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"You need to know how to take risks, including for others"

Interview with Gilles Samyn, CEO of CNP

When asked if he has literally devoted his career to Albert Frère and his group, Gilles Samyn hesitates: "Yes, although... ". The figures don't lie, however: it's 37 years now that CNP's CEO has been working in the bosom of GBL and the Frère-Bourgeois group. And this loyal service is set to come to end on his 68th birthday.

"At his request, I am committed to remaining at Mr Frère's side, and the plan is for me to do so until my 68th birthday." It's a promise that Gilles Samyn, currently 61, intends to keep, but for him, future plans are just road maps that they never turn out quite how we imagine. "If the family decides that I should leave, we will go our separate ways. And if they want me to stay, we shall see."

A brilliant mind, as well as a no-nonsense, direct and thoroughly disarming fellow, Gilles Samyn declares that he has never had the aim of succeeding the Baron de Gerpinnes. A more discreet kind of character, he has always managed to remain in his right-hand man role and opens up very rarely, particularly when the conversation turns to himself or his career. "I'm not really that interesting" he believes. But for Ninedots, he has made an exception.


You have said: “My career comes down to one occasion and three men.”

Gilles Samyn: "Eugène de Barsy, the former chairman of the Banking Commission and professor of accountancy at the Solvay Business School, had a great effect on my career. He was a teacher much admired for his values. When I was in my 3rd year at Solvay, he allowed me to set exercises as part of his course, to wipe the board, etc... I haven’t stopped teaching since, as he gave me the bug for the transmission of knowledge. My first-ever job was in teaching and I’ve kept my hand in ever since.

Apart from my father, the “second man in my life” has undoubtedly been Baron Lambert. Shortly after joining GBL in 1974, he offered me what was the finest opportunity imaginable for a wet-behind-the-ears 27-year-old. I became his “all-purpose analyst”. Better still, when I pointed out to him that GBL had no real consolidated accounting, he replied: “Then do it yourself!” So I had the opportunity of setting up the whole GBL management auditing system. When someone shows trust in you like that, you don’t forget it.

Finally, there was Albert Frère and the freedom he has always given me, including this chance to take over CNP, without which we would have had one less leverage platform and would definitely not have been able to accomplish so many great things."

And yet you so very nearly never rejoined the Frère-Bourgeois group…

"It’s true that shortly after Frère-Bourgeois took part in the takeover of GBL in 1982, I chose to leave the group, to the great disappointment of Baron Lambert. I left because I felt that I had less of a future there, and my plan was never to return. After all, I’d set up my own company, it was going really well and I was just about to open up a large financial consultancy office in Belgium for one of the Big 6 at the time, when Albert Frère’s proposal came in. His CFO had quit. I mulled it over for 3 days before accepting. It was definitely a pivotal moment in my career. So much for future plans…"

Have you ever regretted not continuing on your own path as an entrepreneur and running your own company?

"Being an entrepreneur does not necessarily mean creating your own business. It also means being capable of taking control of your destiny and that of others, knowing how to take risks, including for others. And there’s no reason why this can’t happen in an organisation which is not your own. When Albert Frère came looking for me, I felt that there was “harmony” in this group, that there were developments to be undertaken, provided that I could express myself and present ideas, and as long as there was team spirit. Because we are nothing on our own. It’s all very well being at the prow of the ship, but having a corporate vision is essential."

Four main principles are championed in your office: “First say yes; Keep things simple; Make a decision; Never regret.” To what point do they govern your day-to-day conduct?

"It’s a little nod to the Americans, who are very fond of these sorts of phrases and management theories. I came up with them just after celebrating my 50th birthday, at a time when I was making regular business trips to the US. For me, these are the four “rules” which should ideally be put into practice but which are not so easy to follow in the daily reality. But they should be, so I wrote them down because I’ve experienced them.

In practical terms, “First say Yes” means you always need to have a positive basic attitude when a project is presented to you and say yes. It’s also important to avoid complexity and favour simplicity. If you haven’t convinced your audience in three minutes, you’ve lost them. So “Keep things simple”. For someone like myself who has a tendency to intellectualise things, it’s vital to keep this principle in mind.

“Make a decision” and not “Take a decision”: the nuance is important, as it’s there to remind us that a decision is constructed, that’s it’s part of a process of craftsmanship. And finally, there’s “Never regret”… Every day, there’s something we could dwell on. There’s no shortage of opportunities for regret! But regretting what’s happened or which might have happened is completely pointless. It’s crucial to have the wisdom to look to the future, without turning back. We can only do better next time."

You’ve been referred to as a workaholic, to the point of having installed a bed I your office when you had no choice but to rest up following a slipped disc. Would you be irreplaceable?

"I wouldn’t make that claim. Some might say it indicates a lack of trust, but that’s not the case. After all, I trust my staff enough to have them constantly taking projects home to work on. Yes, that incident happened, but it only lasted a few days. When I’ve started something, I have to see it through. I’m responsible and I can’t just leave people alone. If I miss a day, I lose touch with events, but when you have responsibilities, you need to stay close.

I tend to believe that when you leave people to get by on their own for a few days, they don’t dare to assume full authority and don’t use their powers as effectively as they would if they knew that you were never coming back.

And yes, I am replaceable and, what’s more, I fully intend to organise my own replacement. My few remaining years with the Frère group will enable me to sort that out. The future has to be with younger people, who will be able to run things over the long term. Who will my successor be? Definitely a fortysomething."


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