Managing France's August vacation tradition

Posted: August 19, 2014

John Crowe, who heads the North American operations for the $55.8 billion French building materials company Saint-Gobain Corp., was in corporate offices in Paris late last month when he noticed it.

"I could feel the sucking sound," Crowe said.

It was his French colleagues anticipating their legendary August exit out of Paris into the countryside for an extensive summer vacation.

By now, only 5 percent of those employed at headquarters are working at their desks - the rest can be found on the Mediterranean or in the Alps.

"The company almost shuts down," marveled Crowe, 60, who, like many CEOs, works a little every day even when on vacation from Saint-Gobain North American headquarters in Valley Forge. Maybe it's because Crowe has two jobs - he also leads CertainTeed Corp., a Saint-Gobain subsidiary.

Question: That's a big cultural difference.

Answer: It's not right or wrong. It's what France does. It's good for them, and they recharge.

Q: How about you?

A: It irritates my wife if I don't have a vacation. I sneak behind her back [to work] - honestly, I do. She will go out for a walk with the dog and I do a little bit of work.

Q: You are a big advocate of increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Why?

A: We're in this good cycle now of industrial growth in the U.S. There are lots of blue-collar jobs, that are good-paying jobs. What is expected of the average manufacturing worker is very different from what was expected years ago. There is sophisticated equipment. That takes a certain aptitude in science and math for people to be trained and learn. There's a shortage of qualified manufacturing people. A lot of it is [because] we can't find the right skill set.

Q: What's missing?

A: It's a demonstrated aptitude in being able to be trained technically.

Q: How does the U.S. attitude about STEM contrast with French ideas?

A: In the French society, when you are a kid, the way your parents try to raise you, they just pound math and science into the kids with the aspiration that they are going to get into the [main universities] to study engineering.

Q: You began your career in a STEM job, a chemical engineer, but quickly moved out of it to finance.

A: I decided pretty quickly that my interest was in business.

Q: But then, after getting an MBA, you took an engineering job with a company that was later acquired by Saint-Gobain.

A: I wanted to get a foundation on the manufacturing side, and then move into finance. They said, "John, you are our poster child. This is what we aspire to find, people who understand the manufacturing side of the business and want to be in finance."

Q: Your desk is very neat.

A: There's a lot of stress in my world and if I have too much stuff, it makes me more stressed.

Q: What about at home?

A: I'll throw my clothes on the floor. It drives my wife crazy. She will kick them into a ball and I'll pick them up. I'll go a day or two before doing the dishes.

Q: So the pressure is on before your wife visits you in Philadelphia.

A: That's honestly how it works. I'll actually vacuum. Maybe it's a guy thing. My wife sees things if they are dirty. I don't notice.


Titles: Chief executive, president of CertainTeed Corp. and Saint-Gobain Corp., North America

Homes: Center City, Philadelphia.

Weekends: Southborough, Mass.

Family: Wife, Pam; children, Stephen, 31, Stephanie, 29.

Diplomas: Clarkson University, chemical engineering; Boston College, master's in business administration.

Lunch: Exercises on a stationary bicycle, reads the newspaper.

On the menu: Yogurt, an apple.


Where: Valley Forge.

Business: Building materials - high-tech roofing, windows, siding, insulation.

History: Founded in 1665 to manufacture glass for the Palace of Versailles in Paris.

Example: Kimmel Center's glass ceiling.

Revenues: $55.8 billion, $7.9 billion in North America, $3.3 billion from CertainTeed.

  Employees: 15,000 in North America, 190,000 worldwide, 796 locally.

Coming soon: New headquarters, Malvern.


CEO John Crowe on trading in his corner office for a desk in a big, open communal work space.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

215-854-2769 @JaneVonBergen

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