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Instant Message: Q&A with Sonepar’s Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette

For this month’s edition of our “Instant Message” profile series, tedmag.com takes you all the way to France, for industry insight and perspective from Sonepar Chairman and CEO Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette. She opened up on the topics of private companies vs. public ones, women in the electrical distribution industry and how to succeed in business.

Q: How does a privately owned business succeed on the global stage?

A: Like a public one—with tenacity, determination, care, hard work and a little bit of luck!

Q: What advice would you give for managing a large, global company?

A: Size should not make us lose interest in details—the details contain good or bad signals for the present or future. Be sure that each level of the organization owns responsibility and make sure that small, medium or large-scale business unit executives are accountable and operate as partners to the whole organization.

Q: What advice would you give to those running smaller distributorships?

A: Smaller-size organizations have strengths of their own, such as, engagement with staff and customers, speed and flexibility. Smaller distributorships should capitalize on those assets. There are opportunities for businesses of every size. The only piece of advice I would give anyone is “be consistent.” There are several ways to succeed, but once you’ve chosen yours, stick to it. This is why we (Sonepar) are so decentralized.

Q: What is the value of being involved in an association like NAED?

A: NAED is a must for business leaders in an industry whose core function is to serve as middleman between vendors and an extended customer base. It is vital for people to stay connected to ongoing trends, other parties, peers and market stakeholders.

NAED’s continuous education offerings are of great value for partners, along with their get-together events where you can meet so many people and get up to date in such a short period of time. And of course, it is refreshing to step back from your daily routine and meet with other business leaders. It’s a great way to break the well-known “loneliness of the manager.”

Q: What advice would you give to other women in this industry?

A: To start with, I would call on women who are not in our industry to join us!

As for those who already are, I would tell them to stay on and volunteer in professional development initiatives because our sector has good prospects. I truly believe our industry provides better job satisfaction and career fulfillment than average.

Last but not least, talent and dedication count more than gender, and lots of women have both.

Q: How can women go about building effective business relationships in such a male-dominated industry as electrical distribution?

A: Why shouldn’t women be as good as their male peers at building effective business relationships? It’s true that the construction and engineering industry served by electrical distributors has traditionally been more of “a man’s world.” Yet I don’t know of a single case of a woman failing to make it in our industry because she was a female. The real problem has more to do with our ability as an industry to reach out to women or men that are high-potential candidates!

Today, women can take advantage of their “difference” to do the job their way.

I like to believe that someday soon, once the surprise effect is over, people will no longer pay any attention to their gender, because they will be focusing on their professional skills.

Q: What advantages does Sonepar have as a privately owned business over a publicly traded company? Are there any limitations?

A: I am a fan of privately owned companies and sympathize with the publicly traded ones. Many of our public vendors confidentially say how much they envy us.

Why does a company go public? I can see only two reasons (although I may be shortsighted on this subject): Either to finance expansion at a pace that outstrips the company’s own resources, or to provide liquidity to shareholders.

Sonepar is fortunate enough not to have experienced either of these two needs. We can make our own choices, regardless of current fashion, the views of financial analysts or undue pressure on quarterly financial releases.

We take a long-term view and are able to choose our pace of doing things. Some things may take time, and we have the freedom to make use of it. Mind you, this is not an excuse for sitting back and relaxing. Because we are private, we have a duty to ourselves, and to our associates, to be “at the top of our game.” And to be honest with you, we have never had to give up a sound project because there wasn’t enough money.

Q: Could you describe Sonepar’s core values?

A: At Sonepar, our management attitude is to encourage the powerful combination of hard work and motivation. We praise our decentralized organization, since it enhances empowerment and initiative. Our will to be number one also benefits our customers. Last but not least, Sonepar is all about understatement, meaning: “Get it done before claiming credit for it.” We do not have a [business] model and feel fine about it, no matter how many questions this lack of a model has raised.

Q: Why is it important for corporate management to establish and promote these values?

A: Values give meaning to the way people do things and what they convey to customers, peers and vendors. But keep in mind that this is also a double-edged sword, because there is nothing worse than stating a corporate value and then not living up to it. If you don’t truly stand for a value, if it’s just empty rhetoric, it will cost you dearly.

At Sonepar, passion is a genuine, living value, and one that I can feel and sense around the world, on visits to our locations and during our meetings.

Q: Why keep the local distributor names instead of just using a unified Sonepar brand?

A: Local brands at Sonepar belong to our http://www.sonepar.com/our-commitment/our-values”>respect value.

In most cases, we have observed that local brands have meaning to our associates and customers where they operate, and since our main markets are still local, even in an age of globalization, this approach makes sense.

I’d like to illustrate this with a story I heard from one of our top U.S. business leaders, about how he experienced a previous take-over before joining us. The very first day the deal was done, the new owners visited the headquarters and demanded the immediate removal of the sign advertising the brand name at the entrance of the just-purchased company. I don’t need to tell you how much damage this brutal symbolic move did inside the business.

Friendliness is also part of our behavior at Sonepar, which may be why our OpCo’s add the Sonepar brand name to their trade names on their letterheads and communication materials, without being told to.

Q: How difficult is it to maintain corporate consistency along with local identity?

A: The Sonepar name has to stand for strong things—values and perceptions that our associates recognize, appreciate, enjoy and take pride in.

In a way, multiple trade names do make internal communications tougher for us than they would be with single brand name, which would keep things simpler.

Apart from integrity, which is a non-negotiable issue, corporate consistency is not a goal, per se, at Sonepar. We aim for excellence at the local level and strongly believe that we can’t be strong unless every local link in the chain is strong. And we act, operate and manage accordingly.

However what we do have is strong common language, reporting and benchmark practices. They are a very powerful tool along with the stimulation that benchmarking drives. We also have a few common education modules that steer group knowledge and understanding. Shared events and special-focus committees at international and national levels to promote best practices, do the rest of the job!

And while we are the epitome of a highly decentralized company and we constantly call for individual initiative, we may actually have more collective success stories than other companies. When people are given the choice, they like to and want to collaborate; it makes projects more attractive to them. And we mean business when we say, PEOPLE COME FIRST.

Bio: At age 41, Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette took leadership of the family-owned Sonepar group, the worldwide leader in the distribution of electrical equipment. A lawyer by training, with a French Masters’ in Law and a Specialized Law Certificate from the New York bar, Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette started a career as an attorney in 1981 at the Paris and New York bars, as an associate of Cabinet Sonier & Associés in Paris.

In 1984, she became a director at the Board of Sonepar and later left her Law career to join the family group in 1988. As Chairman of the family holding company, Colam Entreprendre, and of the Sonepar Supervisory Board, she consolidated family ownership, reorganized the group structures and reinforced the shareholders’ group to sustain its long-term strategy.

At the end of 2001, Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette took over executive management of Sonepar when she was appointed CEO in addition to her Chairmanship of the Board.

Formerly a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette presently serves as Executive Committee member and Chairman of the Tax Commission at the MEDEF (France’s main employers’ association), and has been recently appointed to the Board of Directors of the TOTAL Group.

A privately-owned independent group, Sonepar is the world leader in the distribution of electrical equipment. It specializes in cables and wiring, switchgears, fittings, lighting, HVAC, safety and energy devices. With operations in 35 countries across four continents, the group’s 32 000 associates and 160 operational companies, generate annual revenues in 2011 of € 14.7 billion–approximately $18.5 billion in U.S. dollars.

France-based, Sonepar is number one in Europe, and number one in the U.S. It generates more than 80% of its revenues outside of France; North America makes up 30% of the company’s revenue. Its financial strength and stable ownership ensure its independence and-long term commitment within the electrical sector.

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