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Cédric Ballarin, SK 1993: “I felt the strength of the American nation”

18 February 2019

Cédric Ballarin has spent his entire career with the Faurecia group. Since 2016, he is President North America at FNK, a joint-venture between the French automotive equipment manufacturer and the Japanese company NHK Spring. Now an American citizen and president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce in Michigan, Cédric Ballarin considers himself a “translator” between his business culture and his adopted country.

 

A desire to work in the industrial sector

For 25 years, Cédric Ballarin’s career has kept him abroad and he finds this a very positive experience. “It’s something I hadn’t suspected or anticipated. I travelled a lot when I was young; I was interested in history and culture... Foundations that no doubt allowed me to break free from my routine, my mould, to embrace other ways of doing things that have taught me a great deal.”

Just after graduating from SKEMA, Cédric Ballarin headed to the UK for a VSN (today’s equivalent is the VIE or Volunteer for International Experience programme) stint working for Sommer-Allibert, an OEM making - among other things - plastic trims for car interiors, including dashboards, door panels, etc. This was a deliberate choice: “As a student, I wanted to work in the industrial sector. Compared to, say, FMCG or services, the industrial sector offers a multi-faceted approach to managing a business relationship with the customer. Besides price (and in this area the buyer has most of the bargaining power), there isn’t much room for initiatives, for creating interesting business proposals... In the industrial world we have other levers like quality or lead times. This makes the negotiations complex and very rich. In car manufacturing, there are many more possibilities due to the volumes involved and the magnitude of the sums invested.

 

Two interconnected job roles 

In the UK, the young man joined the sales department and also worked as a program manager: “This involved working with the other departments in the company to coordinate the different steps leading from the pure development of products (design, prototyping, component development) to their production. Program managers are in direct contact with both the client and the other internal departments. Generally, the project extends over 2 or 3 years.”

Sales and project organisation in the industrial sector remain the dominant themes in his profile: “I learned two sets of skills during those 4 years, and they’ve shaped my entire career. They are very much interconnected.

Cédric Ballarin then headed to the United States to develop an industrial project for Ford.  After a few months in Belgium, he returned to the United States in the late 2000s, this time for good. Since then, he has been living in Michigan and working for the same company, which became part of the Faurecia group at that time.

In 2002, I changed divisions. From plastic trims/moulding, I moved to the ‘seating’ division. I took over a huge programme for Chrysler; the entire production and development of the seating for 3 different vehicles, with annual production sales worth several hundred million dollars.

 

The trauma of the 2008 crisis

2008 and 2009 were marked by a major crisis that hit the American automobile manufacturing industry very hard and had a severe impact on the Detroit region. “It was abysmal. People in France have no idea of the magnitude of what happened. It would make your blood run cold. On my way to work in the mornings, I ‘d see no one on the roads, because there was no more work. Factories were closing; every day there were companies declaring bankruptcy. It was catastrophic. At Faurecia, we overhauled our entire model and focused on restructuring our costs and making our means of production more flexible to ensure the company’s survival.

Cédric is impressed by the resilience of the American people: “I’m French, so I thought people would take to the streets to protest and society would collapse. To my great surprise, nothing happened. Why? Because deep down, Americans are resistant. They have faith in themselves, in the economic and political system, and they believe that they can make it on their own by relying only on their own strengths. It was at that time that I felt the nation’s strength, in its reaction to the crisis.”

Since 2010, growth has been steady; slow but steady. “In 2017 and 2018, the situation was great for the automobile industry, with some concerns for 2019.

 

Being a foreigner is a career booster

Cédric Ballarin continued to work his way up in the company. In 2013, he was appointed VP of the GM and Chrysler accounts. In 2015, he was back to programs and responsible for all Faurecia seating programs in North America. In 2016, he was appointed VP for the Nissan account (the biggest account in North America for Faurecia seating, with 550 million dollars of annual revenue) and President of FNK. “FNK is a joint venture with a Japanese partner, NHK, which also supplies seating components. We are one of Nissan’s leading suppliers in North America, with several plants dedicated just to them. One in two Nissan vehicles in North America is fitted with either our seats or our components. This position is really interesting because of its magnitude. When we sell a seat, we make some of the elements and we buy components from other (sometimes commissioned) suppliers. For example, the air bag. The portion of added value we control is much greater than average. Because we don’t have very many commissioned parts, we have a huge amount of control over the supply chain.

Cédric Ballarin is convinced that being a Frenchman abroad has helped him rise through the ranks. “It allows us to be translators of the business culture. This positioning makes us attractive. It speeds up our career progression. We enjoy greater visibility. But this comes at a price. It is sometimes intimidating and difficult to be far away from family and friends.

 

Cultural differences to master

An American citizen since 2004, Cédric remains deeply attached to France and its culture, while also questioning some of its ways: “Living overseas makes you think differently; you become much better at reading other people.

In informal communication, there can be rituals that are very different to our own. What goes unsaid is very important in a business relationship and it can vary greatly from one country to another.” 
Some cultural differences appear from a very young age. “The American education system works on the assumption that an individual is good from the start. The marking system starts at 100 and then you receive demerit points. In France, you have to prove your value by earning points. As a result, in our country, we fear failure. In the USA, recognition is assumed from the start; individuals have great self-confidence. Competitiveness, in sport but also in other areas, is highly developed. In a professional setting, you have to take this competitive spirit into account when managing employees and encourage them to outdo themselves in order to win for themselves and for the company. Winning is the carrot.”

 

The French-American Chamber of Commerce in Michigan - a bridge between the two countries

For over 10 years, Cédric Ballarin has been actively involved with the Chamber of Commerce, an independent and apolitical private non-profit organisation. Today he is its president. The Chamber serves as a portal for companies wanting to invest on the other side of the Atlantic, and provides the opportunity to share useful business-related information. It is also an excellent medium for networking, a very widespread practice in the English-speaking world. “American society is very individualistic but Americans are not. In the absence of an effective public service, they surround themselves with support networks to assist them if something should go wrong. Having a network allows you to obtain information, but it can also be useful if you’re looking for partners, suppliers, work, etc.

For Cédric Ballarin, the Chamber is also “a way of linking my education, my French culture to a country in which I’ve chosen to live and to raise my family. It’s a bridge between the two.”

 

A successful integration

Cédric is married to an American and has two children; he does not plan on returning to France. “We are very attached to the American way of life. When you live in the USA, you get more ‘comfort and convenience’. Comfortable living, space, material comfort, more purchasing power... And everything is simple and practical in the United States. That’s rather nice. On the down side, you lose out in the “charm” department. Architecture, art, all the things that make the French culture so unique, restaurants on street corners, the history... I sometimes miss all that.

But Cédric Ballarin has found his place in this country shaped by immigration. “What really strikes me about American culture is that it’s a country that is very open to professional opportunities for people, irrespective of nationality. I don’t think an American would have the same opportunities in France. The people I’m in contact with all consider me American, but with a bit more French DNA than they have when compared to their own Irish or Italian roots, for example.  They’ve never seen me as a French person. My merits are all they care about. It’s refreshing, don’t you think?”, he says with a smile.

 

Embrace the social revolution

Having adopted the “positive attitude” that is characteristic of Americans, Cédric is not afraid of change: “Young people are arriving on the job market while we’re in the midst of a social revolution. The way people interact is changing, due to social media infiltrating our daily lives. I’d like to tell them that they should embrace this revolution and immerse themselves in it without fearing it, keep moving forward, and above all continue to learn. The half-life of knowledge is getting shorter all the time. So learn to learn, in order to give the very best of yourself in this changing world. There will be a few risks but also a lot of opportunities.

 

Interview by Marie-Parlange (lepetitjournal.com) for SKEMA Alumni

 

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