Veteran tyre boss Francois Michelin dies

PARIS (AFP) - Francois Michelin, who led France's famed tyre company for nearly half a century, died at the age of 88, the group said on Wednesday.

"We have learned today with deep emotion that Mr Francois Michelin has passed away," a Michelin statement said, without giving further details.

"Mr Francois Michelin dedicated his life to the company. He headed it for 47 years, when he handed over the reins to his son Edouard. A visionary and a humanitarian, (he) tirelessly embodied the values of respect that are the very foundation of our group's identity," the statement said.

Michelin was less than 30 years old when he became a co-director in 1955, and helped transform it into one of the world's top three tyre manufacturers alongside Bridgestone and Goodyear.

In 1999, Michelin vacated the group's top spot to make way for Edouard, who drowned in a boating accident in 2006 that left France stunned.

Francois Michelin was one of several family members who directed the company founded in 1889 by his grandfather.

He was famous for a discretion that earned him the title of "France's most secretive boss" by the national press - the company did not even have a communications department until after he retired.

He had his share of tragedy, not only losing his son but also being orphaned at an early age after his father died in a plane crash and his mother passed away when he was only 10.

After studying maths at university, Michelin went to work in the company's factories under a secret identity, spending four years learning the business from the ground floor.

Those experiences stayed with him, and he would regularly visit the company's factories and workshops to meet the employees, though that did not shield him from tough run-ins with the unions, including a debilitating strike in the late 1970s.

Capable of inspiring respect and fear in equal measure, he was generally hailed as one of the country's most accomplished industrialists, and the champion of a product whose name became closely associated with France itself.

"Francois Michelin carried the values of French industry on high across the world: innovation, vision, discipline and passion," tweeted French Prime Minister Manuel Valls at word of his death.

President Francois Hollande called Michelin "one of the greatest French industrialists" in post-World War II era.

"On behalf of the group's employees, I would like to pay special tribute to this exceptional man who was universally respected for his values, his convictions, and his vision," said Jean-Dominique Senard, Michelin's current chairman.

As well as valuing his privacy, the devout Catholic also disliked ostentatious wealth.

"My grandfather told me two things that I have kept: truth and reality are bigger than you, and money should be a servant, never a master," he told Paris Match in 2013.

"When I saw how my grandfather lived, I understood that money is very useful but if we aren't careful, it can become a drug."