Air France 447 - Crash of Air France Flight Turns a Company’s Fortune Into Calamity

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Published: June 15, 2009

RILHAC-RANCON, FRANCE — For many people in France, the loss of Air France Flight 447 almost two weeks ago has been a wrenching experience. For one company and its employees, it has been even more catastrophic.

Ten people who worked at C.G.E. Distribution, the largest seller of electrical components in France, went down with the plane in the Atlantic. Nine of them were accompanied by a spouse or partner.

The bitter outcome was a consequence of one of the normally happy rituals of corporate life around the world: they were on the flight as a reward for winning an internal competition for top sales performance.

Last Thursday, the funeral of Pascal Linguet was held here in Rilhac-Rancon, a town of over 4,000 people surrounded by wooded rolling hills about six kilometers, or four miles, north of Limoges. Mr. Linguet had just celebrated his 48th birthday. As head of client credit at the Limoges office, he was not part of the sales competition, but was asked to accompany the winners — eight men and a young woman — to Rio de Janerio. He had gone on similar trips several times before.

“Everyone here is in shock,” said Roland Izard, the mayor of the town, which serves as a bedroom community for Limoges, a gateway to the more rugged Midi-Pyrénées region and a city in slow economic decline but still an industrial base for the electrical component maker Legrand and some high-end porcelain factories, like Haviland, for which the city has long been known.

Mr. Linguet had been at C.G.E.D. for about a dozen years, coming from Reims, in Champagne, where he was born and educated. He started his career in banks — former colleagues said he had an uncanny ability with figures — moving between Strasbourg, Aix-en-Provence and the Paris region before joining the company.

His world mainly revolved around his family, sports clubs and his work, according to friends. He also loved pairing fine food with the perfect wine.

“He was obliging, very discreet, always smiling,” said Bernard Sar, president of the local basketball club where Mr. Linguet’s sons, 12 and 14, played. Mr. Linguet managed a junior side.

Several hundred colleagues, friends, families and Air France representatives gathered for a poignant church service, which ended with mourners laying white roses around a photograph on the altar.

“Life smiled on us,” his wife, Marie-Noëlle, wrote in a tribute read by a friend. “As soon as they could walk, our boys followed you. Now you can count on me to guide them.”

Previously, Mrs. Linguet accompanied her husband on C.G.E.D. trips to Venice, Ireland and New York. But this time she decided not to go, worried about leaving their children with relatives or friends, according to the only interview that she gave, to the local press, after the disaster.

Mrs. Linguet said via an e-mail exchange that she was starting to “crack, a bit” under the pressure of events and the raft of calls from people she had not been in contact with for years.

Michael Linguet, father of the victim, said by telephone that the shock of losing his son was still hard to accept. “We’re dealing with it step by step,” he said.

Unlike some of the relatives of those who died on the flight, Mr. Linguet did not express anger at the authorities or the airline. He would just like for his son to be remembered as a “good person.”

C.G.E.D. is hardly a household name but it has a significant network. It distributes cables, electrical boards and other parts for lighting and heating appliances to retailers and builders.

Based in Montrouge, near Paris, it employs about 1,400 people in 150 offices across the country. It does not reveal business figures, but a recent presentation cited annual sales of €550 million, or about $760 million.

The employees on the flight, aged 23 to 48, worked in towns across southwest France. For them, the four-day break capped what had been a successful year during a tough economic downturn.

Jean-Pierre Nardou, chief of the company’s operations in the Gironde region, described in a brief conversation how it had set up a crisis center led by the human resources director in Limoges, headquarters for 37 regional offices.

While doing everything it can to shield families and employees from the media glare, the unit has been helping anyone in need of psychological, financial and administrative support while fielding calls from clients and suppliers. “It’s a big mobilization for us,” Mr. Nardou said.

C.G.E.D. was acquired in 1991 by Sonepar, a family-owned group that specializes in supplying electricity equipment. Prior to that, it was the distribution arm of Compagnie Générale d’Electricité, which traces its roots to 1898 and later became Alcatel Alsthom.

“We have taken the decision to be very discreet,” said a Sonepar communications executive, who refused to provide his name. “We don’t want this to be seen as social marketing.”

Meanwhile, about 180 kilometers south of Rilhac-Rancon, in the village of Sauveterre in the Lot and Garonne department, another funeral took place last week in the pretty church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste to bid farewell to the youngest member of the corporate party, Laetitia Alazard.

Ms. Alazard, 23, had not won her trip; she was offered the ticket by a colleague who had decided not to take it. She travelled with a friend, Aurélia Pasquet, 24.

Ms. Alazard had a fear of flying and the voyage to Brazil was her first time on a plane, according to friends.

André Ballesio, the mayor of Sauveterre, a sleepy agricultural village of about 150 people near Cahors, described her upbringing as “very difficult.”

Ms. Alazard and her older brother Lionel were left by their parents to be raised by their grandparents from a young age. She was estranged from her father, but had remained in touch with her mother, friends said. Her brother had a motorcycle accident some years ago and is confined to a wheelchair.

She worked weekends in a restaurant to pay for her studies, and also gave some money to her family, according to Georges Della Nora, a counselor at one of her schools.

Friends said that she excelled at sports, including basketball and swimming. “Laetitia was a really resourceful girl,” said Élodie Cazes, a friend, “full of joy, ready to have fun, but also to help others.”

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