The IT services company was listed on the CAC 40 Index on Monday 20th March. Recognition goes to its demanding CEO whose passion for politics remains intact
One evening in March on a Boston runway, passengers heading for Paris have been grounded for several hours. Snow has brought air traffic to a standstill. The captain announces further delays. The atmosphere in the cabin is heating up. Powerless to change the course of events, Thierry Breton closes his eyes, slips his eye mask on, puts in his earplugs and starts solving an equation.  At 62, the multi-faceted boss of Atos has found that maths and physics help him to beat stress. “It helps me find my zen,” he explains.

On Monday 20th March, the former French Finance Minister under Jacques Chirac (between 2005 and 2007) will celebrate Atos’ listing on the CAC 40, the IT services company where he has been CEO since November 2008. Quite an accomplishment for this company, which, back then, was “not in good shape” recalls Colette Neuville, a member of the Board. The arrival of Mr Breton at Atos was rather surprising, with some thinking that it would be a tight fit after the Ministry for the Economy. Even Mr Breton – an engineer from Supélec, the prestigious graduate school of engineering – was initially hesitant. “I told myself one thing: Europe must have digital resources at its disposal and there must be a major player to combine these critical technologies.”

Eight years later, the transformation has been radical.  Atos’ turnover has doubled, reaching 11.7 billion euros. The net result has increased from 23 million to 567 million euros. From a company employing 50,000 staff in three countries, Atos has become a group with 100,000 people, a head office in Paris, another in Munich and sites in the USA and Asia.

For eight years, Mr Breton has been working hard on driving the Group’s acquisitions, including the purchase of Siemens IT division (contributing 12% in capital to the group), Bull (the champion of the supercomputer), Xerox ITO (firmly established in the USA) and Unify (a company specialising in communications).

“Atos’ driving force is to buy businesses in difficulty in order to restructure them and create value. Thierry Breton and his team optimise support, property and purchases –whilst keeping the companies’ technical capabilities,” explains Jean-Pierre Tabart, analyst at Aurel BGC. The only  fly in the ointment though is organic growth (growth excluding acquisitions), which remains weak.

The CEO has done everything to transform Atos from a traditional IT services company that sells “man hours”  to a digital company.  As shown by the creation of an internal scientific community, whose mission it is to reflect on technological changes. “It was me who pushed forward the development of the computer and of quantum programming within the group. We’ve set up one of six global teams in this field,” says the boss proudly, who never travels without a briefcase full of books on physics.

Atos is the fourth company that the former minister has turned around in his long career, after Bull in the 1990s, Thomson (which Alain Juppé wanted to sell off for a symbolic one franc in 1996) and France Télécom, which was weighed down with a 70-billion euro debt in 2002.“He’s a kind of emergency doctor – he’s got a real knack for resuscitation,” explains Gervais Pellissier, deputy CEO of Orange, who knew him at Bull.

By staying at Atos for as long as he has, Mr Breton also proved his critics wrong after they criticised him for leaving companies too quickly before he had even completed his task. It must be said that the success of Atos benefits him directly. Market capitalisation has increased tenfold in eight years. Mr Breton, who took a large number of stock options when he arrived, has got richer. His 600,000 shares are now valued at 66 million euros. “I’m one of the few bosses whose remuneration has been voted on in advance at the shareholders’  general meeting for three years now. I took on personal debt to buy shares,” he says.

His friend Bernard Arnault has followed his progress. “I bought Atos shares but not enough,”  the CEO of LVMH confesses. The two men, both engineers, are intellectually close and go on holiday together. “We have links through our children. I have a son who is passionate about quantum physics,”  the businessman continues.

One day at the French Academy of Sciences, the next in Munich or at a roadshow in New York, and when he is not dining with Donald Trump in the company of other important US business leaders, Thierry Breton is certainly a man on the move. Leading a rather austere life – he drinks very little, goes to bed at 10 pm and gets up at 4.30 am to do some sport while listening to MOOC (online courses) in maths and physics – Breton knows that he is “demanding”.

Some even say uncompromising. Coming from a protestant background, he can be “hard” and “abrupt”, a friend admits. He gets angry and goes into rages. If there’s a clash, his family knows not to be offended. Delphine Ernotte, the boss of France Télévisions, whose career he launched by making her regional director at France Télécom at the age of 38, has been on the receiving end of these outbursts.

But fifteen years later, she is still listening to his advice. “When I go and see him, I know that what he’s going to say won’t always be to my liking. But he’s sincere and it’s constructive,” she explains. “He’s very demanding. But he’s just as demanding with himself as he is with us. He looks for continual progress,” is how Elie Girard, his finance director, whom he met at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, sums him up. Girard didn’t need twenty-four hours either to think about leaving Orange to follow Breton to Atos. “He’s a very loyal and caring friend. He can be funny and light-hearted,” says the actress Isabelle Huppert, an old friend he got to know through his children’s school.

To everyone, Thierry Breton’s passion for politics and his proximity to Jacques Chirac are a constant theme. He met Chirac in the late 1980s during a trip to the United States when he was in charge of the Futuroscope project in Poitiers. Chirac made him French Minister for the Economy in 2005. The former president, whom Breton continues to visit, had recommended to his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, that he keep Breton in his post. In vain.

This history fan, who is currently preparing a publication on the great renunciations of France, has continued to be influential by advising François Baroin when he was Minister of the Budget in 2010-2011.

During his time in government, people will remember that Thierry Breton brought the problem of debt into public discussion. Already back then… even if, at the beginning, as minister, “he had some difficulties with the parliamentarians,”  recalls Jean-François Copé, who was also in the budget ministry at the time and who became something of a double act with him, although not without some rivalry. Time has passed. The two men have remained in touch. “He loves politics. We have the same ideas about people, and particularly about Sarkozy,” says the mayor of Meaux. Thierry Breton has never forgiven the former president for having let the debt explode during his term.

Does he dream of taking on a new government post? Having supported Alain Juppé during the primary, he prefers to avoid this question. François Baroin answers for him. “He is passionate about serving the State, and could be extremely valuable,” says the former supporter of Chirac, then Sarkozy, who is now in charge of political mobilisation within the Fillon campaign team.

The public sphere continues to gnaw away at him. Breton campaigned to push for the creation of a European defence fund to re-launch military spending, while reducing the debt of European countries. He lists the names of those he spoke to about this pet cause: “I spoke with Jean-Claude Juncker, François Hollande, Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi, François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron.”

Thierry Breton has time to think about his future. Last December, when his current mandate was due to expire in 2019; he increased the age limit to 75 for the position of CEO at Atos. “I act as if I know I will be there for another fifteen years, although I’m well aware that my mandate can be terminated at will immediately and without reason, he says, moderating his position.

In his office he has a collection of fossils – a 70 million year-old dinosaur egg, trilobites, 480 million year-old marine creatures and a fragment of the 4.7 billion year-old Gibeon meteorite – that bear witness to his special relationship with time.