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Serial Entrepreneur: Philippe Courtot (Part 3)

Posted on Sunday, Feb 4th 2007

In this third portion of the interview, Philippe discusses his move to the US, and his progression there. He joins Thompson CGR, and encounters more of the cultural difficulties he thought he had left behind in France. We learn about his successes and the role he played in raising cancer awareness!

SM: And that brings us to 1981? PC: Yes, that is when I came to the US, in 1981. In 1985 I got my green card. I became the VP of marketing, and after 10 years it was time for me to change and do something new. I was attracted by Thompson CGR, which was looking for a president of the US operations. The criteria were typical French.

First, they wanted someone who was French, second they wanted someone with a scientific diploma and third they wanted someone with US experience. And they found in fact that when they used the big head hunter firms they had only two people, myself and one other person, who met these criteria. The other individual was very expensive for a French firm, so they finally selected me because I was, of course, less expensive.

I then moved to Maryland to help the old medical activities of Westinghouse which had been acquired by CGR. This was a company which had managed to last for 25 years. In the 1940’s they were manufacturing torpedoes for WWII, and they were a company that was transitioning to becoming a Radiology company. They had two unions of 750 people. I obviously took the job because it was a President role, a huge opportunity, and I knew nothing about Radiology so I changed industries.

My only reservation was whether or not to go back into the French system, and you could see through the interview process that they were, everybody in the company, all the top management, always studying you, and they had the philosophy that “We are the best, you execute for us. You bring us the data, we are the intelligent people, and we will tell you what to do and you execute”. So I was not at ease with that, but nevertheless it was a big responsibility, so I said “Fine, I’ll do it”.

Very quickly I realized that what the French management wanted me to do did not make much sense. They wanted me to push for MRI. Our MRI technology was behind the curve, and they still wanted me to go and push and push and push the MRI. That was the number one requirement. So a month later I came back and said “You know, this is a very difficult marketplace for us to penetrate. However, I see a huge opportunity in the Mammography marketplace. For two reasons, one the American Cancer Society is promoting mammograms in a nation wide campaign, and second I can see that we have demand and we do not have enough units so if we ramp up the production big time, I can sell all of the units”.

So what they said to me was that “Mr. Courtot we are not interested really, this is not for you to essentially devise the strategy of the company. We asked you to push the MRI, not the Mammography.” So, I tried for another month and I was convinced there was no market there. So I tried for another month, and I came back and showed them that there was no market there, and I came with more facts with me. I still believed we could innundate the marketplace if we went after Mammography, because we really had good image quality, good product quality.

The problem was to manage the production. They still told me that it was not what they were asking me to do, it was not relevant, and it was not our market. I was ready to quit, but I though of one idea. So I went back to them and asked what would they do if I brought them a lot of orders. At that time we only had 150 units scheduled for production for the entire year, and they said as long as they told me that I had orders which could not be cancelled they would agree to manufacture.

So I went to all of our dealers, and I told them that I had good news and bad news. The good news is that if you give me some orders I am going to reduce the price and I will deliver the units on time. If you do not give me these orders, I am increasing the price 50%. Therefore, I got a bunch of orders, and they were real orders and they agreed to increase the production. We went from 150 units to 625 units.

The second thing we did very well was I wanted to find a way to be above the crowd, so I remembered the older days where we had the idea to demystify the PC. I said I need to do something like that in Mammography. I went to an agency that built a prior first campaign, and said I don’t have a big budget so I think it should almost be done pro-bono because this is for a cause, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

They said it would be very difficult to do, but finally they called me back, and the guy who designed the campaign, Albert, explained to me that he thought it was a neat opportunity. They did a wonderful campaign with Diahann Carroll, and a 30 second spot, and it touched about everybody. It really elevated awareness, and I had managed with only $150,000 to get a cancer campaign which benefited a lot of people. So here we are with the best unit in the marketplace, and the marketplace is now hot.

625 units were sold the first year, and we had a huge backlog the next year with an order of 1400 units. And in less than two years we took 40% market share from less than 2%.

The interesting thing about that is that the French management blamed me, they said “Mr. Courtot we never asked you to do that, now the company is depending too much on the US market”. I just could not understand and it took me some time to figure it out. They were smart people, so why would they insist for me to do something that made no sense and not be appreciative when I had been successful? By the way the company was eventually sold to GE.

SM: GE bought the company because of the Mammogram equipment? PC: Exactly. So what happened was that the medical division of the company was getting large subsidies and to receive the subsidies they had to push the MRI equipment showing that the French technology was great. So that was why the management was mad at me because I was not helping them push the MRI according with the commitment they had made. Of course they never told me they had made such a stupid commitment. I was again a second grade citizen and not really part of the management. That was a huge disconnect, obviously.

SM: You were just trying to make the company successful and make the best business decisions! PC: Exactly, but they never communicated their issues. I could also have done that. But there was no dialogue, because you just do what you are told. I was very happy when the company was sold to GE.

SM: And after that, California? PC: Yes. So, here I was so happy you cannot believe. Here I was finally in the promised land in the heart of the Silicon Valley with the American people and out from the French mentality.

(to be continued)

[Part 11]
[Part 10]
[Part 9]
[Part 8]
[Part 7]
[Part 6]
[Part 5]
[Part 4]
[Part 3]
[Part 2]
[Part 1]

This segment is part 3 in the series : Serial Entrepreneur: Philippe Courtot
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