Alexis Rostand (1844-1919), a leading figure in the history of French banking, was renowned for his qualities as an administrator during a brilliant career at the Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris (CNEP). But this exceptional financier was also an artist who was always able to combine his profession with an unfailing passion for music.
A family of artists and bankers
In the family of Alexis Rostand, managing money and artistic sensibility went hand in hand for several generations. Alexis’ grandfather, a poet and music lover, became mayor of Marseille in 1830. His father Joseph, also a music connoisseur, spent thirty years as treasurer of Marseille and was an administrator of the Caisse d’épargne that he helped to create. Among the Rostands, there was also Jean Rostand, a philosopher and biologist, great uncle Albert, one of the first administrators of the Crédit industriel et commercial and cousin Jules, the future vice-president of the CNEP. Alexis’ own brother Eugène, a lawyer by training and father of the writer Edmond Rostand, with whom he remained close all his life, published several collections of poetry while also being president of the Caisse d’épargne des Bouches-du-Rhône and administrator of several financial establishments including the Société marseillaise de crédit.
From Marseille to Paris: a flawless route
These two passions also existed together in the life of Alexis Rostand: the young man who, from age 14 was composing music and writing songs, also embarked on his banking career very early. He cut his teeth at the Crédit agricole (then under the auspices of the Crédit foncier), entering the bank in 1863 aged 19 and staying there for five years before being named in 1868 assistant director of the CNEP branch that had just opened in Marseille. At the same time, he wrote chronicles, saw his works performed with success and even featured in the Biographie universelle des musiciens, by F. J. Fétis, the reference in that field.
Promoted director of the Marseille branch in 1876, he was noted for his dynamic and effective action. The Marseille branch was the one that collected most deposits and the dossier regarding Alexis Rostand’s légion d’honneur duly noted, in 1885, the virtues of a banker who was concerned by the general interest (in particular, he held steady during the epidemic of cholera that same year and the ensuing agitation), helped local industries, encouraged commerce with overseas countries (he was one of the strategists behind the penetration of the CNEP in Asia) and cooperated with the Government and Marseille issues of bonds. Furthermore, he was a director who was wary of inconsiderate risks and who distinguished himself through his skilful and prudent management. No doubt it was these same qualities which decided the head office to call on him when the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris collapsed following hazardous speculations on copper which also led to the suicide of its director, Eugène Denfert-Rochereau. Alexis Rostand became successively assistant director and then director (just one month later).
The rebuilding of the CNEP: initiative coupled with rigour
In 1889 Alexis Rostand was 45 years old and was faced with the task of rebuilding a bank whose capital was weak and which only had three branches in the provinces and eight abroad.
In 1895, six years later, he had turned the situation around: the new Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris had five times more capital than in 1889, boasted 40 branches in France, 17 of which were in Paris, and was once again well represented abroad. Not satisfied with seeing his establishment expand in a manner never before experienced in France at that time, Alexis Rostand was also noted for working methods that brought his bank into the modern age. Internally he motivated his staff by offering future prospects and encouraging team work. With his customers, he knew that demonstrating rigour and prudence was the best way to win and maintain their trust. The start of the 20th century saw the consecration of his action: in 1902, he became director general of the CNEP and eight years later, its President. In the interval, he defended his profession during the Lysis-Testis controversy where, taking the pseudonym Testis, he refuted point by point the accusations of the journalist Eugène Letailleur (made under the pseudonym Lysis). He only slowed down when weakened by illness in 1915, after a career spanning 50 years.
When he died on 2 April 1919, Alexis Rostand was a highly respected citizen who had received numerous honours and distinctions both in the arts and in the world of finance. He was a man who proved, as was said in a speech in 1874 at the Académie de Marseille, that it was possible to combine “the faculty of the most precise financial calculations with the most lyrical splendour of the poetry of sounds” but who always sought to dissociate these two activities in order to remain credible in both camps. While his fame as a musician faded with the 20th century, it had been very real during his lifetime and today we still remember the professional conscience, the erudition and the spirit of initiative of the banker.