For Pierre Richard, a graduate of the Polytechnique and the Ecole nationale des ponts et chaussées (class of 1966), engineers have many career opportunities in finance.
You have an engineering background. How did you become a banker?
With humour, I could say “by chance”. But there is a very strong common thread in my journey. In my studies, I was motivated by questions of urban planning, urban development and living conditions. At Polytechnique, I took architecture courses, then I did the Ponts et Chaussées before taking a master’s degree in “urban design” in the United States.
Over time, my professional life has been oriented towards finance. As Director General of Local Authorities, I participated in the major reform of decentralization, which included essential financial aspects. And, in 1983, I was appointed Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Caisse des Dépôts, a public financial institution then undergoing renovation, to define new ways of financing decentralization. It is thanks to this position that I became a financial engineer. I then created Crédit local de France, which then opened up to international markets by becoming Dexia.
His career path
Life is like geology. We build layer by layer, we widen our field of vision. This led me to open up and, as an urban planner, to become the banker of local development. There is continuity with the sector Dexia is involved in: the living environment, community facilities, decentralization. And an operational support point, the bank.
What did your curriculum bring you?
By approaching the banking profession from the specific angle of public equipment financing, I had a fundamental asset. I understood the area I was going to finance. An engineer knows how to negotiate specifications or a call for tenders to build a bridge and a road. My contacts with local elected officials were simplified because they themselves have to solve very concrete problems and the engineers are field workers who like to deal with operational issues.
Isn’t the banking world a little abstract for an engineer?
It is true that when I was working for the new city of Cergy-Pontoise, I saw the city coming out of the ground. For an engineer, the bank can indeed appear to be a somewhat abstract world. I admire a lot the people who work in the financial markets, but they are in the complete virtual world. For my part, I kept a link with the concrete. When you are the first financier in the world of wind turbines, you can see the concrete role you play. This aspect is found in all project and infrastructure financing. When an engineer works on the financing of a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, he has a lot of fun! That being said, banking is fascinating in the sense that it is the key to economic development. Without it, we could not finance most business projects, real estate…
Does this mean that engineers are confined to a few professions in finance?
Not at all. There have always been engineers in the bank, but they have long been specialized, especially in IT. They can now claim to work in all trades. Because banking has become an industry that requires very specialized skills. And the engineers will find their happiness there. With the highly sophisticated products developed by our establishments, scientific training becomes a tremendous asset. In addition, the current evolution of the economy towards ever more expertise is favourable to engineers. They have very diversified career opportunities in banking.
The bank of local authorities
Dexia was born in 1996 from the merger of two European institutions: Crédit communal de Belgique and Crédit local de France, created by the Caisse des dépôts et consignations. Specialising in the financing of local public services, the group is the world leader in this activity. It has also diversified into retail banking, particularly in Belgium and Luxembourg, and into asset and insurance management. At the end of 2006, it had 33,300 employees in 33 countries.
Are engineering courses adapted to these new careers?
What we learn in schools is not always appropriate. But banking institutions train young people. There is sometimes a small reservation with regard to engineers: we consider that they are too technical, that they have a sense of the product well made, but less that of the customer. They must learn to be more open to better understand the lawyers, financiers, salespeople they will meet in multidisciplinary teams. They need to go beyond their rigour and seriousness, which sometimes put them in specialist positions.
Can a young engineer aspire to become the head of a major bank?
Of course, at the end of a course where the engineer would have proven himself both internationally and in several areas of banking. Today, the choice of heads of large institutions is much more open. Starting from an initially nationalized sector, where the State designated the bosses, we have moved on to a largely privatized sector where the selection of directors is based solely on competence and experience, regardless of the person’s professional or administrative origin. But for an ambitious engineer, an additional education such as an MBA is an additional asset to reach the highest responsibilities.