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Sunday, 31 December, 2000, 18:13 GMT
P-Y Gerbeau: King of the Dome
The redoubtable P-Y Gerbeau
From being vilified in the press, the ringmaster extraordinaire has found himself in the running for hero of the year, writes Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

It comes as no surprise to learn that the book most loved by P-Y Gerbeau, the bloodied but unbowed chief executive at the Millennium Dome, is The Art of War by the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.

In his oft-quoted masterpiece Sun writes, "anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content."

There is no doubt that the diminutive Gallic dynamo, so cruelly dubbed "the Gerbil", has impressed many Britons with the tenacity which he has brought to this most poisoned of chalices.

An exhuberant P-Y Gerbeau outsside the Dome
P-Y Gerbeau relished the poisoned chalice of the Dome

The anger which greeted his appointment to the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) in February 2000 has mellowed, if not exactly into gladness, then certainly into a typical British respect for the underdog.

The media rat pack which so gleefully, and falsely, tried to make out that P-Y's previous responsibilities at EuroDisney extended merely to running the car parks and repair shops, has seen its efforts come to nothing.

Obsessed

Despite the initial clamour for his resignation, P-Y will remain in his post right to the end. As he puts it, "like the captain of a ship, I will be the last one to jump".

Pierre-Yves (he is always called P-Y) Gerbeau is a remarkable man. Super-confident, charming, some would say obsessed, he comes across as a unstoppable force, a cheerful hustler who relishes the enormity of his task.

Now 35, he was born into a well-off Parisian family. His parents ran an office supply company and, besides a house in the swanky 12th arrondissement, the Gerbeaus enjoyed 'le weekend' at a home in the forest of Fontainbleu.

The Millennium Dome from the air
The Millennium Dome: wonder or white elephant?

Always très sportif, the young P-Y moved from tennis - "My idol was Björn Borg but I behaved like John McEnroe" - to professional ice-hockey where he represented France before a shattered ankle ended his career at the tender age of 24.

With both his future as a sportsman, and a youthful marriage, in tatters, P-Y joined Disney in 1991 to work on the EuroDisney project. His enthusiasm for troubleshooting brought him rapid promotion.

Just like the Dome, EuroDisney had serious teething troubles but, unlike it, the French site had more than 12 months in which to solve them.

Formidable

Disneyland Paris initially haemorrhaged hundreds of millions of pounds and, although not a member of Eurodisney's top team, P-Y worked obsessively to bring in more customers.

He introduced the popular Space Mountain roller-coaster and often worked on Christmas Day and at New Year. The eventual success of the project proved his abilities - he ended up as a vice-president of the company - and he was eagerly snapped-up to replace the ill-fated Jennie Page as the head of the NMEC.

Besides the opening barrage he received from the press, P-Y has found the political nature of what he calls "this crazy job" unsettling.

P-Y Gerbeau in a boardroom
P-Y Gerbeau: "I will be the last to leave the ship"

At his first meeting with the Millennium Commission he said he wanted to cut admission prices and increase the volume of visitors.

"Then they wrote to me to say that they liked the volume strategy, but thought that I should raise ticket prices", completely negating his whole vision.

Optimistic

Besides his criticism of what he sees as political interference in the running of the Dome, P-Y also reserves scorn for those optimists who believed that it would attract 12 million visitors during 2000.

But he too has remained optimistic. He told one interviewer, "It's all about the glass half empty or half full: I always look at the half full part or I would have jumped out of a window by now."

P-Y's lack of involvement in the planning of the Dome has proved an obvious asset: there can be no guilt by association. More than six million people have visited the Dome to date and a remarkable four out of five of them have enjoyed the experience, a statistic to impress even Disney.

The interior of the Dome
Hopes of 12 million visitors were never realistic

On the other hand, following the government's rejection of funding, the Millennium Commission provided NMEC with a further £119 million to keep the Dome open, proving another of Sun Tzu's maxims: "Poverty of the State exchequer causes an army to be maintained by contributions from a distance."

For the present this Anglophile Frenchman is content to work 14 hours a day and live in a tiny Victorian cottage in Greenwich.

His leisure time is limited to playing the occasional round at Royal Blackheath Golf Club (he is a scratch golfer) and, one day a month, visiting Clemence, his daughter from a recent, failed, relationship.

P-Y Gerbeau's career has, literally, seen him take a roller-coaster ride and skate on thin ice, but nothing has compared to the rigours of being master of the Dome. He has vowed to remain in Britain after his contract ends. Who knows what to expect if the Gerbil decides to roar again?


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