Cyrille Bessiere (H.04)
The French American Dream
New York. Cyrille received Artus in the new and beautiful offices of Le Palais des Thés, on 157 Colombus Avenue, next to Central Park. What was supposed to be a 30-minutes interview turned out to an hour and a half long passionate discussion, and HEC United’s very first interview!
Read full transcript…
HEC United: What are your best memories from school ? What did you do on the campus ?
Cyrille Bessiere: I was president of the HEC Ski Club and we organized many ski weekends. I was also part of Déferlante and I remember we organized a “Surf & Snow” week, 3 days in Saint-Jean de Luz for surfing and 3 days at Saint-Lary for snowboarding.
It was my first experience of real freedom: for the first time in my life, I got to make choices.
Preparatory classes are an extension of highschool where you are told what to do. In HEC, you have at least two events every evening, so many associations and of course the POWs (laughs)…
Also, and it may be a surprise, I really enjoyed the academic formation at HEC.
«HEC was my first experience of real freedom: for the first time in my life, I got to make choices»
H: However, people like to say that the business school formation is a bit poor compared to the preparatory classes…
C: I never agreed with this.
There are two groups of students arriving to HEC.
What I think is the majority group: good students who did preparatory classes because it was the best academic education after high school. They do well during this preparatory classes and integrate HEC. For them, there is a shock because they arrive in a school where the content is very business-oriented, pragmatic and they judge it very fast as being poor… A business school prepares you to work in business, preparatory classes don’t. To me HEC is an efficient bridge between the academic world and the business world.
If it is not enough for you, you can have a good time by other means. Personally, it was by reading many books, travelling a lot, surfing, skiing, and parties…
I belonged to another group, those of the few students who were interested in learning more about business and its culture before entering a business school.
My brother (who also did HEC) and I were the first ones in our family who really wanted to work in business. When I was 14 or 15, I was already interested in what makes a company, its products, its strategies, its marketing…
“At that time, I saw consulting as an additional formation on business, in a very managerial and “top-down” perspective”
H: So integrating HEC was the result of a very consistent personal project?
C: Exactly. And I loved every minute of my years at HEC.
What I enjoyed the most was the link with the business world: attending conferences of talented CEOs, round tables where companies came to the students on campus or the various forums like the Carrefours HEC. I also think the opportunity to make internships during the gap year is priceless. I was really into internships if I can say. I made a marketing internship at Procter & Gamble, audit at PWC, sales at Xerox, I worked for the French embassy in Santo Domingo and my last internship was at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). I spent two years of my life doing internships… because to me it was a unique opportunity to discover new professions and to challenge my aspirations.
H: Did you do your last internship at BCG because you knew that was where you wanted to start your career?
C: I had the opportunity to do a student exchange at the University of Western Ontario, in a small town called London, between Detroit and Toronto. It is one of the best Canadian universities, with excellent classes on strategy and strategy consulting. Almost every week we had a direct access to consulting firms such as Bain & Company, BCG and McKinsey and Company. That’s where I decided to have this first professional position in a consulting firm.
At that time, I saw consulting as an additional formation on business, in a very managerial and « top-down » perspective. I stayed during 6 wonderful years at BCG.
H: Many students consulting looks like as a way to get experience and sectorial knowledge in a very dynamic and demanding environment, but also to start a career without really choosing a first job… What do you think?
C: It’s also true. Personally, the two main qualities I developed as a strategy consultant are adaptability and relevance.
A junior consultant has to be very adaptable as missions and thus teams, clients, offices, countries and industries change every 3 to 6 months. I found it fantastic. The junior consultants at McKinsey, BCG or Bain have to stay generalist at the beginning and quickly acquire a huge experience on many industries. After a few years they start to develop their own expertise.
I also learnt relevance. A consultant has to adapt its diagnostic, solutions and approach to situations that change from one client to another. So being relevant means being able to adjust your role and your method depending on who you are talking to. Let me explain. For a very long time, consultants were only talking with the Executive Committee. It is still true, because consultants are still mandated by the Executive Committee, but they also have to help the operational teams understand the diagnostic and implement the solutions in a really efficient way. The goal of consulting firms is now to shorten the missions by involving the teams on the field. As a result, a consultant will work with people with very different backgrounds throughout his mission.
H: Would you recommend consulting to young graduates ?
C: I definitely would. I loved the diversity of the missions and the talented and motivated teams I worked with.
I left very pragmatically because I had the opportunity to build a company, the subsidiary of Le Palais des Thés here, in New York, and to develop it with a lot of freedom.
On the one hand, I would say that working at BCG prepared me well to this new adventure because I left with a good general knowledge of business, a good ability to understand a new market, finance basics and many other skills… But on the other hand, consulting firms are places where risk is not enough valued. I would not hire someone from a consulting firm to replace me.
H: What is your vision of the perfect entrepreneur?
“To me an entrepreneur has two things: a bow and arrows”
C: Today’s world shows us that the profile of the perfect entrepreneur doesn’t exist, because it is really multifaceted. Seeing entrepreneurs succeeding around the world in various ways proves it.
To me an entrepreneur has two things: a bow and arrows.
The bow is what you are. Some people have an entrepreneurial spirit and like to take chances, some others don’t. You can’t decide it and you can’t learn it.
The arrows are all the things you learnt and that allow you to succeed as an entrepreneur. Among these arrows you find, of course, the business and strategy knowledge, that consulting firms can teach. But there are a lot of other things like human qualities as a manager, the ability to motivate your teams or to adapt to a constantly evolving environment. As an entrepreneur, you spend a lot of your time selling your company and its products, so a first experience in the commercial stream of a large company is also a great way to acquire these competences.
All in all, consulting is a good way to acquire these arrows, but not the best because you sometimes focus too much on risks.
“When the American started drinking tea instead of soda and coffee, they immediately started drinking high-end tea”
H: So now, tell us more about le Palais des Thés.
C: Le Palais des Thés was founded in 1986 and it’s a nice commercial success of a French SME, which has seen a double-digit yearly growth rate for many years now. We sell high-end tea through three distribution channels. 1) The stores. 2) B2B sales to franchises, hotels, cafés, restaurants or wholesale accounts in big department stores. 3) E-commerce, where Palais des Thés is the European leader.
When I joined the adventure, le Palais des Thés was mainly focused on the French market, franchising and was not present in the USA at all.
H: That’s quite a challenge!
C: Yes indeed! But when opening this subsidiary, we could already see that the American market of high-end tea was starting developing and catching up, creating an interesting opportunity for le Palais des Thés. When the American started drinking tea instead of soda and coffee, they immediately started drinking high-end tea. The value effect was stronger that the volume effect and we saw the realization of a trading-up phenomenon and innovations that didn’t even exist in Europe.
This reflects my idea of the American market. When there is no market, no one invests, but when a new market starts developing, the investments are as immediate as enormous. Take the American telecommunication market for example: for a long time, it was late compared to the European and Asian markets, but they caught up in a few years, before Apple and Google revolutionized the market.
It’s the same on the high-end tea market. For the last 5 years I’ve spent here, the competition has developed itself in a very aggressive way. Teavana, one of our closest competitors, was founded in 1996. Between 1996 and 2006 they opened many boutiques thanks to an investment fund. In 2011 they IPOted (Ed: Initial Public Offering). And in 2013 it was purchased by Starbucks. T2, a very small Australian brand was purchased by Unilever and they now open many boutiques across North America.
But competition is good! Having very aggressive competitors forces you to be as sharp and aggressive as them. We don’t have Nespresso’s means, but we have our own strengths and we’re experiencing a great growth on this market constituted by Americans who want to drink healthy and like our French Touch. Of course, it has down sides, e.g the name is not optimal for product memorization, but it is also what makes us unique and it’s a sign of quality on a niche market where American consumers connect our brand with France, healthy food and even gastronomy.
“The thing with the American market is that revenues can be very high and very fast, but so do costs! Almost everything is more expensive here than in France.”
H: Le Palais des Thés is an example of a French entrepreneurship success story, so what advice would you give to French entrepreneurs that would like to go on the American market?
C: First, It depends on the industry. But if the American market is the most dynamic in your industry, you have to go for it, without waiting. Otherwise, someone will copy your business model and develop it faster at a greater scale. The digital industry in the U.S is a case in point.
If it’s not the most dynamic market, like for the high-end tea industry, it is crucial to be a leader on your domestic market. You have to be sure of your business model, your products and your marketing and to have certainties before tackling other markets.
The thing with the American market is that revenues can be very high and very fast, but so do costs! A nice boutique in New York will cost 3 times to 4 times more than in Paris. A good junior developer is 2.5 times more expensive in the US than in France, because he can choose between Google and you… The entry cost on the American market is very high and is often neglected. To have a good idea of your total entry costs, you must list them very precisely, take the worst-case scenario, and multiply this number by 1.5.
H: How did you get to this 1.5 coefficient?
C: It’s an advice someone told me when I arrived here and he was right! Even with all your effort, contingencies will happen. Because getting good spots for boutiques is expensive or because Web indexing is very expensive given the tough competition. Almost everything is more expensive here than in France.
H: That’s a surprise! We have the impression that entrepreneurship is harder in France because things are more rigid and expensive, like corporate taxes…
C: Yes, but there are other elements in the US where you have to be very cautious.
First element, and I insist, is the costs.
Second element is too be ready for a very aggressive competition and discount pricing strategies. Discount pricing strategies are everywhere here and you will have to sell your products with lower prices than in France or Europe. But the volume effect will hopefully compensate that.
A third aspect is the regulation, stronger than it looks (sanitary norms, protection of client’s data, anti-discrimination regulation for the staff, brand protection…), which means that you need a good lawyer…and we’re back to the first element on the costs!
A fourth element is the chronicle instability of your teams, because there is a huge turnover in the US. If you lose some of your best employees, you sometimes have to start from scratch, especially with Sales managers. Whereas in France you struggle to get rid of bad employees, in the U.S you struggle to keep your best employees.
Additionally, entrepreneurs must give it time. One year is too short. You and your investors must give at least 3 years. It means being ready to lose 3 years of annual costs.
Le Palais des Thés has been here for 5 years, and even if you are very happy with our growth, we know that it’s only the beginning!
“My wife, and I decided to go for a total expatriation experience, a reset of our careers”
H: Apart from business, how do you like living here in New York?
C: For me, New York is like “The United States for dummies”, meaning that it’s a soft version of the United States. I am not sure I would like to live in the middle of Nebraska, because this fascinating country can be a real cultural shock for a French. New York is a kind of compromise.
What I am going to say is a bit cliché but it’s a unique city, with an enormous cultural and ethnical diversity. And it’s not so far away from France! You only have a 6 hours time difference, so it’s easy to come back to France for family reasons, even for 3 days. For business it also means that you share 3 to 4 hours of work with France and that’s a lot better than California for instance.
So my wife, and I decided to go for a total expatriation experience, a reset of our careers. We both quit our job in France as we were expecting our first child Valentin, and started from scratch here!
Now we have two kids, Valentin and Diane, who is French-American.
But living and working in New York is a real choice and the French who set up in New York are often there for a long time (except for interns), because the visa system forces you to long-term commitment.
H: That is what we understood too. Because even if your company sponsors you for a green card or if you win one, you can’t live out of the United States for more than a year or you will lose it. Out of the green card, you can only apply to shorter visas (J-1, OPT, H1B…) and the lottery system can send you back home even if your company sponsors you.
C: This visa question is a critical one, and French are more long-term committed than in a city like London. This impression of mine was confirmed by a look at the HEC Alumni community living in New York. In general, we are more distant from France than Alumni living in London. The HEC brand is not as known here as it is in London so New York Alumni often have their own network. As a result, it is harder for me, as president of the New York Alumni chapter, to bring everyone together.
For more information, visit the US Visa Department Website
H: Can you tell us more about this position you have in the HEC Alumni network?
C: Immediately after my arrival I met Elsa Berry (H.80), the former president of the HEC Alumni New York chapter. I was impressed by all she had done for our community here. So as she was quitting this position, I decided to join the team, from day one, after we agreed on a common project for HEC Alumni.
H: What is this project?
C: We have two main goals. The first one is to reinforce the HEC brand in the USA. The competition is really intense, because the American recruiters will always prefer a school they know, even if it doesn’t have a better reputation or ranking than HEC.
The other goal is to solidify the HEC community here because although New York Alumni are very successful their financial contribution is lower than in Europe. This situation is specific and it’s an anomaly. Only 10% of all the HEC Alumni are working in the United States. It’s too low given the dynamism of the U.S economy. The dynamism of the HEC network should reflect the world’s dynamism, and the United States is our weak spot. We have to welcome more American students to HEC and to improve the HEC brand on the American market. It is stronger in Europe and in Asia than here. The poor performance of the French economy doesn’t help us.
But we have our assets! Our Masters and Executive MBA programs welcome different profiles and nationalities (European, African, Asian) reflecting the diversity of globalization. We are, on this point, better than the American universities.
“I think tomorrow’s world will be made by people who can manage uncertainty. Our community can only be strong if people enjoy their job and are agents of change”
H: Which advice would you give to a young HEC student?
As an introduction, I would like to say that I was really impressed by Bernard Ramanantsoa, our former Dean, an exceptional man with a vision. He drove HEC’s internationalization. Thanks to him, HEC is not only the best French business anymore.
During the speech he made during my promotion’s graduation ceremony, he said something I still remember: “You are excellent students, among the best in France, but you have the duty to be happy in what you do”. The message is twofold: it means take some chances, dare, especially when you’re young, and stay honest with yourself. You can build a career but you have to be happy to go to work everyday. If you are not happy with your work, quit! If you are not happy in France, move on! Do not only follow prestige or money, because it will not be worth the sacrifice. We all make sacrifices so we have to be proud of making them by doing what we want to do or by having good reasons to do temporarily something you don’t like, not for money, comfort or prestige.
I think tomorrow’s world will be made by people who can manage uncertainty and our community can only be strong if people enjoy their job and are agents of change. If France stays conservative, it will not succeed. We have to be offensive, demanding, sharp and not to be afraid of globalization. We have nothing to fear and everything to win. Let’s just be proud of ourselves, of our school and self-confident!
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