The time for stewardship: an entrepreuneurial adventure across generations
We usually think of stewardship as looking after property for others. While it initially meant taking care of minor tasks, the role of the steward expanded over time to include high stakes assignments such as managing and growing assets for the sake of others.
This is the definition the business world has adopted, stressing the fact that the steward’s mission is to prepare a business to be passed on to future generations in a better state. Today, far from being mere housekeeping, stewardship touches on every aspect of business performance, not only in economic and financial, but also social, societal and environmental terms, with a view to growth and sustainability.
Obviously, it’s also up to the steward to prepare the person or people who will succeed them. Sourcing, training, grooming future leaders and turning them into decision- makers is one of the major dimensions of stewardship.
It is not only about rewarding technical skills, or the most assertive management skills. Instead, stewardship means focusing on the transmission of principles and values, ensuring that the founders’ project remains at the heart of an ongoing story.
Local story, human story
The Boyer workshop, specialising in the manufacturing of doors for steel vats for the local winemaking industry, was created in 1920, in the small French village of Talence, not far from Bordeaux. Over the decades, the business grew and gained international recognition. They developed a remarkable technical mastery of vacuum and pressure mechanics that allowed them to create and manufacture doors and hatches of impeccable quality, and to sell them around the world in the evolving markets of agribusiness cosmetics, chemistry and pharmacy.
‘I joined Boyer in 1982 as a welder and boilermaker before taking on several other positions in the area of purchasing, and then became responsible for logistics’ explains Serge Gérard, who took the helm of the business in 2014 after working at the company for more than 35 years. ‘I was given the job of repatriating a laser-cutting factory without losing production, and was then appointed as director of production. Shortly after, I took over responsibility for the engineering office, and became the industrial director. Finally, the CEO who preceded me named me as chief operations officer. During my career at Boyer, I experienced two company buyouts and five different leaders. Each time, I had the good fortune of being promoted.’
This outstanding performance was awarded in 2016 at the Victoires des Autodidactes event(1), in which Serge Gérard was awarded the Young People’s Choice award, which was decided upon by youngsters participating in the programmes run by the Institut Télémaque (2). For Imène Kouidri, one of the voters who lobbied for Serge Gérard’s candidacy, the jury didn’t ‘focus on sales or money, but rather on human values’. The recipient was particularly appreciative. ‘This prize is the one I like best because it’s focused on human values’, says Gérard.
A question of values
‘The business turnaround period at Boyer was difficult’, says Gérard. ‘The company was in big trouble. We could no longer pay our employees or suppliers. The judicial administrator under whose control we were placed wouldn’t consider any option other than filing for bankruptcy. I had to call suppliers and promise that we would pay them. They trusted me because our relationship with them was based on honesty and transparency.
To convince the administrator not to file for bankruptcy, I had to commit my personal assets, with the agreement of my wife. In the first months that followed the recovery, we put a drastic savings plan in place – we went so far as to go around the offices each night to make sure the lights were turned off.’ The challenge was daunting, primarily in human terms, owing to the 40 jobs that needed to be saved. ‘I was very fortunate to have had the unanimous support of all the employees who signed a petition in favour of my business turnaround project’, says Gérard. ‘I had experience in every position in the business. The staff believed in me, and gave me their best.’
This total engagement caught the attention of the young voters at the Institut Télémaque. ‘He risked everything, he put his own personal assets in jeopardy. He sacrificed his life to save families, despite being under no obligation to do so. I find that incredible!’ explains Kouidri. ‘I was captured by the fact that he had saved the employees. I think that we were all very moved by that. In the end, it was a deciding factor in why we thought he deserved the award’.
Work and team spirit
‘When I was faced with my new responsibilities as CEO, I was scared’, confesses Gérard. ‘I was lucky enough to be in good company, thanks to my finance director who I had known for a long time, and to my accountant who acted as a true adviser. Beyond that, I’m convinced that the sustainability of our success will be based on our ability to unite people and create a big family’. This idea of entrepreneurial adventure changed Kouidri’s perception. ‘Serge Gérard’s experience and journey gave me a different view of business life’, she enthuses. ‘Until then, for me, it was mostly about discipline, schedules and repetitive tasks. But on the contrary, we are affected by a desire to create a good working environment, and by a boss who really cares about his employees. He takes his time, speaks with everyone, and does everything he can to create the best working conditions.
It is amazing. It makes you want to work there!’
Gérard considers a strong work ethic to be the only true key to success. ‘Working at Boyer is rewarding. I recruit based on feeling’ he says. ‘I trust what I feel during an interview. I look for outgoing people who relate to others. This can be risky, but I don’t envision any other way of doing it’. And what about diplomas? ‘They are not essential’, says Gérard, ‘although technical skills are mandatory for certain positions, in our engineering office for example. Afterwards, the challenge is to keep our talented people, to make sure our employees are doing well in their lives and to take care of them. I know that leaders prefer diplomas and that hiring remains an obstacle for self‐taught people, but I’m convinced that talent will always be noticed and recognised, particularly in small businesses.’
The challenge of transmission
At Boyer, it would be counter-productive to dilute the values which have allowed the business to grow. Being straightforward, acting responsibly, respecting quality, striving for excellence – these key notions are not negotiable, and from Gérard’s point of view, they will continue to form the basis of the business’ future developments. ‘When I decide to retire, and pass on the reigns of Boyer’, he says, ‘I will favour a successor who shares these values, or even better, be replaced by the employees in the form of a SCOP(3), for example. I have always considered that human values are far more important than just financial success. Nothing should be done at the expense of the human factor. The main objective will be to protect the company and the jobs. I know that the power of money can transform people and this is the main risk regarding the transmission of a business. This is why we need to prepare and organise the succession process every day. My real goal is to progressively make sure that I am no longer indispensable, and that I do not make all the decisions. I am trying to make it happen, bit by bit, by getting employees to deliberate and to assume additional responsibilities.
Day by day, stewardship at Boyer is also about transmission of knowledge. ‘It’s done directly, between the veterans and the youngest employees’ says Gérard. This is confirmed by Didier Bourdessoules, a welder and boilermaker, and a Boyer employee for 33 years.
‘Those who came before me taught me everything, from the products to the materials and the way to work. This is what allowed me to advance, little by little. It also gave me my values, my work ethics, and a demand for quality. For my part, I try to pass this knowledge and these values on to younger employees. I benefited from this training, so now it is up to me to pass it on to future generations’.
Transmission becomes a virtuous cycle, which makes it self‐sustaining. ‘In our line of work, technical knowledge is sometimes akin to an art. Few people are really capable of mastering the craft of welding. It takes time. Young people need to be helped and supported.’ A Boyer apprentice for 2 years, Guillaume Chaudet confirms: ‘My apprenticeship mentor passed on to me the knowledge he accumulated over his 15‐year career. And I know that I will be happy to transmit what I have learned to an apprentice at some point in the future.
For Kouidri, the concept of mentoring is also crucial. ‘I have been supported by my parents who always wanted me to succeed in school, but without putting too much pressure on me. And I also relied on certain teachers who, for example, encouraged my love of reading. One of them even gave me
a book by Jane Austen, one of my favourite authors’. What are the qualities required for transmission? ‘I think it takes patience. You also need to be passionate, educational and willing to take time to explain things. It is in this way, I think, that we can encourage a love for knowledge.’ In Gérard’s opinion, loving what you do is a prime virtue. ‘To have that passion is essential for all entrepreneurs. But it is even more essential for self‐taught people. I know that because I don’t have a diploma, and I have some shortcomings. I haven’t necessarily mastered computers or office matters and
I don’t speak English. But I know what I am doing. I approach subjects in a concrete way. And I love my job.’ Kouidri concurs: ‘Serge’s journey is incredible, almost unique. He does not hold a diploma, but he has succeeded in his endeavours. Today, he is the boss and he does what he loves.’
An inspirational model
Gérard’s model is based on the love of work, quality, solidarity, the transmission of knowledge between generations, and the responsibility given to each person. Not surprisingly, this model has attracted other entrepreneurs, including young participants to the programme developed by Institut Télémaque. It’s not insignificant either that the model built by Mazars since its creation has mirrored it. The boss of Boyer and the leaders who have succeeded at the head of Mazars share a strong conviction that an entrepreneurial adventure is above all a human adventure in which each generation builds on the achievements of the previous one. They also know that sustainability can only happen under good conditions in which potential successors are groomed, supported, and given responsibilities.
It is precisely in this way that Mazars’ history has unfolded. In 1983, Robert Mazars, founder of the organisation, decided to retire and entrust his business to young partners, who in turn have been able to grow and internationalise it. Soon there will be a new generation of leaders, all Mazars partners, who will receive the responsibility to pursue this adventure and develop the organisation again. The ambition to secure and sustain this desire to transmit has been implemented through a talent management policy that entrusts Millennials with management roles. They are actually empowered to directly manage relationships with clients and lead teams, and to make decisions. Through the same conviction, Mazars assists companies over the long term, at all stages of their development, with a view to lasting growth and the sustainability of their business.
In the service of the public good, Mazars has long since set itself the task of helping entrepreneurs and companies to grow and develop over time, which benefits not only the business community but also society as a whole.
Contributing to social mobility
The Institut Télémaque
An association created in 2005, the Institut Télémaque aims to boost social mobility starting at high school level. They help motivated and deserving young people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds through a dual sponsorship programme between schools and businesses. Selected from both classic and professional channels (in cooperation with heads of establishments, and according to merit, motivation, and societal criteria), the students benefit from the advice of both an educational tutor and a business tutor who support them throughout their baccalaureat. To date, the Institut Télémaque has partnered with over a hundred schools, as well as apprentice training centres in areas such as commerce, hotel management, and hospitality.
(1) The ‘Victoires des Autodidactes’ are a yearly event created
in 1989 by the ‘Harvard Business School Club de France’, with support from Mazars. These awards are meant to reward self-made entrepreneurs who stand out thanks to their performance and their dynamism on local and international markets. More information
(2) Cf. below
(3) A SCOP is a cooperative enterprise in which the employees hold the majority of the company’s share capital. Employees elect the management team, actively participate in decision-making, manage the company, and share its profits, in accordance with the democratic economic principles of cooperatives.
Under French commercial law, a SCOP may be incorporated as an SA (société anonyme) public limited company or an SARL (société à responsabilité limitée) limited liability company. http://www.les-scop.coop/sites/en/
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