By Sophie Sassard and Anjuli Davies
LONDON, March 7 (Reuters) - The first time Anne Meaux met Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal he laughed at her.
It was 2005, and she had just walked unannounced into the steel magnate’s office to tell him he needed to change his strategy if his hostile bid for steelmaker Arcelor were to be palatable to the French government.
Mittal stopped laughing, and listened. Then he clinched the deal.
The incident was an early example of an ability to tell unpalatable truths to powerful people that has since propelled Meaux to the position of France’s top PR advisor.
Mittal still seeks her advice, but is now part of a client list that reads like a who’s who of French business and includes luxury goods tycoon Francois-Henri Pinault and construction-to-telecoms boss Martin Bouygues.
Just last month Meaux advised the Peugeot family on a complicated state-backed 3 billion euros capital raising with Chinese partner Dongfeng - again demonstrating an expertise in brokering complicated international deals that has taken her PR business Image 7 from strength to strength.
Meaux - small, blonde and wearing a black leather jacket during her interview with Reuters - attributes her frankness to a stint, when still a teenager, in the press office of French president Valerie Giscard d‘Estaing. She spent a further 15 years advising politicians before setting up Image 7 when she was 34 years old.
“Once you’ve dared say things to someone as impressive as President Giscard at 19, you can tell anyone anything”, she said.
Meaux is now 59, and alongside her thriving PR business she runs Force Femmes, an association which helps women aged over 45 to find work after years out of the labour force.
The organisation is born of her own experience of seeing her mother struggle when her father - a doctor and the family’s sole earner - left home when Meaux was a teenager.
“What happened to my mother had a strong impact on me. If Force Femmes had existed at the time.. she could have had a decent life,” Meaux said.
“We are here to help women be realistic about their potential.”
Older women are still unfairly stigmatised in the world of business, Meaux believes, but her advice to them is the same as it is to all women in her field: be bold, and be inventive.
“People tend to stigmatise (older women). I don’t believe in that... You need to break down the walls and come up with tailor-made solutions.”
Loyalty, and a sensitivity to people’s feelings has also helped Meaux get ahead in the business arena.
Francois Pinault was one of the first clients of Image 7 and as a result Meaux later turned down an offer from his rival Bernard Arnault to work as his communication adviser.
That decision paid off when Pinault’s son Francois-Henri, took over. He still employs Meaux as PR advisor for an empire, now known as Kering, which spans labels as diverse as fashion house Gucci and trendy sneakers Converse.
Working with Mittal, Meaux was able to see why his year-long takeover battle for Arcelor had run into difficulties, where bankers focused on shareholder value could not.
“No one had realised that for the French, Arcelor was still a French company,” said Meaux. “French people wanted to be treated with respect. They could not believe their eyes when they saw this Indian billionaire standing there in their town.”
She organised dinners to introduce Mittal to France’s top businessmen and politicians and took him to meet officials and workers at each of Arcelor’s plants in France. Relations improved, and the deal was done.
Away from the office, Meaux enjoys ancient Greek and Latin - her mother taught both - and has a son and two daughters, the eldest of which has just joined Image 7.
Meaux laughed: “I said, ‘You really want to work with your mother?’ But she thought it would be good fun - and it’s all going very well.”