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Rise to the top: the French connection

17 Jun 2002

Bernard Couillaud, CEO of Coherent, has taken nearly 20 years to work his way up through the ranks of the company. He talks to Phillip Hill about how he got to where he is and his plans for the world's largest public laser company

From Opto & Laser Europe July/August 2001

Bernard Couillaud claims that he became the CEO of Coherent purely by accident.

It has taken him nearly 20 years and about seven different job titles to get to the top: from engineering section manager, to director of engineering, business-unit manager, vice-president and general manager and finally president and CEO.

A native Frenchman, Couillaud says that he would not have been so successful in a European company. "In the US they care about what you can do rather than what university you came from. In Europe, I doubt that I would have ended up as the CEO of a half-billion-dollar company just coming from a university in Bordeaux. Normally those places are reserved for people coming from the big schools in France, such as the Ecoles Polytechniques. But in the US they give you a chance."

He believes that his technical background is important for a company like Coherent, because most CEOs of businesses in Silicon Valley have a technical background. "This industry is changing too fast for a financial person to drive a hi-tech industry. They have to be close to the developments to set the strategy for the firm."

It is important for the CEO to be involved in all areas of a company, he says, and in Europe this is often missing. "I am pretty knowledgeable about all aspects of this company. I can go to the manufacturing floor and talk to the people in engineering. I am in contact with different people from all parts of the company - this gives me a strong sense of the needs of the business and where the firm is headed."

There have been some major changes at Coherent recently. After selling its medical group, the firm has focused on the semiconductor-equipment, material-processing, telecommunications, biotechnology and R&D markets. He says Coherent chose to divest its medical business because financial markets found the firm's diversity difficult to understand.

"When we looked at the rate of growth on the medical side it was not as much as the photonics opportunities. The technologies were completely different as was the customer base. It was time to make the choice between being a medical company and being a photonics company."

Couillaud has also appointed a chief operating officer for the first time. He said: "We have reached a point where the strategic planning and the overall day- to-day execution of company business require maximum attention". With John Ambroseo taking responsibility for the day-to-day operations, Couillaud will be able to devote more of his time and energy to determine the best and most profitable direction in which Coherent should move.

Couillaud has focused the business on emerging fast-growing markets and is keeping his eye on Europe, especially countries in eastern Europe. "Russia is still dormant. I had hoped that it would wake up a year or two ago, but it has not happened yet.

"The countries where we are seeing a lot of activity are Poland and the Czech Republic, mostly for materials-processing and scientific equipment. They are building machines for marking, which is a large business because every government in the world wants to be able to trace the products it has made. There are several Polish and Czech start-ups making this kind of equipment and they buy lasers from us."

With strategies such as this, it is clear that Coherent is set for continued growth, both organically and through acquisitions. It is also clear that Couillaud did not get to where he is by accident, but by hard work and knowledge of the industry.

TRIOPTICS GmbHFirst Light ImagingMad City Labs, Inc.SPECTROGON ABSchaefter und Kirchhoff GmbHHÜBNER PhotonicsLASEROPTIK GmbH
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