François Anquetil — Distribution Is in His DNA

December 20, 2016

Line Goyette

François Anquetil? You’ll never get him to sit down for an interview, people told me. He’s too busy. However, this conversation between two francophones feels like an informal chat over a glass of wine. François Anquetil, President of Sonepar Canada and Chair of Electro-Federation Canada’s Board of Directors, is engaging, and happy to share his vision of the industry.

To start, I address the issue of time. “Yes, I am organized and results oriented, it is a management choice. We have 2,000 employees in Canada, 105 branches, 5 major divisions, 5 executive committees, more than a dozen people who relate directly to me, and I try to meet with all other organizational levels (sales, logistics, marketing, etc.) to go into a bit more detail, discuss ideas for the next generation, retail challenges… I travel so much. I pay attention to my time, but there is always room for improvisation. I like the open door concept.”

The most stimulating challenges and others

A graduate of the SKEMA Business School of Lille in France, his country of origin, Anquetil has devoted his entire career to Sonepar and electrical distribution. He’s known challenges. Which proved to be the most stimulating and the most difficult?

After reflection, he states five challenges. “I would say first that opening a new branch is an exciting challenge, but it can fail in difficult markets. We must be patient, know how to leverage employee skills and expertise. Maturity may take five to seven years, but organic growth is very motivating.”

The second challenge: integrating acquisitions. “When we acquire companies smaller than ours, the challenge is how to sustain their culture. There will invariably be operational changes, but preserving the original culture — the company’s unique energy — is essential. I am a strong supporter of decentralization; decisions must remain local to serve each market.” 

The third challenge: managing technological change in warehouses and distribution centres. “You can’t automate a warehouse without changing the way people work, how orders are processed, etc. Upgrading is very complex and the risks are great. Computer interfaces are complex and training is a huge challenge. Automating a warehouse can mean a full year of perspiration,” he says, laughing, “but you have to anticipate and avoid all risks to ensure a smooth transition between the two systems.” 

The fourth challenge: running a business that extends geographically across the country. “Managing companies remotely is exciting, but it’s also quite a challenge. You have to be confident, and be prepared to travel. Distances in Canada are great, and there are many time zones. However, it is essential to continue growing the business. 

“The fifth challenge, not just for me but for the entire industry, is recruiting new talent. The size of our country can be an obstacle. In Western Canada, for example, the problem is worse because the oil boom drew all the talent. Plus, industrial distribution is less sexy than retail distribution. We must treat our brand as a technical brand, but we have the advantage of evolving in a field where agility is very important. We must remain close to customers and their needs. 

“For people who aspire to be entrepreneurs, career opportunities are more important than they are in manufacturing. People without any background or an engineering degree have access to sizable managerial opportunities and can develop rewarding relationships with clients and suppliers, which adds value. We are just the opposite of Taylorism.”

Technologies that will have an impact on our industry…

We continue our conversation by discussing technologies that, according to François Anquetil, will significantly impact on our industry. For him, there is no doubt that e-commerce and digitalization will alter distribution. The future, says Anquetil, belongs to the omnichannel distributor. 

“Digitalization is coming quickly, and we need to respond with an integrated system. We have to synchronize our platform with the client’s, with mobile devices and webshops. It is said that today e-commerce is 8% and in five years it will be 25%. We must be ready. 

“Another technology that may have an impact on our industry is product specialization. We will have to sell more solutions — industrial controls as well as lighting systems. The LED revolution has led us to create lighting specialists, and this phenomenon will accelerate. Then it is necessary to monitor the evolution of analytics. For the moment, we make little use of the data we have. With data that come from the Internet of Things and the Cloud, marketing could be more creative. We could better analyze customer needs and meet them.”

… and our industry challenges

“The Canadian economy is dependent on the energy sector, and on mining and natural resources. Our dollar fluctuates a lot and will continue to do so on longer cycles. We have to work on differentiation and adding value so that we can get away from the hell of the lowest price. Our industry must also recruit new talent, not only for demographic reasons but also to promote innovation.”

I begin asking him what is the one thing he would change in our industry if he could. “Nothing really, even if we have gaps at the level of innovation. I never thought I would spend my whole career in electrical distribution and yet… 

“I think that we in distribution basically have entrepreneurship in our DNA. Every branch manager has the power to establish their own strategy, to forge close relationships with customers, and develop managerial skills. It’s a really exciting world.”

Passionate about his work, growth projects, technologically savvy, how does Anquetil balance his private and professional life? He laughs and tells me, “It doesn’t exist. It’s a myth and we should accept it. We must have passion for what we do because we travel a lot, this is very demanding physically. There is no balance, but it is necessary to establish rules and for me it’s saving my weekends for my family,” says the father of three grown children 25, 22 and 17.

One is not born President of EFC. You become one and maybe it never leaves you

Last spring, François Anquetil was named Chair of EFC’s Board of Directors. Is it not too much? 

“EFC has a team of competent professionals. Chairing the association is not an everyday task, it’s about influence. The Chair has 12 months to achieve his goals, which is part of a 5-year plan. You have to continue the ideas of your predecessor and make your own contribution. 

“I am very intrigued by Product Information Management. Centralizing knowledge, working specifically on Canadian products, having reliable, up-to-date information confirmed by Canadian manufacturers and adopted by IDEA is the challenge I would like to raise during my term at EFC, which is a privileged place where manufacturers can discuss technical topics without competition posing a problem. EFC’s Young Professionals Network also appeals to me, and I look forward to its immediate success.”

I finish the conversation asking what is or was his source of inspiration for his career. 

“I would say that Steve Job impressed me with his ability to anticipate customer needs. Some politicians have also impressed me, but in the business world the founder of the Sonepar group, Henri Coisne, has inspired me the most. He took big risks in the 1960s, he was able to do so and I inherited this culture and made it my motto in a way. You have to be able to take risks, what counts is what lasts, but to last you have to know to adapt.”


Line Goyette is Managing Editor of CEW

 

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