France finds 'The Grizz' pulls no punches

Thu, Feb 21, 2013, 00:00

Cantillon:“The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three.”

So says the chief executive of a US tyre maker in a letter to the French industry minister explaining why he had no interest in taking over the former Goodyear tyre factory in northern France.

Titan International’s chief executive Maurice Taylor, also known as “The Grizz”, said he would have to be stupid to take over a factory whose staff only put in three hours work a day.

He added that when he expressed his views to the French unions on the working hours and wages of French employees, “They told me that’s the French way!”

The letter was written on February 8th and addressed to the minister, Arnaud Montebourg. The French minister refrained from an immediate reply: “Don’t worry, there will be a response,” Montebourg told reporters yesterday after meeting with President François Hollande. “It’s better written down.”

Union leaders were less cautious. CGT official Mickael Wamen said Taylor’s comments were “insulting” and based on a visit to a plant already on short-time working. Taylor belonged more “in an asylum”, he said, than in the boardroom of a multinational.

While some may judge Taylor a great loss to the diplomatic corps, he did once run for the White House in the 1996 Republican primary, campaigning on a pro-business ticket. For all the colourful language of his remarks, Taylor’s comments were a new and public knock to France’s business image after verbal attacks last year by Montebourg on firms seeking to shut ailing industrial sites prompted international derision.

Goodyear’s Amiens Nord plant employs 1,250 people, who have been battling demands that they work more shifts or accept layoffs. The government said in January the site faced imminent closure.

Taylor its clear will not be part of any rescue plan. According to ‘The Grizz’: “Titan is going to buy a Chinese tyre company or an Indian one, pay less than one euro per hour wage and ship all the tyres France needs,” he said. “You can keep the so-called workers.”

The Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce publishes a report on the long-term economic prospects and opportunities for Ireland in Arab countries.

Independent gets tough on pensions

Independent Newspapers is playing tough – effectively putting a gun to the head of both its own workers and its lenders in its efforts to “right size” the group and restructure its crippling €423 million debt.

Staff – and the roughly 400 people who have left the company in recent years – are being told to accept a 50 per cent cut to their pensions ... or face the prospect of getting nothing at all if the company’s pension scheme has to be wound up.

Those already retired will see the security of their retirement income significantly reduced, with future payments tied to Irish sovereign annuities. A default by the Government on Irish debt could see their income disappear.

The fourfold rise in the deficit at Bank of Ireland’s pension schemes last year, disclosed today, and the likely imminent introduction of harsh measures to address it points to the broader malaise in Irish occupational pension schemes.

The effective dismantling of Independent’s pension scheme – which has yet to be formally communicated to staff – is just the latest in a series of decisive moves by the company since businessman Denis O’Brien and others ousted the O’Reilly family from control of the media group.

The company has also sold off its South African business and forced out management at an Australian group in which it was a significant shareholder over fears that they might dilute INM’s position.

But it’s not just the staff who are feeling the heat. The Independent proposal also warns lenders not to block the channelling of some funds from the South African deal to smooth any pension restructuring.

The plan envisages a €20 million “inducement” to improve the possibility of the restructuring plan being successful”.

The document warns lenders that shareholders may not back the South African deal at all without some resolution of the Irish pension issue – which would leave lenders emptyhanded.

It also cautions that failure to get a deal could further diminish the value of the group to creditors and that any imposition of a deal seen to be “unfair” could trigger legal challenges that would be disruptive: if successful, they could “crystallise a legal liability” which would hardly be welcome.

The company is on record going back to last year as planning to use some of the proceeds to fund further redundancies.

With the value of the South African deal now well below initial expectations, that might be difficult. If it does happen, the new pensions “promise” means there is likely to be no shortage of applicants.

Central Bank urged to get active in dispute

Credit union members in Newbridge are smarting at the cost of a special manager put in to organise the affairs of the financial institution by the Central Bank.

The bank, which regulates credit unions, installed a team led by Luke Charleton of Ernst Young in January last year amid concerns about the credit union’s financial position.

The High Court heard yesterday that the eventual cost of the exercise could hit €2million and members complained that there was precious little information to explain just why all the money was being spent.

The Central Bank, it was reported, had indicated it had no difficulty with the fees sought, regarded Mr Charleton’s work as necessary, proportionate and of a high standard but was “in the court’s hands”.

The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns was not as sanguine. If agreement couldn’t be reached on fees, he warned both sides, the court might have to examine the nature of the work done “from A to Z”.

He also suggested the Bank might take on a more “active role” as to what fees are appropriate.

The Newbridge Credit Union special manager was appointed in January last year – the first such appointment under new legislation to monitor financial institutions. While Mr Charleton and his team have twice reduced the scale of their charges, the liability on the members of the credit union is substantial and there is justifiable concern that addressing whatever concerns may have been there at the outset could take as long as 18 months.

After hearing concern at the lack of detail in the bills provided, Mr Charleton offered to provide more detailed material. For their part, the members hope that might lead to “a more realistic assessment” of what would be an “appropriate” fee level.

That’s an ambitious aspiration but for the sake of the legislation and the safe management of credit unions, it is important that both sides get it right in their landmark first exercise of the new powers.

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