Every Monday, after weekends driving upmarket cars made by his competitors, Thierry Bolloré would return to Renault’s offices with a long list of things the French carmaker could improve about its own vehicles.
The changes that followed were instrumental to upgrading the interior of the company’s celebrated Alpine A110 sports car.
When the former Renault CEO joins Jaguar Land Rover as chief executive in September, announced this week, he will inherit a business needing more than a nicer trim or plusher seats.
Britain’s largest carmaker has been hit harder than most in the industry by the pandemic, exacerbating existing problems with its line-up, lack of scale, and bloated costs.
A former lieutenant of Carlos Ghosn, who was known as “le cost killer”, might seem an ideal choice for the role.
Yet the immediate reaction to his appointment was surprise.
The 57-year old — a sailing fanatic unafraid of making waves in his day job — is a polarising figure, even by the standards of an industry saturated with dominant personalities.
After the announcement, some former colleagues exchanged shocked text messages that he had walked into another top job.
A shortlist drawn up by executive search company Egon Zehnder had largely consisted of German premium executives — much like JLR’s outgoing boss Ralf Speth.
But Mr Bolloré, having served as CEO of a global carmaker, was by far the most experienced candidate.
He also gelled with Tata Motors’ chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran, who made the final decision on the appointment. The two had never met before the process, despite Renault’s strong presence in India.
Mr Chandrasekaran described his new hire as “an established global business leader with a proven record of implementing complex transformations, Thierry will bring a wealth of experience to one of the most revered positions in the industry”.
Yet his time at Renault was defined by deteriorating relationships at the top of the Renault-Nissan alliance with the chairman of the French group, Jean-Dominique Senard, and his counterpart at the Japanese carmaker, Hiroto Saikawa.
Having joined Renault in 2012, he was appointed by then-boss Mr Ghosn as his presumed successor in February 2018 and catapulted into the top job following his boss’s arrest that November.
In the combative months that followed, the relationship with Mr Saikawa became one of the alliance’s most visible fissures.
At its lowest point, the two men barely spoke, while Nissan attempted to block his inclusion on the Japanese company’s key board committees.
Even now, months after being fired by Renault in a move he described as a “coup” last October, Mr Bolloré’s supporters and detractors paint a very different picture of the man.
“He is very straightforward, and a focused operator,” said one former senior colleague. “It was a difficult period at Renault and he remained collaborative and friendly.”
Not everyone agreed.
“The man is toxic and authoritarian . . . he couldn’t be trusted,” said another.
While the bruising episode burnished Mr Bolloré with detailed knowledge of the pitfalls of international collaboration, he was also at the helm of some of the two companies’ greatest joint successes, such as setting up their combined purchasing operation.
This will come in useful at Jaguar Land Rover. A minnow by global standards, selling just half a million cars a year, the company needs to forge international partnerships to cut its investment costs.
It is also behind rivals on rollout of electric vehicles — an area where Renault is a market leader.
Despite Renault’s lack of upmarket lines and absence from the US, one of JLR’s key markets, Mr Bolloré’s earlier career gives him some relevant experience.
His experience at supply giant Faurecia meant working closely with factories of JLR, Daimler, BMW, and even Bentley, while he oversaw a US team when working for tyremaker Michelin, where he worked alongside Mr Ghosn for the first time.
Once in place, he will need to avoid the classic mistake often made by mass-market experts who join premium brands, only to destroy the values by pushing out too many vehicles.
Some of the strategic decisions, such as whether to axe the Jaguar brand, potential plant closures, and how to whittle down the company’s cannibalising portfolio, will also involve overturning the actions of forensic predecessor Sir Ralf — something made more complicated by the German engineer’s continued presence at the business as its vice-chairman.
However, Mr Bolloré reports directly to Mr Chandrasekaran, and has been given complete authority to run the company, according to two people familiar with the arrangement.
At all costs, he will want to avoid repeating the rift with Mr Senard, which began with mistrust and spiralled until it culminated in a boardroom vote to remove the CEO.
While some place the blame for the breakdown in that relationship at Mr Bolloré’s feet, others think he was unfairly treated, served up to Nissan as a “sacrificial lamb” to quell the infighting. His closeness to Mr Ghosn, with whom he sometimes disagreed privately over strategy, was also exaggerated, allies say.
“It would be unfair to judge him by the period [as Renault CEO],” said one former alliance director.
When not at home in Paris, Mr Bolloré spends time on his boat — “Gospa”, the Croatian name of the Virgin Mary — in Brittany, where he was born. His friends say that more than anything it is his sailing which defines him.
Now, he will need all his nautical fortitude to steer Britain’s largest carmaker — a dinghy in an industry of supertankers — through some of the choppiest waters the industry has ever witnessed.
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