If you are part of the Parisian business elite, you are probably a staunch ally of Jean-Charles Naouri or a fierce critic.
Many lionise the "godfather of French retail" for making the beloved domestic supermarket group Casino the heart of a multinational retail empire. But having had some bitter disputes, the shy and intense 70 year-old has his adversaries.
Friends and critics at least all agree that Naouri has a mind like a steel trap — and a penchant for debt. "He has a computer in his brain," said one analyst. "But that's part of the problem. He's too smart for his own good."
Naouri stunned corporate France last week when he put the four heavily indebted parent companies of Casino, where he is chief executive and controlling shareholder, into a court-administered "procédure de sauvegarde". That allows him to freeze the companies' more than €3.5 billion ($5.9b) of debts for up to 18 months and draw up a restructuring plan.
It was a moment of vindication for the hedge fund managers who had bet that the Casino group, which has more than 200,000 employees globally, could no longer support the debts amassed via a complex web of companies that sit above the supermarket.
In an example of his self-belief, Naouri warned short-sellers last year that those betting against the company did so "at their risk and peril," and is able to recite from memory the names of those funds who have short positions in Casino.
Critics questioned whether Naouri has gone beyond merely speaking out against them. In late 2017, US investor Carson Block, who had been shorting Casino's shares, revealed an incident in which a French corporate intelligence operative posed as a Wall Street Journal reporter in an attempt to uncover more information.
Naouri's takeover method proceeds in three stages: charm, conquest, eviction. He built his empire through a combination of financial engineering and a vision for the retail sector.
Block believes Casino or Naouri may have been behind it. However, they have consistently denied any role in the matter.
Born in Algeria, Naouri moved to France at the age of five. A stellar academic career followed. He received his baccalaureate at the age of 15, completed a PhD in mathematics in a year, and graduated from several elite universities including Ena, the training ground for the country's political elite.
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After stints as a civil servant and a managing partner at Rothschild & Cie Bank, in 1987 Naouri established his own investment fund, Euris. In 1991, he used Euris to acquire Brittany-based retailer Rallye before engineering a merger with Casino. Naouri saw off a hostile takeover attempt from retailer Promodès in 1997.
Other acquisitions followed, including Brazilian retailer Pão de Açúcar, upmarket brand Monoprix, convenience store chain Franprix and online discounter Cdiscount. Early-stage talks with larger French rival Carrefour fell through last year, leading to a bizarre war of words played out in stock exchange notices.
"Naouri's takeover method proceeds in three stages: charm, conquest, eviction," said one person who has experienced it. "He built his empire through a combination of financial engineering and a vision for the retail sector."
He is credited with spotting changing consumer habits long before rivals, cutting the group's exposure to hypermarkets and investing heavily in proximity stores and ecommerce.
Always smartly dressed for work in a suit and a red tie, when he wears a watch it is a plain Swatch. "He's a workaholic, a family man and a loyal friend," said Serge Weinberg, chairman of Sanofi and a friend since their Ena days.
"Naouri is someone who gives the feeling of being very hard, but he is actually very sensitive," said another. "He protects himself enormously."
Naouri's business lunches are held in a discrete private room at the Hôtel Le Bristol.
He shuns the Parisian social scene, preferring to spend evenings with his two younger children or playing chess against his computer — and sometimes winning. His eldest son Gabriel, 37, left Casino 18 months ago after working there for a decade.
Yachts, fast cars or contemporary art hold no appeal; he prefers old collectors' books, editions of Shakespeare or ancient Greek and Latin (which he reads in their original language). He drives around Paris in a Smart car when conducting store visits.
Famously cautious, Naouri, like other top chief executives, uses private bodyguards and is even rumoured to have his office checked regularly for bugs. At least one regular visitor to Casino's offices, who declined to be named, removes phone and laptop batteries.
The court procedure hands Casino's holding companies some time, but Naouri's challenge is far from over. He will need all of his wits in the months ahead to prove that he is not, in the words of one rival, "a colossus with feet of clay". He is determined to improve the profitability of Casino and keep control of it.
Even Naouri's fiercest critics are not quite prepared to write him off. "It's not uncommon that the person who caused the crisis then pitches himself as the best solution to the crisis," Block told the Financial Times this week. "And sometimes they are right."
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Written by: Harriet Agnew and Robert Smith
© Financial Times