Laurent Marcel (H.94)
The Globe Trotter
Mumbai. Laurent is what we can call a real globe-trotter. This Dorian Gray, who looks way younger than he actually is, has brought his family to the US, Indonesia, Russia and now India throughout his career. Always happy to adapt and to learn another culture, he is the epitome of the successful French expatriate, the one that sells so well around the world. We now know why…
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Laurent! Let’s start with the Chinese portrait. So, if you were a color?
HU: An animal?
L: A peacock because it’s Indian, colorful and majestic.
HU: A meal?
L: A fruit yogurt.
HU: A song?
L: Any song by Coldplay.
HU: A movie?
L: Billy Elliot, because it’s a nice story of passion and tolerance.
HU: A sin?
HU: An object?
L: A surfboard.
HU: A sport or a game?
L: Rugby. I come from the South West of France so rugby.
HU: A book?
L: Limonov, Russian story.
HU: a (super)hero?
HU: Now, can you try to sum your professional background in just 30 seconds?
L: I graduated from HEC in 1994. I had studies law at HEC so I started my career as a business lawyer specialized in M&A. I did that for 6 years in Paris, then New York and then back to Paris, first at Gide Loyrette and then at Freshfields. Then I spent 2 years in venture capital company specialized in Internet and new technology companies.
In 2002 I joined Danone as a finance manager in the headquarters in Paris. I stayed there for two years then I moved to Jakarta in the Indonesian water business of Danone, as a finance director, then 4 years in Russia in the dairy business of Danone. And for the last 4 years I have been here in India in charge of the Danone business in India.
“I wanted to do something else and to impact and grow businesses, which is difficult to do as a lawyer.”
HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice in your professional life?
L: The biggest choice I made was the day I decided that, after being practicing as a lawyer for a few years, I wanted to change and be closer to business. I learnt what we all know but don’t always practice: things are much more easier and more fun if you do what you really like to do. Following your instinct or your aspirations is something we should never compromise. This is what I learnt.
HU: What did you lawyer background teach you?
L: I learnt a lot of things when I was practicing as a lawyer. If you work as a lawyer in the world of mergers and acquisitions, you have to be fast, you always work with a certain time constraint and you are still required to think under pressure. This is something that helps you later, it’s a good training. From a business point of view it also prepares you to manage difficult situations, because the job of a lawyer is often to cope with some kinds of tensions, and I am not talking only about litigations, but also about negotiations and oppositions that are pre-litigation situations.
There are a lot of challenges that you are exposed to when you are a lawyer, and when you move to business, having being exposed to that helps you: you can manage stress and anxiety that come from complicated situations. All in all, I think my years as a lawyer have helped me a lot and it’s something that I often refer to.
HU: Why did you change?
L: I wanted to do something else and to impact and grow businesses, which is difficult to do as a lawyer. But this preparation helped me to become a CFO and then a business manager.
HU: What are the qualities you developed working for Danone?
L: Learning and observing before making decisions is something that I learnt, especially in my career, during which I have had to operate in different countries I was not familiar with: Indonesia, then Russia, which is obviously totally different from Indonesia in terms of culture, behavior or people, and now India!
I also learnt to be well supported and well surrounded. In those kinds of markets, you need to rely on quality people you trust. You need to be as supported by them as you support them, so the human dimension of management is something I learnt, also because it is critical in environments you don’t control.
“We innovate and create products and brands in India that make sense for Indian taste and Indian habits of consumption. It’s a strategy of local innovation that we call “Indovation”, the innovation Indian way.”
HU: As a recruiter, what are the qualities you are expecting from a young HEC who would like to work for Danone?
L: Openness is a big one, because you have to be prepared to face many situations, places or contexts that you are not familiar with. Nothing prepares you to work or live in India if you come from France. You learn on the spot and being open is necessary.
HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?
L: A few things make me very happy, mostly two. The first thing is managing growth and the second thing is engaging with Indian people everyday.
I feel very lucky that what we do here is grow a business: we are recruiting people, building factories and innovating. I think this is a privilege to do that.
Moreover, doing it here, in India, with people of such a different culture, and being exposed to Indian teams everyday, learning from them and trying to lead them, is very exciting.
There are the things that get me going in the morning.
HU: What are your day-to-day tasks. We guess there is no typical day but what do you do concretely to grow Danone in India?
L: You are right, there is no typical day but probably two or three types of days. When I am here in Mumbai at the office, my role is to meet with the teams, so usually my door is open, people come, I have meetings. My typical office day is listening, thinking, deciding and trying to do this sequence rapidly because lots of things happen!
When I am away, which happens quite a lot, either travelling in India to the factories with the sales team or travelling abroad with Danone, my day is more about observing, learning and trying to find new ideas in order to improve the business.
HU: Talking about the business, what is Danone’s strategy in India?
L: I will start with the mission of Danone worldwide because it inspires a lot of things. Danone’s mission is to bring health through food to as many people as possible, not only in India but everywhere. Our strategy here derives form that.
The first thing is that we want to bring food that is relevant for Indian consumers, so it means we innovate and create products and brands in India that make sense for Indian taste and Indian habits of consumption. It’s a strategy of local innovation that we call “Indovation”, the innovation Indian way. This is the starting point of the strategy.
The second thing is to bring these products to as many people as possible, so we have a big objective to expand. Distribution in India is complex and modern trade is not as developed as in more mature markets, so the expansion requires that you are present in hundreds of thousands or millions of stores.
To sum it up, our strategy here is to create relevant products, reach as many customers as possible, and because we have a health mission, we do it with a big attention to the quality and the nutritional benefits of the product we bring. There is both a business agenda and a health agenda that are at the core of Danone’s strategy in India.
“India is facing many challenges of nutrition deficiencies, not only in the poorest part of the population, and there are a lot of challenges regarding food safety and food quality. Danone is well positioned to address those challenges.”
HU: What are the challenges you are facing?
L: There are different types of challenges: the infrastructures are not as developed as in Europe, so there is a challenge of root-to-market. There are also challenges of sourcing, of finding the right ingredients and of getting all the regulatory permits. As a result, the entire operations part is a challenge.
But if I had to emphasize on one challenge, or a priority, it’s the challenge of building the right team. If you are a foreigner in India, you need to be very well supported by trustworthy teams in order to get the right insights and the right understanding of the environment and of the diversity of the country. For me the biggest challenge and at the same time the most exciting thing is to find the right people to build a strong team of Indian managers. That’s the key.
HU: We heard that there were a lot of administrative issues to cope with in India. Do you agree?
L: Yes, There are administrative and regulatory hurdles. Like all the emerging markets, India is fairly regulated and there is a bureaucracy that exists. We have to live with it and we can. It sometimes slows down some initiatives that we take and it requires that we are well organized and very professional in everything we do. But it’s part of the challenges of doing business in emerging markets.
HU: Is growth your main objective?
L: Our main objective is to grow a sustainable business, that is to say a business that is not only growing fast appealing to the consumer, but a business supported by high performing teams and well engaged with the local communities. Your really need to understand the insights and the constraints of the country and to build something that is not only here for a few years, but for the long term, in this particular context. It requires investing a lot of time on your teams, your operations and your factories.
HU: Is there an achievement your are particularly proud of?
L: Yes, there are quite a few things I think we can be proud of. The portfolio of products that we have is quite unique and local at the same time. In the dairy products category, we have developed two typical Indian products: a mango Lassi and a Misti doi, a fermented yogurt that is coming from Calcutta.
Those are unique Danone products in the world. In the nutrition category, we have a range of protein
supplements and cereals that are really designed for Indian taste. From an innovation point of view, I think the portfolio of products that we have is quite unique, local and well adapted.
I am also happy that we managed to deliver a very high standard in terms of quality. We have been investing in our factories in order to apply Danone’s high standards.
And finally, in terms of teams! You can see the teams around, we managed to attract many Indian talents from different regions and different companies, building a strong Danone team in India, which I am really proud of.
HU: According to you, what is Danone’s main competitive advantage in this market?
L: We bring many interesting things to the Indian market. Our mission of bring health through food is something that is very relevant here. India is facing many challenges of nutrition deficiencies, not only in the poorest part of the population, and there are a lot of challenges regarding food safety and food quality. Danone is well positioned to address those challenges.
The other advantage we probably have is the fact that Danone’s culture gives a lot a freedom to local management, allowing us to innovate based on local realities. The readiness of Danone to think local is very helpful in a country like India.
HU: Talking about Mumbai now, where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?
L: I have three kids so I tend to hang out where they want to hangout! (laughs) It can be on a football pitch or at a movie theatre. But I still convince them from time to time to come with my wife and I, because there are a lot of very interesting things to see in Mumbai. The South of the city, the old Bombay is very interesting and has a lot to offer. We like to go there, have a lunch and then walk around in South Mumbai. This is something we like to do on Sundays.
HU: If you only had 24 hours left to spend in Mumbai, what would you do?
L: I would go to the South of the city, walking around the places that I like with my eyes opened. I would maybe stop by a movie theatre to watch a good old Bollywood movie live, because that’s an experience, and I would finish with a god North Indian meal: tandoori, daal… Quite heavy food, but really tasty!
HU: What did you like most about people in Mumbai?
L: I like the fact that there is a huge diversity of people in Mumbai, because Mumbai has always been the city that attracts people from all around India. It looks like New York in a way. It’s a real magnet for Indians and you can see all this diversity in Mumbai.
The second thing I like is that those people have remained fairly open and simple, even if Mumbai is the economic capital of the country. I lived in Paris and New York, and Parisians can become a bit arrogant or noxious because they think they run the country. You don’t feel that at all in Mumbai. People are here for business, they are ambitious and want to succeed but they are still open to meeting you.
So it’s the diversity and openness that I like.
HU: What is today India’s challenge that matter the most to you?
L: Living here, the two things I would love to improve are women safety and pollution. Both are hot topics in the country. I have a 12 years old daughter, I would love to let her walk around the city by herself but I don’t feel comfortable. And regarding pollution, both Delhi and Mumbai are facing pollution challenges, because it’s a pity to see pollution with your eyes every morning.
But the awareness is raising and I think the authorities will take it.
HU: Is it only possible to solve the pollution problem in a city where so many people (nearly 20 millions) need to commute everyday?
L: Pollution comes from different sources: industries, cars and trucks, dust…It’s a complex matter that will not be solved over night, but concrete actions are being taken: Delhi is trying to test an alternate circulation of cars, the improvement of infrastructures will reduce dust and the management of waste can be handled in a better way. It will take time but I think this is something that needs to be done and that will be done.
“It’s a great school of openness and I have been told it’s even more the case now, because it is more international.”
HU: Lets talk about HEC now and go back in time.
L: Yes, 20 something years already!
HU: What was you favorite place?
L: When I think about HEC I always think about the lower part of the campus, the lake and the rugby pitch. It was so green, so calm… I would just go and open my eyes, feeling we were privileged to have such a big campus near Paris. I think this is the place I miss the most.
HU: What is your best memory from HEC?
L: Thursday afternoons. I don’t know if it is still the case, but at my time all the sport competitions were happening on Thursday afternoons. By the way not only sport, people were very active, going to their associations. There were very dynamic afternoons. That was also the day of the famous Thursday night party, “La soirée du jeudi”. I don’t know if it still exists, but at the time it was something we were all looking forward to. This combination of action, fun and networking was a good moment at HEC.
HU: What were you doing during those Thursday afternoons?
L: I was playing rugby. I was trying to play rugby! And then I would hang out with my friends. I still have some very close friends from HEC.
HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC today? Why?
L: Of course! I had fantastic years, I made great friends at HEC and I have learnt a lot. I think HEC is a place where you gain and you learn a lot of things. I think it opens your mind: we were coming from the preparatory classes and a very academic type of life and then suddenly we were meeting all the others, that had different types of inspiration and lots of opportunities were coming. It’s a great school of openness and I have been told it’s even more the case now, because it is more international.
People at HEC are ambitious, they want to do things with their lives so there was also a great level of energy on the campus. And there is a great network: I met lots of people, some of them are still among my best friends and I still interact with them. I worked with some of them too.
It’s a great school and a great place to be to prepare yourself to grow.
HU: What advice would you give to a 20-year-old HEC today?
L: To dare, to dream, to look at the world as a place to discover and to never compromise on his/her aspirations, this is what I would advice if I can advise.
HU: From a personal point of view, for which reasons would you like to be contacted by an HEC alumnus?
L: First because I think it can be someone interesting to meet, there is always a bit of curiosity. Even if it’s just a few years, the time spent on the campus brings something in common.
HU: Have you been contacted for business reasons by an HEC alumnus?
L: Yes of course it happens! In India there is a small group of HEC alumni, which is actually getting bigger. Last year we had a couple of events and lectures on the theme “Making India” for example. And out of that I get contacted regularly by people from the network.
HU: How do you leverage it?
L: I stay open, I meet the people when I can and where I go. I don’t overplay it but I keep it active and I am very open to any contact.
HU: HEC’s motto is “The More you know, the more you dare.” What’s yours ?
L: I don’t have a well phrased motto, but it’s a combination of things, probably something like: “dream big, do good and enjoy the moment” or something like this.
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