“Jadot is a great man, truly first-rate,” is how King Leopold II described him. It was his skills as a railway engineer that first brought Jean Jadot to public notice and which led him to take up a post as a Director at the Société Générale de Belgique.
An engineer who pioneered Belgium’s presence in China
Born in 1862 at On in Belgium, Jean Jadot graduated from the University of Louvain. After working for some years in Belgium and Luxembourg, he went abroad in 1894 to Egypt, where he worked on the Cairo tram system then rose to become Director of the Lower Egypt Railways.
It was however from 1898 onwards, when he set off for China, that he began to make a name for himself. At that time, the Franco-Belgian railway development company Société d’étude de chemins de fer en Chine had just obtained the concession to build and run the first major railroad in China, over 1,200 kilometres of track linking the cities of Peking (modern-day Beijing) and Hankow. This pioneering railway line was financed by three forerunner banks of the BNP Paribas Group: the Société générale de Belgique; the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas (Paribas); and the Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris. Jean Jadot was appointed Director of Works. He quickly grasped the importance of this venture for the furtherance of Belgian interests in China and went beyond the terms of his job, working to extend the company’s network of contacts. Works began in March 1899 and – in spite of numerous political obstacles, notably the Boxer Rebellion which led to hostile incursions from foreign powers, and technical problems, including the need to construct a 3km-long bridge over the Yellow River – the line was opened in 1905.
Governor of the Société générale de Belgique
On Jadot’s return to Brussels in 1906, the prestige he had acquired led to his appointment as Director in charge of the Industry Department at the Société générale de Belgique, forerunner of BNP Paribas Fortis. King Leopold II subsequently asked him to participate in various showcase projects that were part of Belgian colonial policy in the Congo, notably the construction of a railroad linking Leopoldville with the province of Katanga.
Appointed Governor of the Société générale de Belgique in 1913, Jean Jadot steered the Bank into entirely new fields, such as electric power projects, also making the young Belgian Congo colony a key part of its investment strategy.
One of his guiding ideas was to free Belgian industry from foreign influence and dependency. Inter alia, he financed the work of the Belgian chemist Albert Meurice to develop pharmaceuticals. The Société générale de Belgique also set about creating holding companies that drew together similar or complementary activities in every field of industry, a good example being the non-ferrous metals refining company Société générale de Minerais founded in 1919.
A man of commitment and responsibility
Jean Jadot’s contemporaries were impressed by his keen intelligence, his outstanding organisational abilities and his great perspicacity as regards the technical and economic aspects of the Second Industrial Revolution. He liked to hire academic experts – frequently engineers – for management posts but also prized human qualities such as enthusiasm, integrity and loyalty. Moreover, he saw it as an essential duty to care for one’s family. On the death of his father, though he himself had barely left university, he took it upon himself to provide for the future of his young brothers and he put aside all thoughts of marriage until they were safely established in life.
However, Jean Jadot partly owed his own great success to his close collaboration with Emile Francqui. It was the Peking-Hankow railway project that first brought the two men together and their later success arose from an efficient division of responsibilities between them. Emile Francqui later took over from Jean Jadot as Governor when he died in 1932.