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Cover Story -- Voices of the New Europe
ONLINE ORIGINAL: Laurent Piepszownik/France: "We Are a Euroland Company"
In the 1970s, Laurent Piepszownik was a Communist Party member who organized student strikes at the French engineering school he attended. In 1990, he did something that by French standards was even more radical: He quit a well-paying job at national utility Electricité de France. Chafing under a rigid bureaucracy and eager to try his own ideas, he set up Europstat, a company that designs information systems for corporate clients. Now it's a high-tech star, with sales this year expected to top $45 million. And Piepszownik, who holds a majority stake, is worth about $90 million.
Piepszownik, 47, is one of a new breed in France: millionaire entrepreneurs. These newcomers are shaking up the country's elitist culture, where the road to success in business traditionally led from a top école to the executive suite in a big company. They have moved swiftly to capitalize on European economic integration and embraced the Internet far more quickly than have France's corporate giants. "In France, our business leaders are taught not to criticize things, simply to reproduce things," Piepszownik says. "Those are exactly the qualities you don't need as the head of a company. If you don't change, within six months you are going to be dead."
Certainly, Piepszownik isn't sitting still. Until now, Europstat has focused on internal corporate systems, such as inventory and quality control. But as e-commerce spreads, companies are under pressure to set up systems providing instant information to customers as well. To beef up Europstat's capabilities, Piepszownik recently acquired two French companies with expertise in such systems, and he's looking for more acquisitions. The company, whose shares have risen nearly fourfold since its introduction on Paris' Nouveau Marche last year, has just launched a $17 million capital increase to finance the planned expansion.
Piepszownik, whose family emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s, says European economic integration is blowing fresh air through stagnant boardrooms, as French companies are forced to become more innovative and competitive. "As for ourselves, we are not a French company, we are a Euroland company," he says.
Yet Piepszownik's brand of entrepreneurship has a distinctively French flavor. Although he has quit the Communist Party, he admires Socialists such as Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, believing them less corrupt and more humanitarian than leading French conservatives. And Piepszownik doesn't flaunt his wealth. A bachelor, he lives in a Paris apartment, has no vacation home, and seldom travels for pleasure. His hobby is watching rugby, including several French teams that Europstat sponsors.
Who knows -- with his modest tastes and business savvy, Piepszownik might even persuade his countrymen that "nouveau riche" is a term to be proud of.By Carol Matlack in Paris