The French company, JC Decaux, has for the last decade been raking in an inordinate amount of Britain's spent pennies.
If you were writing about Sir Terence Conran, a once-over of his office decor would seem a logical place to start. As for profiling Jaguar's Nicholas Scheele, a look inside the CE's corporate limo might open things nicely. So when you arrive at the London offices of Monsieur Alain Brousse, you obviously head straight for the kahsi. And what do you find there? Well, aseptic white walls, laudably laundered hand-towels and a sign saying, 'Please leave this toilet flushed'. If you are a mature Anglophone business journalist, the linguistic ambiguities of this last will lead you to conduct much of the ensuing interview with your handkerchief stuffed in your mouth, to the obvious puzzlement of your more sophistique French interlocutor. Ah, that famous British sense of humour.
This is not to say that Brousse has never found amusement in the humble convenience: merely that he probably does most of his lavatorial laughing on the way to the bank. For Brousse is MD of JC Decaux (UK) Ltd, the firm that gave the British the Automated Public Convenience (APC) in 1983, and which has spent the ensuing decade raking in an inordinate number of resultant spent pennies - £9 million-worth of them last year alone. You may not know anyone who has actually ventured inside one of the 600 corrugated concrete conveniences with which JC Decaux has dotted the pavements of British cities, but they have nonetheless been, er, visited 30 million times in the last 10 years. Brousse's personal champions - the 10 APCs belonging to the London Borough of Hammersmith - have had a million visitors alone, which suggests much about the inhabitants of that happy borough. When Brousse charmingly confides of his products that, 'I think they are beautiful, no?', it is not solely to their aesthetic charms that he refers.
The story of this visceral triumph began 40 years ago in Beauvais, when the firm's eponymous founder, Jean-Claude Decaux, set out to find his fortune armed only with the proverbial 50 francs and a bicycle. In fact, Decaux's initial foray into what is politely known as 'street furniture' came not with his now-famous sanisettes, but with bus shelters. Indeed, much of the firm's international fortunes still rest on them. There are, among others, 1,300 in Amsterdam, 1,600 in Hamburg and 1,800 in Paris. In London there are only 300 Decaux shelters, largely because a monopolistic London Transport prefers the services of a British competitor, More O'Ferrall Adshell - a fact that causes Brousse to give a Gallic shrug, 'What can I do? Where is this famous deregulation?' In response to his question, Brousse has chosen to concentrate his fully-independent British subsidiary's energies less on keeping the heads of his adopted 54e countrymen dry than on accommodating the needs of their other needs. A viewing of his firm's promotional video conveys the ubiquity of Decaux (UK)'s product, as well as of the reasons for that ubiquity. In the City of Westminster, we meet Councillor Dilys Puddephatt, who breezily notes that the APC is well suited to London life because 'its filter traps syringes for safe disposal'. A Belfast coeval adds that the sanisette's design makes it useful in an 'area of political upheaval' (try hiding a bomb in one), while a grim-faced Falkirk burgher darkly observes that the APC's relative visibility reduces its efficacy as 'a meeting-place for undesirables'.
Pandering to these various desiderata means that the Decaux APC has evolved to become much more than simply a grown-up Elsan. Much time and thought has gone into the ergonomics of the convenient convenience at Decaux's R and D unit in Sainte Apolline, outside Paris. On the one hand, Brousse is acutely aware of the, as it were, gut reactions of potential users. 'There are sensor detectors; the doors close automatically,' grimaces Brousse, rolling his eyes in mock terror. 'Oh my God! Of course people are scared.' (Indeed, the Decaux APC has entered the pantheon of urban myth: who has not met someone who knows someone who once found themselves exposed, in mid-exuviation, to public gaze in Leicester Square?) The sanisette's electronic malfunction-warning panel is, moreover, connected to a maintenance depot via the BT grid, which may lend the more retentive user the disturbing sensation of being wired for sound.
Brousse - harking, as he does, from a race whose menfolk think nothing of public micturition - also confesses himself bemused by a market research discovery which implies that many UK customers find his pavement public conveniences rather too public for their tastes.
As an antidote to this British tight-lippedness, Decaux's MD backs up the installation of all new APCs with question-and-answer meetings open to the lavatory-using local public, complete with a mock-up lav in tow. 'If,' remarks Brousse, cheerily, 'old ladies in Thurrock are scared, I talk to them. I take them to the cabinet and say, "I'll show you what you can do."' On the other hand, Decaux's R and D department must also take into account a contrary tendency in the human condition. 'Customers say, "Why not build the toilets wider?" but if we build them wider, I think people are having parties in them, no?' shrugs Brousse.
There is, it would seem, a delicate balance to be struck between making the APC welcoming and making it too welcoming. Early prototypes played Vivaldi and sprayed users with scent on departure: Brousse's time-and-motioneers discovered a race of miscreants who would sit out movements of Autumn waiting for their favourite arpeggio. Broadcasts ceased forthwith. Pounds only look after themselves if pennies are spent with sufficient brio.
And spent they are. This is as much thanks to the economic realpolitik of council funding as to the superiority of Brousse's product, since part of the reason for JC Decaux's success - worldwide turnover was in excess of FF200 million (£25 million) last year - is a mutual backscratching compact worked out with local authorities: Decaux supplies and maintains bus shelters (Birmingham and Manchester are both good customers) for free, in exchange for highly lucrative advertising rights on the same shelters. These are then sold on to advertisers through a centralised Euro-operation and serviced locally, in Decaux UK's case by a subsidiary called City Poster Force. Brousse's original sanisettes have not hitherto provided much in the way of such advertising space, though. Most councils have been happy enough to pay a flat, all-in rate of £11,000 a year per cabinet, recouped through the sale of old public loo sites and through takings on the door - the charge being up to the council. However, a recent enthusiasm for pan-European design on Decaux's part, may allow his loos to share the same symbiotic rationale as its bus shelters and Council Information Panels (CIPs).
Among other prototypes are designs by the Swedish Sten Henrickson, the British Norman Foster and the Frenchman Philippe Starcke, bringing a certain chic to bodily functions not traditionally associated with architectural glamour. Whether the links with celebrity of these new APCs will have a lucrative effect on the innards of aesthetically-attuned Britons is not the question here. The point is that loos such as the 'Retro-pillar' (an imitation Parisian newspaper kiosk, designed by a Frenchman called - prepare yourselves - Le Merdy) incorporate ad panels, a fact that will make them doubly attractive to impoverished councils keen to have their constituents spend pennies without spending any themselves.
Already, one of Monsieur Le Merdy's pillars can be seen on a traffic island opposite London's South Kensington tube station. This triumph is also sweet for Brousse. The site was previously occupied by a faux Decaux APC, run up by the Borough's engineering department. Its story was one of cloacal disaster. 'In the summer, it was smelling,' sniffs Brousse, with distaste. 'Now, they are turning it into a flower stall.' Not only is the real Decaux product more fragrant, the firm's in-house servicing is exemplary. Faults or loo-roll shortages, all monitored via BT, are put right in hours. Staff training verges on the ob-sessional. Freud might have things to say about the ana-lism of a firm whose shopfloors are painted white the better to instil the virtues of cleanliness, but - given Decaux's line of business - the neurosis is forgivable.
The appearance on the streets of London of public lavatories disguised as Parisian kiosks seems a neat enough symbol for what JC Decaux (UK) is about: French style allied with a willingness to accommodate British bashfulness, single Europeanism in concrete form. Lamentably, few things appear to unite New Europeans. You have, as they say, to start at the bottom. The very model of European co-operation, Decaux also devolves its specialities to specialists. Coin mechanisms on APCs are manufactured by a British firm called Mars, for instance. The firm's new target - New York, currently under tender following a highly successful pilot installation by Decaux last summer - is being masterminded from London, because, says Brousse, 'we speak the same language, more or less'.
In return for this pan-European vision, Decaux (UK) has had to put up with barriers imposed by tiresome Little Englandism. An attempt to import the firm's popular Pooper Scooter (a motorcycle-mounted vacuum cleaner invented to cope with that with which the streets of Paris are notoriously paved) recently foundered, for example, because of British MOT rules. Brousse is, however, undismayed. 'I started Decaux (UK) with three employees,' he says. 'Now I have 120; by the end of the century, I aim to have 1,000.' Behind his head is a photomontage of Her Majesty, The Queen, apparently emerging in full regalia from a Decaux sanisette. 'I think,' ponders Brousse, 'it is better than what she has had to put up with from the British press, no?' A Frenchman who laughs at lavatories: now that's European for you.