Sunday, 8 March 2009

Paint it Bleue

Sometimes a street of buildings looks to me like a long shelf of book spines in a library. I browse the shelf, picking books out here and there, hesitating over whether the story inside is really worth reading or not. Sometimes the cover attracts me, but I reject it because I'm sure there’s nothing of depth behind. Other times, I’m sure I miss fascinating stories because the cover looks so ordinary. Occasionally though, I'll pick up a book and begin reading, only to find that the story is the complete opposite of what I expected. This was certainly the case with the building at 25 Rue Bleue.

The hero's name is written out in solid letters on one of the marble panels on the front of the building; Edme-Jean Leclaire, 1801-1872. Above, his carved bust, surrounded by extravagant leaves and scrolls. At the top of the building another name and date is displayed; Mon (Maison) Leclaire, 1826-1912. Even the building itself seems to tell the story - Haussmanian in form, but clearly constructed around an iron framework, with large decorative windows. Classical and modern, like the copper plated logos which seem to suggest a company headquarters for Mr Leclaire, alongside the marble panels. Could this be anything other than a family of industrialists egotistically celebrating their own success?

After I turn a few pages though, a very different story emerges. A fascinating story, far more interesting than I had imagined, and a tale of an extraordinary man. Edme-Jean Leclaire, as the building tells us, was born in 1801, in a small town in Burgundy. By the age of 10, he had already left school and had started working as a shepherd. He knew how to read and write, but the only other skill he possessed was his ambition. For the next five years, he moved through a series of jobs until he decided to move to Paris and became an apprentice painter. In 1827 he had saved enough money to create his own company. Twenty years later, he was to become famous around the world as the owner of the first modern entreprise and the creator of profit-sharing and institutional employee benefits.

Leclaire had become convinced from the beginning that as an entrepreneur he would have to take care of his employees. He wrote in one of his studies on the experience he had undertaken at his company,

"On se trompe quand on croit que le meilleur moyen de s’enrichir est de payer ses ouvriers le moins possible. La vérité, c’est qu’il faut obtenir d’eux le plus de travail possible en les payant aussi cher qu’on le peut" (We are mistaken when we think that the best way to get rich is to pay our workers as little as possible. The truth is that we must obtain as much work from them as possible by paying them as much as we can afford).

His entreprise had become a large construction company, specialising in large-scale painting and the installation of windows. It was hard work, physically demanding with tough timetables to keep to. To turn a profit, Leclaire knew that he needed healthy, happy staff, workers who would put in long days and strike as little as possible. The ideas that Leclaire found to achieve this though were revolutionary. His reasoning was also thoroughly modern;

"Je dois à mes ouvriers que le salaire, mais maintenant que ce salaire me donne la fortune et que cette fortune s’accroît tous les ans, il faut que je leur en consacre une partie. Ce qu’il faut à l’ouvrier avant toutes choses, c’est la garantie contre l’accident, la maladie ; c’est la certitude que la vieillesse ne lui apportera pas la misère" (My workers owe me only the salary I pay them, but now that salary is making me richer and richer each year, I have to give them something back. What the worker wants more than anything else is a guarantee against accident and illness, the certainty that getting old will not also bring misery).

To meet these objectives, Leclaire introduced several things. Firstly, the workers would have a true role in the running of the company, and would receive a percentage of all profits made by the company. Secondly, a percentage of income and profits would go to a mutual aid society, an entity that would ensure an income to sick or injured workers as well as a sum of money when they retired. Indeed, it is this aspect of the business, an entity known as the "Société de prévoyance et de secours mutuels des ouvriers & employés de la maison Leclaire" which was headquartered here at 25 Rue Bleue. Whilst these initiatives could be said to have made Leclaire rich by guaranteeing him a healthy, hard-working staff, other initiatives were more altruistic. He invested in schools for the children of his employees and campaigned against toxic lead paints that were common-place in his industry.

Leclaire was awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his career, and he later became mayor of the town in which he lived, Herblay in the suburbs of Paris. His experiments gave him fame elsewhere; the English economist John Stuart Mill was very interested in the results achieved whilst in the United States, a model cooperative village was created and named 'Leclaire' (today part of Edwardsville, Illinois). It was a long distance covered for a working class boy who had left school at 10, and a story worth celebrating with an extravagantly decorated cover.

Note: The company Maison Leclaire is still in existence, and still using the same logo, since 1826 as they say on the website. I have no information though on whether there is still a family connection or not though, and perhaps more interestingly, whether they still follow Edme-Jean's methods. These offices seem today to be used by a company supplying wholesale dental equipement, so there seems to be no company link to this location anymore. If anybody else has any information on any elements of this story though, I'd be very interested to hear from them.

7 comments:

Peter said...

Fascinating, interesting…. and bravo to Mr. Leclaire ! Actually, Mr (and Mrs) Boucicaut who launched Le Bon Marché about at the same time had some similar ideas – decent salaries, participation, holidays, retirement.... There were some (a few, too few) of them those days! Maybe somehow forgotten today, despite all institutional rights achieved since. Makes me think of Sarko’s three thirds speech.

Starman said...

That is quite the success story. I've read of a few companies like that here in the US. They're almost always successful and their employee turn-over rate is practically zero.

jun said...

Nice to meet you.

Ken Mac said...

Thank you. Beautiful!

Nathalie said...

Adam, my post today is dedicated to you.

Nathalie said...

Wow Adam, here's another one of your posts that make me find your blog so amazing. I hope many of my visitors get to read it.

And thanks for the story you posted on my blog: I'm impressed both by the idea and with the fact that it works. How absolutely brilliant!

Cergie said...

Tiens, Herblay n'est pas loin de Cergy dans le Val d'Oise et de Conflans ste Honorine surtout...
Ce que tu décris là ce sont les règles qu'a édicté le paternalisme qui a amené les patrons a tenir compte du bien être de leurs employés surtout au fond pour en obtenir plus et garder leurs bons ouvriers...
Il y a eu des familistères dont celui de Godin ou des Salines d'Arc et Senan, entre autres. Il y a eu aussi les villages ouvriers avec les petites maisons toutes pareilles disposées en ligne
Le difficile est toutefois d'être le premier. C'est en cela que réside le plus grand mérite. Ensuite suivre est déjà plus aisé...
(PS : le hasard fait souvent bien les choses lorsqu'on cherche comme lorsqu'on fait une photo...)

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