Interview to French daily newspaper Le Figaro

Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, deems that Europe, including France, can become a world leader in new technologies.

Le Figaro – Atos has purchased Bull and Xerox ITO in the United States. Why is it so important to grow in these areas of operation?

Thierry Breton– With the acquisition of Xerox ITO the US has become our primary market in terms of sales revenue.

To what point can Atos grow?

When I took over the reins of Atos seven years ago the company had 45,000 engineers and was a medium sized participant in our sector. I wanted to build a leader in information technology to accompany European businesses along their digital revolution. In my eyes this was a major challenge for Europe. We acquired 30,000 engineers and employees from Siemens, creating the basis for a solid Franco-German company which is the second most important behind Airbus. Today Atos has two headquarters, one in Paris and the other in Munich. In six years the Atos management team has been able to double sales revenue and workforce to currently include 100,000 engineers, and also multiply our market capitalisation by six whilst quadrupling operational margin. All this has been financed by our own resources without creating any debt. I daresay that during this period none of the other important international actors in our sector have achieved the same level of performance. Therefore this is proof that, in the area of information technology, we are capable of outperforming our American or Asian competitors even as Europeans.

Businesses such as Atos are making strides in IT on a worldwide level. Why is it then that in terms of the Internet it is only America that builds companies such as Google, Facebook or Uber?

The Internet giants of today are the result of formidable entrepreneurial success. They demonstrate a transformation in purposes and lead to the emergence of new economic models. However, when we talk about Internet companies we shouldn’t lose sight of their merits and the fact they are not, at least not for the moment, based on major technological innovations. So, why does this type of company develop more often in the United States than it does in France? Firstly because in the US success is recognised and valued whereas in France the situation is more complicated. If you work twenty hours a day to launch a start-up company then you are praised. However when you begin to earn any money you then become suspect. We should encourage entrepreneurial spirit and all that goes with it.

How can we revitalise this entrepreneurial spirit?

As long as France does not regulate the issue with capital, our country will always have a problem developing this kind of success story. We should build a system which recognises risk taking by putting in place financial incentives for investors and workers. This is definitely not the case today. Imagine a French internet company worth tens of billions of euros in potential value such as Uber. With the solidarity tax on wealth those who accompany development such as the investors, shareholders and French employees would pay the wealth tax on the virtual value of the company year after year before even having realised what it is. The solidarity tax on wealth is a de facto weapon against the start-up. If we tax capital on the same level as labour and maintain tax rules favouring annuity rather than investment for the transfer of assets whilst limiting the freedom of contributors via disposable portion of the inheritance, we have a fiscal triptyque which manages to dissuade those attempting to innovate.

Beyond this tax revolution are other changes needed?

Data will be the digital goldmine of tomorrow and thus the storage of this data inside European territory, close to our centres for decision making, research and strategic marketing is a priority. In order to do this it is imperative that we standardise European legislation to allow the data we produce to be stored and dealt with in Europe. Attention must be paid however; this does not at all represent a want to hide behind some kind of imaginary line of defence. All who are ready to lend their know-how and expertise will be welcome regardless of their background whilst still respecting European rules and regulations for our data, whether individual or collective. From the moment we seriously begin to consider this IT heritage a source of innovation and value creation for our industries, we will then be able to envisage great things. The next step is the exploitation of Big Data and Algorithms which value this data. However in these fields, requiring more and more sectorial and technological expertise as well as a closer relationship with customers, France and Europe can lead the race. Whilst succeeding to integrate the data economy and intra-European regulations we prioritise the emergence of European Google-style companies.

Will China make a mark as a vital player in the revolution that you are describing?

China has already produced technological giants such as Alibaba, operating on a huge scale and consisting of high quality digital engineers with access to significant capital reserves, accompanying many businesses in their need for digital development. This country has the infrastructure in place to play an important role in this revolution. However I would insist that the largest concentration of businesses and capital on the planet is still in Europe. France has exceptional engineers and therefore we have a formidable future ahead of us if we give ourselves the right tools.