Robert Louis-Dreyfus, 63, master of the turnaround

Robert Louis-Dreyfus on his soccer team’s TV channel in 2002. Robert Louis-Dreyfus on his soccer team’s TV channel in 2002. (Claude Paris/Associated Press)
By Douglas H. Martin
New York Times / July 17, 2009
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Robert Louis-Dreyfus, a scion of great wealth who made his own fortune by applying a keen business sense to rescuing troubled companies, including Adidas, the sportswear maker, and Saatchi & Saatchi, the sprawling advertising agency, died on July 4 in Zurich. He was 63.

His death was announced by Olympique Marseille, a professional soccer club he owned in France. European press reports said the cause was leukemia.

His rumpled appearance and love of sports and playing poker did little to disguise his hard-driving - some said brutal - style of beating flagging companies into shape. Once they were healthy, he left quickly, a characteristic some praised and some deplored.

“I’m a gambler, and I like the challenges that turnarounds present,’’ Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said in an interview with The Harvard Business School Bulletin in 1998. “And with a turnaround, you’re only expected to restore a company to good condition, and then move on. That’s fine - I think CEOs should not stay too long at any company.’’

In 1996, Forbes magazine called Mr. Louis-Dreyfus “one of the shrewdest business minds in France.’’ BusinessWeek named him one of the top 25 managers of 1997.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus was born in 1946 into a family that started a grain trading business in 1851 and expanded it into a conglomerate including cereals, ships, and weapons. After being educated at Ecole des Cadres, a Paris business school, and Harvard Business School, he joined the family company, helping diversify it into animal feeds and other agricultural products.

By 1982, he left Louis Dreyfus SAS to join what is now called IMS Health Inc., a market research firm for the pharmaceutical industry. In an interview with Fortune magazine in 1997, he said he had initially joined the IMS board because he lost a bet to a wealthy friend. The stakes were having to sit on the IMS board on behalf of the friend, he said.

But Adweek in 1989 published a comment in which Mr. Louis-Dreyfus seemed to suggest he was itching to get out from under his family’s wing. “Family business is very nice - from the outside,’’ he said.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus became IMS’s chief operating officer and built the company’s market capitalization from $400 million to $1.7 billion. It was sold to Dun & Bradstreet in 1988.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus had retired to the Swiss ski slopes at 42, but Saatchi recruited him as chief executive in 1989. Though he had no previous experience in the ad industry, Mr. Louis-Dreyfus reorganized the company, sold off businesses, slashed 4,000 jobs, and turned a profit in 1993.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 1990, he described the challenge of leading Saatchi as “the most fun I’ve had outside sex.’’

In 1993, Mr. Louis-Dreyfus was recruited by Adidas, which had fallen behind such other athletic shoemakers such as Nike after the death of the founder, Adi Dassler, in 1978. Mr. Louis-Dreyfus moved factories to Asia, cut the payroll by two-thirds, and greatly increased spending on marketing. The company overtook Reebok to become the second leading sneaker maker. (Adidas acquired Reebok in 2005.)

“It didn’t take a genius,’’ he told Time magazine in 1997. “You just had to look at what Nike and Reebok were doing. It was easier for someone coming from the outside, with no baggage, to do it, than for somebody from inside the company.’’

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus leaves his wife, Margarita, and three children. One cousin is the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus pursued several business ventures after leaving Adidas in 2001. In 2006, then a billionaire, he returned to the family firm as chairman.

His passion was owning a prestigious soccer club, though Olympique’s failure to win major trophies moved Mr. Louis-Dreyfus to fire coach after coach.

Perhaps the high point in his business and sporting life came when France played Brazil in the finals of the 1998 World Cup in France. France wore Adidas gear, and Brazil wore Nike. France won, 3-0.