“My events have always a soul, emotion and social responsibility,” the Frenchman Richard Attias said Saturday morning, May 1, sitting on a couch in the Gramercy Park Hotel’s rooftop garden. “It’s very important. Because we cannot be superficial; it is nonsense to be superficial. You have to deliver a message.”
Mr. Attias, who used to produce the World Economic Forum in Davos, was wearing a white button-down with Dunhill cuff links shaped like steering wheels. The enormously beautiful morning’s huge sunlight streamed directly down onto his plate of sliced fruit and decaf cappuccino. “Come on, we are on earth for something. So we should be, what, useless? It is nonsense.”
Next month, searching for a post-crisis model for how business chiefs will think, talk, create and lead, Mr. Attias is holding a 36-hour midtown gathering that he’ll call the New York Forum. It will be Manhattan’s own Davos, only smaller and obsessed with the future of the business world.
He and his wife sat at a table at the Four Seasons Hotel with the musicians Carly Simon and John Forté. There was chamomile tea and talk about Hobbesian pathology.
“This is an idea-an opportunity,” a man wearing a blazer a few feet away said into his cell phone. He was talking about something else, and he didn’t have Mr. Attias’ momentous sparkle. The Moroccan-born, French-educated 50-year-old, whose wife, Cécilia, left President Nicolas Sarkozy to marry him, is the kind of man around whom important people seem to congregate. A few days earlier, he and his wife sat at a table at the Four Seasons Hotel with the musicians Carly Simon and John Forté. There was chamomile tea and talk about Hobbesian pathology.
“He has been thinking about how to revive economic dynamism in this country,” Columbia professor Edmund Phelps, one his 13 advisory board members, and the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics, said recently. “And his thought about that is very original and very good.”
But besides the World Economic Forum, moneyed thinkers and doers already have the TED conference, Allen & Company’s Sun Valley retreat, Michael Milken’s Beverly Hills ball and the Clinton Global Initiative, which Mr. Attias helped launch. Those, he would point out, are focused on technology, dealmaking or social causes, and they’re mostly far away. The New York Forum, on the other hand, will be about corporate reinvention. And it will be here.
“It’s a call for action to restore credibility, to restore faith, a call for action to find solutions,” Mr. Attias explained on the Gramercy roof. Serge Gainsbourg’s “Aux Armes et Cætera” played softly in the background. Jane Birkin, he said, is a friend.
MR. ATTIAS WAS born in Fez in 1959. “Very humble family,” he said. He went to a French engineering school, worked in sales for IBM and, in 1990, began the firm Global Event Management.
In the middle of the decade, he was back in Morocco working on a ceremony when he met a German economics scholar named Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum. He hired Mr. Attias to handle logistics for Davos, the forum’s flagship annual gathering at the Swiss resort. “It was much, much less known,” he said. “When we met, the deal was to reinvent the format.” Even after the gargantuan French advertising conglomerate Publicis bought a stake in his company in 1998, it was still Mr. Attias’ job to shape Davos, a Mecca of globalism, down to the menus and the hotel room distribution.
Soon after he and Mr. Sarkozy’s wife met, in 2005, Paris Match ran a photo of them hunting for an apartment in Manhattan. “I met someone, I fell in love, I left,” she said later. “I am someone who likes the shadows, serenity, tranquility.” The first couple reconciled, but only briefly.
The Attiases were married in March 2008 at Rockefeller Center. On their wedding day, the groom was informed that he would no longer be organizing Davos, his wife told a European reporter afterward; the understanding was that Mr. Schwab didn’t want to upset the French government. “It was a nice wedding present,” she said. A spokesman for the World Economic Forum denied then that Mr. Attias was even fired, saying he had merely been a subcontractor.
On the other hand, Mr. Attias said this weekend that Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy had sent a very nice message about the New York Forum, the very first one he received after it was announced. Later he talked to his wife’s ex-husband. “I met President Sarkozy in New York, and he told me face to face that this is a great initiative,” he explained. “And that he would be very happy to assist me in any way he can.”
He has not heard from Mr. Schwab. “I didn’t talk to Klaus. Because I didn’t think I should,” he said, giggling slightly. Before changing the subject, his voice leveled. “I have no particular relationship anymore with Klaus,” he said. “I think it’s quite public: I didn’t like the way he reacted after my wedding.”
“Cécilia is not only my wonderful wife, she is an inspiring force,” he said. On June 24, the day after the New York Forum, they are holding a daylong event, the Dialogue for Action, for her foundation for women. Both forums will be produced by the Experience Corp., the firm he started to put together what he calls laboratories of human capital. “He was always behind the scenes, and he liked it that way,” Ms. Attias said this week. “And now he’s ready to have his own story begin.”
“He kick-starts his American life,” said the financier Michael P. Schulhof, the former CEO of Sony America, and a New York Forum advisory board member. “I don’t know how many American businessmen know Richard’s behind-the-scenes career at Davos. This is a coming-out party for him personally-as well as doing something that’s got a lot of benefit.”
“He knows a lot of people, and they love him, and they trust him,” Ms. Attias said, “because he is the most adorable guy.”