Gerard Valin has the task of steering France's top business school in an increasingly multinational direction into the new century.
He arrived as the new director-general of Groupe ESSEC in January and is preparing for his first full academic year. He has taken over an institution at the summit of France's grandes ecoles which specialise in management and administration.
In the past decade, activities and achievements of the ecole Super-ieure des Sciences economiques et Commerciales have included a centre of continuing training; programmes for training through apprenticeship; a degree for updating the skills of working managers; and new chairs, set up in partnership with businesses, in disciplines such as urban economy, business communications, health management, hotel management and luxury goods management.
It has postgraduate studies agreements with other top schools and universities, and introduced a double diploma with Mannheim University. Last year, it became the first school outside North America to be accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. It has links with universities in six continents.
ESSEC was set up as the Institut economique in 1907. Five years later it was taken over by the Paris Catholic Institute, where it tok its present name and stayed until the early 1970s when it moved to Cergy. Today, it is an independent school recognised by the state and affiliated to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Versailles Val d'Oise-Yvelines. Young people wanting to study for its general business degree must achieve an excellent baccalaureat, before spending two years at cours preparatoires, rigorously selective special schools designed for admittance to the grandes ecoles.
There are places for 400 of the 3,000-plus candidates who pass the entrance exam. They take a three-year degree course, which includes study of English and another language and work experience as a management trainee or on an apprenticeship. After the first year's compulsory core course, covering such basics as marketing, accountancy and computers, each student follows his or her own combination of studies from the 150 management courses on offer.
All students spend some time working abroad. Unique features of the ESSEC diploma, says Mr Valin, are the individual nature of each student's course and integral work experience under tutor supervision. He said: "Our education is adapted to the personality of each one; we are not out to produce clones. We are the only grande ecole which has taken this innovatory step."
Businesses queue to offer placements. "We have 300 requests for 200 pupils. We want to develop links with the small to medium firms, as well as big companies," said Mr Valin.
The group has developed a wide range of other management programmes including:
* a four-year undergraduate course at the EPSCI school of international management.
* specialised postgraduate studies including ten programmes in finance, logistics, business law and strategy; MBAs in luxury brand management and agri-food management; a qualification in human resources management; and a master's degree in international hospitality management run jointly with Cornell University's school of hotel administration
* training teachers, researchers and business consultants in management sciences and business economics on the doctoral course
* ESSEC IMD, centre for executive education based at La Defense, the business area to the west of Paris, offers the executive MBA, a part-time course for working managers to update skills, and a specialised range of programmes covering general management, hospitals, health and urban management, seminars, language programmes and in-house training courses.
Mr Valin trained at the ecole des Hautes etudes Commerciales and at University of Paris-Sorbonne, and followed Harvard's advanced management course for leaders of major international groups.
He is a doctor of German studies and of financial management sciences. He won a prize for his publication on economic and financial mechanisms of insurance companies, and is joint author, with Briton Lionel Collins, of a reference book on financial audit. He has worked in France and abroad in management in several large companies, most recently Groupe Lazard.
He said: "We have to respect standards at an international level. Our MBA must be truly transnational because we hope our students will reply to needs of businesses in different countries. They will have exchanges in different cultures, and they need mobility, adaptation and understanding of the market in its diversity."