Louis Wibratte: an engineer-alpinist at Paribas

1877-1954

Portrait of Louis Wibratte by Mercy, 5 place du théâtre français à Paris © BNP Paribas historical collections

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A graduate of Ecole Polytechnique engineering school (1897), civil engineer, holder of the war cross for 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, and commander of the Legion of Honour (1949): these official distinctions contrast with Louis Wibratte’s modest and discreet character.

 

A Man of Progress

Having placed 1st in the Ecole Normale Supérieure entrance exam, it was undoubtedly a taste for adventure and an active life that led Louis Wibratte to choose the Ecole Polytechnique, which opened its doors to him at the same time.

A few years later we find him in the entourage of Marechal Lyautey in Morocco, where he built the Ain-Sefra to Colomb-Béchar railway in 18 months, with the means available and limited preliminary technical studies. His ingenuity and devotion were recognised by the awarding of the Legion of Honour when he was just 29 years old.

Back in metropolitan France, he entered the Nord et du Pas-de-Calais waterways service on a part-time basis while pursuing medical studies at the Lille university faculty. He then continued his career at the Chemins de Fer de l’Etat (State Railways).

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, Louis Wibratte was a consulting engineer in the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Chili (Chile Railway). He embarked for Europe and joined the Eastern Army’s railway service. Before the end of the war, he was called back to South America to save the Brazil Railway Co. from bankruptcy, one of the largest Brazilian companies, in which Paribas was the majority shareholder.

 

Founder of Paribas’ future industrial department

It was therefore entirely natural that Wibratte joined the bank’s senior management in 1920. Expanding on the effort carried out before the war, the bank strengthened its strategy towards the secondary sector. At the request of Horace Finaly, the new director drew up a concept note titled The reflections of a banker on the world economic situation at the time of the Genoa conference, a veritable economic reconstruction programme within the Allies (text published by Éric Bussière in Etudes et documents X, 1998, Comité pour l’histoire économique et financière de la France, p. 259-276).

As a remedy for the country’s inflation and debt burden, Louis Wibratte recommended concentration, specialisation, division of labour and scientific control, combined with the development of technical education and the protection of intellectual property as a way for the State and the heads of French companies to increase exports of industrial products and therefore counterbalance Germany’s power.

Dans son temps-libre, Louis Wibratte pratiquait l'équitation dans sa propriété de Samois en bordure de la forêt de Fontainebleau, carte postale [s. l. ; s. d.] © Archives historiques de BNP Paribas

In his free-time, Louis Wibratte would practise horse-riding in his Samois property, on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest, post card © BNP Paribas Historical Archives

From June to September 1934, he was sent back to South America to turn around the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Santa Fe (Santa Fe railway): from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, he met the directors of various banks and railway companies like Sudameris and Rosario. Santa Fe’s profitability was restored, especially through the design of new, lighter locomotives that consumed less coal.

From the 1940s, Wibratte focussed on the electrification of Morocco, once again capitalising on his engineering and financial knowledge to overcome the economic and technical difficulties.

 

At the top of the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas

In 1944, the provisional government of France placed Wibratte at the head of the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas. Under its mandate and thanks to its status as a merchant bank, Paribas escaped the wave of nationalisation that affected the major deposit banks. As of September, the new president produced a programme of economic reforms, which remained in effect 10 years later.

A self-effacing, even timid president admired for his wisdom and his breadth of vision, Louis Wibratte always combined sports activities with the heavy responsibilities he was in charge of.

Already in 1914 in Chile, he crossed the Andes Cordillera on snowshoes, in the middle of the austral winter, to join the front. On the occasion of his business trips for Norwegian Hydro-Electric Nitrogen Company (of which he was the Vice-President), he explored northern Norway and the Lofoten islands. After turning 50, he joined a famous group of alpinists (Groupe de Haute Montagne). When he didn’t practise on the rocks in Fontainebleau, he travelled up and down the Alps, from Oisans to the Dolomites to Oberland. On leaving the bank, he compared his career to an alpinist souvenir:

“When you descend from the tough mountain to the green valley, you still experience the sensations of the effort of the climb with good friends and also the clear vision of faraway where shadows and light contrast with each other” (Louis Wibratte, Retirement speech, 26 November 1949).

Driven by an ideal of rationality and progress, and a certain search for material asceticism, Louis Wibratte wouldn’t listen to hunger or fatigue, until this morning where death surprised him, the week before his 78th birthday.

Louis Wibratte premier de cordée [début des années 1950], photographie N&B © Archives historiques de BNP Paribas

Louis Wibratte, lead climber, with Robert Ollivier at the crest of Cestrede (2947 m.) in the Pyrenees [1949], N&B photograph © BNP Paribas Historical Archives

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