Ecole de Vichy, 1960: back to the school benches

Autumn of 1960. Driven by its growth and by the development of banking techniques, Societe Generale opened the Ecole de Vichy school for its talented young staff eager to enhance their professional knowledge. Training was thus already a trademark and a pillar of the Group's corporate culture.

Monday 3rd October, 1960. It is eight o'clock in the morning and fifteen young Societe Generale employees are gathered in a furnished room on the first floor of the bank's Vichy branch on the Rue Sornin. Under the amused eye of their trainer, they take it in turns to introduce themselves and make acquaintance. Some have come from Châteauroux, some from Toulon, Arles, Cherbourg, Saumur and Abbeville. Most already have a few years with the bank to their name. One thing they all have in common is that they have all asked for the training that will give them the tools they need if they are to have a chance of passing the office manager's exam - the "holy grail" that will elevate them to executive status and open the way for promotion. All volunteers, they are about to take part in the two-month intensive training course which the Group's training and development team has just created for that very purpose. A brilliant initiative that will bear its fruits and change the course of their careers forever.

But it didn't all start there. Training and internal promotion have always been a priority at Societe Generale. A pioneer in the field - some would even say avant-garde - it was the first banking establishment in France to introduce classes to "perfect" its employees' knowledge of the banking profession as far back as 1921. Every level was to benefit, with bellboys and porters, short-hand typists, tellers, senior officers and office managers, etc. rewarded with certificates, diplomas and financial bonuses on completion of their training. By 1934, the bank already had eight training centres across France. The end of the Second World War saw matters accelerate. With the economic boom nurturing new banking techniques, increasingly fierce sector competition was to convince Societe Generale's management of the importance of investing more in training. As well as factoring in the realities of its fast-growing business and market, the bank was determined that its staff training be a vector for their skills development, mobility and career prospects and had no compunction about serving as the springboard. In 1953, Jacques Ferronnière, Deputy Chief Executive and future Chairman and CEO of the Group, published Les Opérations de banque (Bank Operations) which was to become the handbook for generations of bankers to come.

At the Vichy training school, programmes do not cover the bank's commercial operations in the strict sense of the word. Participants are given all of the basic training they need to succeed in the profession. There are no exams or tests on completion, rather ongoing controls to ensure that the content of courses has been correctly understood. Lessons focus on domestic banking (payment and cash transactions, portfolios and securities management, accounting operations), overseas banking and the banking industry writ-large. Held two to three times a year, courses last between eight and twelve weeks, beginning in May and October. Their success is such that, come 1976, the school has seven classrooms and one conference room, along with a lounge and a reading area. By 1974, the school had already trained 2,300 banking officers, including personnel from subsidiaries outside mainland France. Two years later, trainees included thirteen employees from Sub-Saharan Africa, sixteen from Belgium, five from Spain and one from Morocco. In fact, training had such an excellent reputation that the Group's competitors would even go so far as to try to recruit trainees as they left the building at the end of their courses!

What sets the school apart from its peers is its teaching methods which are based on practical and theoretical exercises. Students may be asked to find mistakes linked to an account and to check that entries are in order. The tallying of entries deliberately riddled with errors is a way of checking a candidate's attention span, as well as his knowledge of accounting documents, account headings and the way accounts work. It is, to all intents and purposes, a method that requires the active participation of the class. Each aspect, as one trainee was later to explain, "is the subject of a collective discussion which not only generates an invaluable sentiment of team spirit but also ensures each person is able to make their own contribution. The collective group benefits from the ideas and knowledge of each individual". With time come increasingly sophisticated and dynamic teaching materials, from tape recorders to overhead projectors, video recorders, closed-circuit televisions and slideshow presentations. A professional experience also enriched by a sense of adventure: the strong camaraderie that developed between students is forever inscribed in the school's guest books that are preserved in the historical archives of Societe Generale. Under their various nicknames, trainees have left their mark, a glimpse of their humour, an anecdote and even sometimes proof of their talent as an artist. Classes too have been known to give themselves colourful names like "Les Pas trouillards" (the Fearless Few), and "Les Bébés aimés" (the Cutie Pies). The following "commandments" were written by the first disciplines in training:

Tes instructeurs tu respecteras
Et toujours leurs conseils tu suivras
Pendant les cours bien tu te tiendras
Et de toutes tes oreilles tu écouteras
Jamais de chahut tu ne feras
À la bataille navale point tu ne joueras
De failloter tu t'abstiendras
Sinon, mal vu de tes camarades tu seras !

[Listen to your teachers and follow their advice,
Always pay attention and make you're nice,
Never shout or play around, only do the work that's set
And above all remember no one likes a teacher's pet!]

From the 1970s onwards, trainees from Vichy held numerous management roles at Societe Generale's main branches, regional divisions and head office, in charge of internal departments, from administrative management to human relations and logistics. After following additional training and gaining greater business experience, many went on to a career in the operations side of the bank, working as heads of branch networks, sales departments, client service divisions and even regional divisions and international retail bank entities. From the Vichy classrooms to the Vivier commercial (a premier training programme for promising young talent), the Cursus cadre (Exec's Curriculum) and e-learning: conclusive proof - if ever any was needed - that training has always been one of the central pillars of the Group's corporate culture.

© Archives historiques Société Générale