French SME – the French-style flexibility


Sign Biscuiterie La Mère Poulard
French SME – La Mère Poulard based in Le Mont Saint Michel, Normandy

Between 1980 and 2013, France’s share of total export fell from 5.7% to 3.1%. Yet, apart from the luxury industry, France has many innovative companies that export well.

James Cameron asked SolidAnim, a small company based in a Parisian suburb, to create special effects for the 2nd sequel of Avatar. In Angoulême, Sepro, a French west coast SME exports its robotics expertise worldwide. Le Puy du Fou has just been awarded best theme park in the world by the United States. What do French companies who succeed internationally have in common? How does the “Made in France” stand out compared to similar German or American companies? Here is a comparison between German, American and French SMEs.

Successful French SME devoted to Innovation and Technology

SolidAnim drew Cameron’s attention thanks to a new tool that allows a real-time insertion of special effects. Le Puy du Fou is known for the originality and high quality of its shows. Sepro manufactures robots for the plastics industry. The automotive industry, including BMW and Volkswagen, represents 75% of its customers. Another west coast company, Jeanneau, is among the world’s leading yacht producer.

These successful French entrepreneurial examples, have in common to be human size companies producing unique goods of perfect quality. From this point of view, they are absolutely similar to German exporting SMEs. Does that mean that copies of German SMEs are always internationally successful? On the contrary, French SMEs distinguish themselves by their qualities of adaptation and reaction to the unexpected, well above German or American companies.

Lack of flexibility in Germany

A couple of years ago, Bongrain discreetly sold cheese to a German discounter. It sold unbranded and everyone was satisfied until the discounter complained that the temperature was too high in the middle of the pallet. The distributor in Germany verified its procedures, confirmed that they had been respected and denied his responsibility for breaking the cold chain. The problem was solved as soon as trucks were wiretapped. When arriving in Germany, the truck drivers were stopping the engine and the refrigeration system while waiting for unloading. Following the recordings, the distributor changed its procedures. Since that day, trucks are not allowed to stop the refrigeration system, even stationed.

What happened?

To deal with the problem, the German wholesaler checked his procedure. After reviewing them, he validated them, allowing him to deny that the problem was on his side. On the other side, the major accounts sales representative got in touch with people on the plant. At each site visit, she stressed the importance of the problem. Furthermore, with her presence, she stressed also that she was part of a team dedicated to find a solution. The French team finally delivered figures to study to the German wholesaler, who then react to the facts.

Germans love facts and very accurate presentations. A procedure is set up when everybody has been included in the decision-making process and all bases have been covered. This process takes time and involves a lot of resources. Once a decision is made, there is little room for change because any changes mean reviewing the whole process from the beginning.

The American “flexible if profitable”

On the US side, where customer service is written with a capital S, flexibility is experienced differently. Anne, an IT manager in a consulting company for information technology has been working in the US for 13 years. She knows very well the business world, from Philadelphia to Las Vegas and from Phoenix to Washington, D.C.

The business culture here is very results-oriented and the ubiquitous “time is money ” is all over the country”. I have even experienced an acceleration since the 2008 crisis.Decision making is formal but even in a large company that I like to compare to a ship, if everything needs to be changed in three months, well three months later the boat will be 70% operational. The last 30% will be refined and improved while sailing.

Also flexibility in the workplace is often limited to management. In front of an employee in an office or in a store, the situation is quite different. As long as you fit in the boxes provided by the user guide, no problem. But if you go out of the process, you’ll run into a wall. Yes, American flexibility is impressive. But here, companies are flexible as long as it is profitable. A client request for a change, will only be satisfied if there is a quick return on investment. And flexibility comes at the expense of quality. Projects such as the high-speed train “TGV” or the “Concorde” plane, are only possible in France where there is a concern for a well done job. On the other hand, the United States sent men to the moon and invented Google … “

What about French SMEs flexibility?

US firms adapt to exceptional circumstances if they are profitable. German companies are struggling to move but they react to proven facts. And what about French companies?

Jochen, vice president of a German SME in the food-processing industry, has worked internationally for the last 25 years : “A company’s flexibility depends more on its size and on the number of its hierarchical levels that on nationality. Danone is less flexible than Müller Milch * which is significantly smaller. “

Figures seem to show that he is right: in 2013, 98% of German SMEs exported against only 35% for French. French SMEs can overcome obstacles by improving their English, setting up teams, using networks and exporting their innovations. In a world of Americanized businesses where short-term profitability comes first, French flexibility is an asset. Let’s take advantage of it.

*Müller Milch is a German company which processes milk and sells dairy products


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