Eric Cougnaud and Jacques Marcel : Mid-sized companies, the business model of tomorrow?

As part of our second magazine ForHum, we wondered what two managers of Hoffmann Cement’s partner companies could say to each other when they meet?

Future, responsibility, environment, performance… An exchange of views between Éric Cougnaud, President of the Cougnaud Group and Chairman of Hoffmann’s Supervisory Board, and Jacques Marcel, Chairman of the Management Board of the GCC Group and Hoffmann’s business partner.

Eric Cougnaud and Jacques Marcel

ForHum: What does “tomorrow” mean for a company? 

Éric Cougnaud: Tomorrow is every day because it’s every day that we have to build tomorrow, whether in terms of technical aspects, services, organisation, or our commercial approach. As we’re a family business, we’re of course thinking about what the company should look like in the future, through its sustainability, as well.

Jacques Marcel: Tomorrow is today. There’s an acceleration on the technological and societal aspects. Soon enough, tomorrow is too late. We’re talking about mid-sized companies that are family owned or with employee shareholding. We manage the medium/long term rather than the short term, which gives us a slightly different view of the principle of entrepreneurship. It’s important for employees because it gives their work meaning. 

What’s changing?

Éric Cougnaud: The generations that are joining us today have different cultures, desires and objectives. They’re pushing us. This is not about communication, but about actions for the men and women of the company as well as our customers.  

Jacques Marcel: The younger generations have high expectations. And it can’t just be marketing. It’s the search for meaning. So the company has to adapt effectively to these new expectations. 

What will tomorrow’s company look like? Which model will it have, between the “small is beautiful” of start-ups, the social and solidarity-based economy, and conglomerates like Alibaba? 

Éric Cougnaud: It’s the multiplicity of models that’s valuable. The family business model must be able to open up to the outside world and adapt good practices while keeping its own family-based style.

Jacques Marcel: I would say “The middle is beautiful”. I’m convinced that mid-sized companies are the future. They have sufficient size which brings financial strength and a capacity for innovation. They offer a kind of middle way between the SME, small, agile, responsive but very quickly limited in its approach, and, on the other hand, the large company which is very homogeneous and can have a demotivating effect. So I’m very confident about our business model. 

What are the strengths of the mid-sized model?

Éric Cougnaud: Agility, because as a family business, we have a fast and responsive decision-making circuit.

Jacques Marcel: Our makeup is about 60 leaders-executive shareholders. What we’re emphasising is the “short circuit”. A very flat hierarchy. What’s important is responsiveness.

What is a committed company for you?

Jacques Marcel: We’re in lines of business where our assets are our employees. That’s our main resource. We make commitments in the field of training, integration and employee loyalty. For the environment, there are two levels of action. The first is the materials, which can provide a lower carbon footprint: wood and carbon-free cement. The second thing is the way the work is done. 

Éric Cougnaud: It’s about finding the best answers because customers put “healthy pressure” on us. The environment puts “healthy pressure” on us. Our employees also put “healthy pressure” on us. 

How can companies accelerate their transformation on wealth sharing?

Jacques Marcel: Within the framework of the basic principle of shareholding. We also have a mutual fund, where we have 1,000 people who are associated with the capital of the company, including a high number of workers. Our system is based on very significant sharing of this value creation.

Eric Cougnaud: We are very close to our employees. Sharing the company’s added value is something we are used to doing through profit-sharing or variable pay.

Does the sharing of wealth go hand in hand with power-sharing?

Éric Cougnaud: Economic and financial communication is essential. This is important for trust, including with labour representatives.

Jacques Marcel: We have what we call entrepreneurial committees twice a year where we share the overall figures, where we share our joys and sorrows. That’s part of being a company, too. This is where our companies can be strong. The fact that we have a “short circuit”, the fact that we have a fairly flat organisation and managerial proximity within the company, all this makes things much easier for this type of information sharing. This is a real point of differentiation from larger organisations. 

What transformations is your company undergoing for its social and environmental impact?

Jacques Marcel: It’s not all going to come from within the company. As everything is in motion, it is very important to be curious about everything that is happening around us, especially in these fields, and to create partnerships. That’s the win-win principle that will enable co-building solutions. With Hoffmann, that’s what we’re doing today in technical trials. I’m a great believer in innovation and co-development. They’re strong avenues for environmental and societal impact. We’ve also set up an intrapreneurship programme. 

Éric Cougnaud: Our companies have no choice but to adapt on a daily basis, and that’s not new. We don’t report on it because it’s routine. In ecodesign, we offer energy performance packs in the building shell and energy input with photovoltaic panels. A self-consumption kit is also being developed. For the second life of rented buildings, we work in partnership with companies specialising in second-hand products.

If the locality is the relevant level for the company’s commitment, what role can a company play in its locality and how?

Éric Cougnaud: In the Yonnais basin (La Roche-sur-Yon, Vendée), we are the largest private employer. Automatically, this commits us to the locality. For more than 7 years, we’ve put on training programmes for people who have lost touch with the world of work, coordinating with the unemployment office and the AFPA training centre. We then recruit 30 to 40% of them on permanent contracts. We also train migrants; two migrants are currently being integrated into the company. In addition, we make partnerships for sports and cultural activities through sponsorship. It’s in our culture; we live here, too. We’re also part of this locality. 

Jacques Marcel: We’re present in practically all regions. It’s a very locally-based accumulation of actions. In the region of Nevers, which is losing more and more inhabitants, we are investing in semi-public companies to help economic development. 

Are local alliances between companies / associations / local authorities something you’re developing?

Éric Cougnaud: In the Vendée, local actors work a lot among themselves. And companies with the locality, associations with companies, etc. We’re more of a small-town thing. In business circles, like in political circles, everyone knows each other.

Jacques Marcel: We have at least 6 partnerships in all the localities on these employment issues. We’re partnering with employer consortia. We’re committed to taking on trained people in our operations. It’s important for the locality to have employability. For us, our development is limited by human resources.

What would you say to companies that have not yet begun their transformation?

Éric Cougnaud: Do you think there are companies that haven’t started their transformation? It’s absolutely necessary. It’s irresponsible not to get started.

Jacques Marcel: There are two types of transformation: the transformation of our business lines and societal transformation. Everyone in the building industry thought we were kind of protected. Today, this is hitting us hard and it will require investments and very fast adaptation. 

As to the societal transformation affecting our employees, it’s up to us, the companies, to adapt to our employees. We need to transform our companies in the way we manage. This is shaking up our organisations. This is shaking up some jobs and some missions. It’s a real challenge that must be taken up very quickly with a lot of lucidity, pragmatism and enthusiasm. 

This interview is taken from pages 46 & 47 of our magazine ForHum, currently available for free consultation on our website.

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