arrived without much fuss, and quickly set about his task. Full of innovative new ideas, his style of work was a refreshing change. Very quickly, the factory floor was cleared of old, inefficient machines that were creaking and gathering dust, as he began overhauling the entire infrastructure of the company.
His energy reinvigorated the staff at the company. By the end of the year, he had gotten rid of most of the old outdated machines and begun buying completely different ones – machines he could modify and program in his own style. The Frenchman liked that – he preferred machines that he could develop in-house, under his watch. He hired skilled programmers who knew the intricacies of the machines and more importantly, understood his style of work.
Together, they began programming machines that were efficient, unique, and capable of delivering the product in style. If the final quality of product was impressive, the process – how the end result was achieved – was truly spectacular. The mini-revolution that was happening did not go unnoticed: the company’s investors noticed profits rising, as more and more took to Dar as-sina’ah; people began talking about the nature of Dar as-sina’ah‘s products – they were incredibly pleasing to the eye; even Dar as-sina’ah’s rivals gradually began to sit up and take notice, for it was clear something special was happening under the Frenchman’s charge.
Jealousy, naturally, was paramount among other companies. The ones with more intelligent leaders began wondering how they could replicate what Dar as-sina’ah was doing. It wasn’t too long before they realized it just wasn’t feasible – Dar as-sina’ah’s product (and process) was almost unilaterally controlled by the Frenchman, and therefore, utterly singular – they would have to find some other way to keep up. And they had to be quick about it. Dar as-sina’ah was steadily snapping up the industry awards: best practices; most efficient machines; most innovative processes – Dar as-sina’ah had thrown down the gauntlet and it was up to everyone else if they wanted to take it up or be left behind.
Dar as-sina’ah’s rivals fast recognized they had to evolve to compete with Dar as-sina’ah. It was clearly those machines, so cleverly modified in-house, that were giving Dar as-sina’ah the edge over the other companies’ locally manufactured machines. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Dar as-sina’ah though, most of the other companies took a different approach. They began searching for better machines outside of London, outside of the United Kingdom, beyond the shores of Europe, even. They gladly paid large amounts of money to buy machines that had been pre-programmed – without needing to spend time programming or configuring machines, the companies were able to achieve success – as far as public adulation, recognition, and admiration represented success. Soon, a market began to develop: smaller companies manufactured and programmed machines for the sole purpose of selling them on to one of the bigger companies for a profit – and as more companies coveted these machines, so their prices increased.
The Frenchman absolutely abhorred this practice. He found it repugnant how Dar as-sina’ah’s rivals were simply buying success. To him, these weren’t ‘real’ triumphs; they were simply purchased – something transactional, with no intrinsic value. And worse, they were all being sold at terribly inflated prices – prices that defied the laws of economics, the very laws he’d studiously devoted four years of his life to, and still swore by.
As years passed, Dar as-sina’ah’s competitors began to surge ahead, their approach of buying ready-made machines paying off. Dar as-sina’ah, on the other hand, was being left behind – the now-antiquated model of purchasing “blank-slate” machines and configuring it themselves was simply not producing the successes that it used to. In just a couple of years, Dar as-sina’ah’s approach had been bettered.
Yet the Frenchman clung to his beliefs as a drowning man clings to a lifebuoy. Buying ready-made machines just wasn’t right, no matter what. It wasn’t a question of profits, or winning awards anymore. It was a question of principles – a man had to have principles. The investors of Dar as-sina’ah on the other hand, saw things very differently. Profits were dipping and they were agitated; they implored him to buy the bigger and better machines that were out there on the market – a quick fix that would surely propel them back among the big boys, and bring the money in again.
Still, the Frenchman steadfastly refused, stubbornly insisting on his own methods of development. He’d insisted many-a-time that the problem was not, and had never been, about money. The Chairman too, had been sure to make that very clear, lest he be accused of drawing the purse strings too tightly. The fact was that money was available if the Frenchman wanted to buy a pre-programmed machine – and therein lay the caveat: if the Frenchman wanted to buy – he never did.
Every time he was asked if he was going to buy a new model on the market, the answer would be a terse “no.” Further questioning was pointless. It simply led to a debate – insofar as a tirade could be (mis)construed as a debate – on escalating market values and plunging morals of the modern day. The Frenchman remained convinced that his philosophy of building his own machines would prevail and Dar as-sina’ah would eventually again ascend to the pinnacle of the industry.
Years went by, and it gradually became apparent to all but the most myopic of Dar as-sina’ah investors that something was very wrong, fundamentally, with the company. They began to lose confidence in the Frenchman and Dar as-sina’ah itself. Initially, those who had questioned the Frenchman had been shouted down: “Respect his track record!”, they were told.
Slowly though, the people who formerly defended the Frenchman grew increasingly disillusioned and joined the sceptics. Very soon, nearly all of the company’s investors were clamouring for the Frenchman to leave, convinced his unilateral control of company affairs – once the key to the company’s success – was dragging them down.
It had been a slow but steady slide for Dar as-sina’ah. Once upon a time regarded as one of the world’s best companies, they were now spoken of as just a mid-range company, a back-up, a company one only joined as a second choice or a last-resort. It was one of the tragic narratives of the century – the atrophy of a company due to one man’s unwillingness to change.
The door opened with a soft click. The Frenchman sighed inwardly. He’d been bracing himself for this moment – one that he knew, in the quiet moments of introspection he permitted himself occasionally, was long overdue. The Chairman walked in solemnly and sunk into the chair across the Frenchman. Both knew what was about to happen – the Frenchman had already cleared his desk. Still, the dance of professional courtesy had to be performed, for it was only proper.
“Good morning, Mr Chairman.”
“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” rumbled the Chairman. “Look, it’s not that we don’t appreciate the work you’ve done for us. We do, we really do. But nine years of consecutive losses is just too much. Other companies are ahead of us, and we have our investors to answer to.”
The ensuing silence was broken by a squeak, as the Chairman shifted in his seat. “The Board didn’t take this decision lightly, you know. But we think your strategy isn’t really working anymore. We considered this long and hard. And we think it’s best we go our separate ways.”
The Frenchman cringed slightly. He’d replayed this moment multiple times in his head, but hearing the Chairman utter those words made it real. The words, evenly as they were delivered, carried a sharp sting – the sting of rejection. Whoever had said the pen was mightier than the sword had been spot-on. Managing a brave face, he simply replied: “I understand.”
“Listen, you could always resign. Instead of us having to let you go. Maybe it won’t look so bad that way,” the Chairman went on, his voice trailing off.
The Frenchman simply nodded – it was getting harder and harder to find the right words. He rose and made for the exit; the Chairman remained where he was. Just as the Frenchman was about to shut the door behind him, the Chairman murmured, “Thanks for everything, Arsène.”
Without so much as looking back, the Frenchman whispered, to himself as much as the Chairman: “Pas de problème, Monsieur. Au revoir.”
His time in England was well and truly over.