Twenty-six years after she joined Renault, Marie-Christine Caubet is finally doing what she always wanted to do: sell cars.
But she does it in a big way: In July, she was named Renault's sales director for France, and became the first woman ever to join the company's 20-member executive committee.
That key promotion after four years spent successfully revamping Renault's crucial factory-owned dealer group has led to her selection as the 2000 Automotive News Europe Woman of the Year.
What Caubet likes about sales, she says, is that there is no escaping the numbers: you deliver or you don't.
'The nice thing about it is the immediacy, the fact that you can see the concrete results of the actions you take,' says Caubet.
What she likes too is the contact, and the challenge of managing a team of some 800 people.
The 50-year-old executive runs Renault's French sales from a bright office overlooking the company's vast compound on the western edge of Paris, in Boulogne-Billancourt. Much of the ground is empty and awaits redevelopment. Renault closed its last manufacturing plant in Billancourt in early 1992.
In the same way, Renault's French sales network is undergoing drastic changes. It is Caubet's brief to see that the number of dealerships in France is cut to 100, compared with some 450 two years ago.
She knows what restructuring is about: From 1996 to 2000, she reorganized Renault's factory dealers as head of Renault France Automobiles.
The factory dealers are crucial to Renault's market share, especially in Europe's major urban areas. Renault France Automobiles accounted for one-third of Renault sales in France - 730,246 passenger cars plus light commercial vehicles in 1999.
The network used to lose money regularly. Net losses soared to FF503 million (E76.1 million) in 1997, but were cut to FF149 million in 1998. Under Caubet, Renault France Automobiles turned a profit in 1999 - earning FF45 million.
Running the dealer division came after a career spent in the finance and marketing departments. 'It was all good experience, even if it was not my first choice,' she says.
After graduating from Institut d'Etudes Politiques, the French equivalent of the London School of Economics, Caubet joined Renault with the intention of linking up with the sales team.
'She is a forceful combination of energy, modesty and charm,' says Thierry Dombreval, senior vice president in charge of Renault's strategy and marketing, who has known Caubet about 10 years. 'She can be a demanding boss. She sets her objectives clearly, and she expects fast delivery.'
Dombreval calls her 'a team player.'
'She is a natural extrovert,' he says. 'She can be quite emotional and she has a good sense of humor. She enjoys the good life, just like the man of her life.'
'The man of her life' is her husband, Jean-Francois Caubet, who is the head of communication for Renault's Formula One cars.
Caubet has two main challenges in the coming months. First, to prepare for the end of block exemption - whatever the result will be.
Second, to cope with the goals of Renault's 'New Distribution' program, which plans to deliver cars to customers in two weeks and to get up to 70 percent of production in a make-to-order system by the end of 2001 in Europe.
Apart from this, she will also have to keep Renault's market share in France above 28 percent, and deal with a French car market that has declined slightly since July and is forecast to be flat in 2001.
Caubet, sprightly and straightforward, turns reticent and diplomatic when asked what she expects from the European Commission's plans to end block exemption, the system that allows carmakers to control their distribution networks in Europe.
'We want the current system to stay, because it works for the benefit of the customer,' she says. 'In the end, it will be the customer who will decide. Large car manufacturers argue exclusive car dealers give their clients a quality of service they would not find elsewhere.'
Regardless of what Brussels decides, Caubet foresees big changes in the way cars are sold in France. She expects a rise in the number of cars sold to companies. 'Perhaps we won't reach the level of fleet cars sold in the UK, where they represent some 60 percent, but we could get close to 35 percent or 40 percent,' she says.
Caubet also believes that more and more individual customers will be attracted by long-term car rentals, and that it could represent 15 percent of the market, compared with about 2 percent currently.
'For the time being, there is a bit of a mental block for some people, who want to own their own car, but this will change,' she says. Renault will promote long-term rental early next year when it launches its second-generation Laguna.
Thinking further ahead, Caubet says Renault dealers could offer short-term rentals, or provide cars with chauffeurs for one-off outings. Renault would become a provider of 'mobility' services. 'But it's just an idea, there's nothing concrete yet,' she says.
Meanwhile, there is enough to keep her occupied.
Caubet burst out laughing when asked whether she will become Renault's chairman one day.
She says: 'I don't think so. I am not career oriented. What I am doing now is already quite extraordinary. It's going to keep me busy for a very long time.'