AboutcampBtoB has already had the pleasure of interviewing François Feuillet, CEO at Trigano and President of the ECF (European Caravan Federation), four years ago. This time, once again, it felt like being in the presence of a highly experienced entrepreneur and a connoisseur of the caravanning sector. Great power and a strong personality make Francois Feuillet highly respected. We asked him some questions to let everyone get to know the man behind the entrepreneur more deeply.
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli
The 72 year old Frenchman has been managing Trigano since 1981, having previously worked as an auditor (KPMG), financial director and general manager for the Singer Group and Compagnie Française du Meuble. He gained control of Trigano in 1986, went on to list the company on the Stock Exchange and started a strong acquisition policy.
Today, Trigano employs 9,000 people in 14 countries and recorded sales of €2,328.2 M in 2018/19.
The Trigano Group has just announced a succession plan and has appointed Stéphane Gigou as Deputy CEO who will, in the near future, be appointed as President of the Executive Board and CEO for the whole group.
Aboutcamp BtoB: A couple of years ago, you announced you would retire in 2020. However, few in the industry believed that you would really do it. Has everything gone as planned?
François Feuillet: Yes, my goal was to leave operational responsibility in 2020. My idea was for an efficient succession by finding the right organization and person. Some time ago, I realised that in 2017 I had declared to Le Figaro that I would leave the company in 2020. Now the time has come. The right person was needed to reorganize the group and manage the succession. This process took time.
Aboutcamp BtoB: And is Stephan Gigou the right man?
François Feuillet: Stephane Gigou is a man with a clear vision. I saw him manage Fiat’s commercial vehicles department with quality. There are close relationships between Fiat and Trigano and I appreciated his way of working. He is a young man, 48 years old, with great ambitions, who has achieved success with Renault and Fiat and had a fairly fast career. He is a man with charisma, which is an important quality for those who manage others. He is a manager with experience in the automotive industry, distribution through a dealer network, product development and marketing. He does not have a great experience in production, but he understands the process of purchasing. So it seemed to me that all the qualities that I was looking for my successor were found in Stephane Gigou.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Although you are leaving the command of Trigano, you are keeping a key role. What is in store in your future? Are you going to dedicate yourself to your free time or will you continue to follow Trigano closely and hold institutional roles in the sector?
François Feuillet: Obviously I want to spend more time traveling with my camper and working in my wine company that produces one of the best wines in the world. These are two activities that I do not spend enough time on today, but, obviously, I also want to maintain my strong bond with Trigano. I will be on the supervisory board and lead the strategic committee together with my wife. Of course, I would also like to be involved for some development projects for the future but Stephane Gigou, will make the decisions, except for the strategic aspect, in which I maintain my role due to my personal goals as a majority shareholder.
Aboutcamp BtoB: The Trigano Group is participating in the main caravanning trade fairs which have been confirmed for 2020: Düsseldorf, Paris and Parma. Why, in your opinion, is it important that even in this particularly difficult year, our sector must continue to have these fairs?
François Feuillet: I think it is important to participate in these fairs because, although they are expensive, they bring a very important return for our company. In Germany, the Trigano sales network is not as strong as the network of our main competitor but we can rebalance this situation at the Düsseldorf fair, so it is very important for our dealers and our sales. With regard to Parma, it is very clear that without a fair there would be no more market for motorhomes in Italy as the sales network is not able to sustain itself without the fair in Parma where more than 25 percent of yearly sales are made. Only at the fair in Parma can people see together all the vehicles from all the manufacturers. The dealers in Italy are not numerous, far between and have a fairly limited stock of show models, so to get a good idea of what’s available people normally have to travel many kilometres.
A fair is a truly unique event for the public to see so many vehicles and therefore make a decision. If customers don’t go to the fair, they are not able to make decisions and then the market goes down. And the same happens in France. There is, therefore, a strategic motivation to participate in the main exhibitions.
Also not attending trade shows to save money is a very short-term vision. I think a company like Trigano should look to the medium and long term and help, in difficult years, trade fair organisations, because without them we would not be as strong as we are.
And last but not least, tradition must be maintained even in a difficult year, just like does the cycling Tour de France: despite all the current difficulties they still try to do it again this year, because it is a tradition. If our industry does not maintain tradition we will lose our culture.
Trigano is able to pay for these fairs, as we do not need to save money, and we think that these three fairs have brought, bring and will bring a good return to Trigano.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Across Europe, and beyond, the media are currently devoting a great amount of attention to outdoor holidays. Do you think this promotional campaign can bring a new audience to our sector?
François Feuillet: During the lockdown, in France, I watched TV and observed that advertising was low and focused on a few types of products. On the other hand I knew that people locked in their homes aspired to freedom, and this freedom could be provided by campers. That was the perfect time to uphold the traditional values of an RV’s: freedom, savings and respect for the environment together with a fourth element: health security.
We created an advertising message using archive footage and in France we launched an impressive television campaign: more than 1200 commercials were purchased at a very low cost. This meant that all the dealers, who at the time were closed and worrying about the future, saw things were moving on that there was a future. On Google, we immediately found a surge in searches on the words “caravan”, “motorhome” and other keywords in the industry. The advertising campaign ran from 22 April to 22 May. French dealers reopened on 11 May, so were able to take advantage of the interest generated by our promotional campaign. We also ran a public relation campaign to obtain full coverage. We hope to have given the dealers relief and with an injection of liquidity to enable them to buy the new vehicles from the 2021 ranges.
New customers are coming as we have added a fourth value to our product and we explained it widely. The same goes for other European countries.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Will this level of interest in campers be a ‘flash in the pan’ or could there be positive consequences from the pandemic situation in the medium and long term?
François Feuillet: It is not possible to predict it, but it is better to take advantage of the ‘flash in the pan’ while it is possible. There will be an economic crisis, which has not yet been seen in Europe, but which will be seen. We cannot lose 12 percent of GDP without having consequences. The purchase of a camper can be postponed or people can decide not to buy or replace it. We saw this in the 2008 financial crisis, and it is due, across Europe, to solidarity between generations. Obviously the customer who buys a camper does not have financial problems: they are often retired, paid off the house loan and have the availability to buy. But they may be afraid that their children will have no future, will lose their jobs, will not be able to pay their mortgage or that there will be no money for the studies of their grandchildren. All this can postpone the purchase of a camper. To offset this phenomenon we must try to create a new clientele and increase interest in this type of leisure. Otherwise there will be a drop in the market as happened in 2008. The market had managed to recover the 2008 levels thanks to Germany which has less problems of solidarity between generations. When the Germans are in difficulty, they spend. When the French are in difficulty, they save. And the same goes for the Italians.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How did Trigano react during the lockdown period? Did you manage to contain the effects, and how?
François Feuillet: During the closure we had no choice. Most states decided that factories and dealers had to close, so it was not possible to manufacture or deliver. The idea was to survive and make cash to get out of the crisis even stronger. At Trigano, we enjoy excellent financial health so we lived through this moment with great tranquillity. We tried to generate cash by collecting the arrears from dealers across Europe and we paid our suppliers in due time. We organized the return of the workers, we negotiated with the unions and we quickly returned to production. We have also postponed the introduction of the 2021 ranges so as not to disturb the network. In fact, besides the strict respect of the health of our work force and their families, our main goal was to help the network to survive. For Trigano there were no problems, but there were problems for some of our dealers who are commercial businesses that often do not have the same financial health.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What can a big manufacturer do to formulate ideas capable for a new market segment, such as the van, which is easier for a start-up to enter instead?
François Feuillet: The Trigano group has been producing vans for a long time. We bought in 2004 a small van manufacturer that had a production of around 75 vehicles per year and now manufactures thousands. We have put in all our van factories an industrial production process which obviously gives us a huge advantage over manufacturers with smaller volumes. Most small van manufacturers either went bankrupt or sold their business to large groups. As a conclusion start-ups are not threats because it is very difficult for them to obtain the production costs that we have today thanks to our productivity and our purchasing capacity. The risk and competition is not from the start-ups but with car manufacturers, such as Volkswagen and Mercedes, who have products made by them on an industrial level.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What has been the most difficult professional challenge you have faced?
François Feuillet: I have been at the helm of Trigano for 39 years and I never thought about leaving because difficulties. For example in 2008, when we found ourselves with too much stock and we had to drastically reduce production capacity to rebuild a favourable financial situation. Or, in the 80’s, when Trigano was a small, loss-making company. Indeed, producing tents in France in competition with China or with countries like Romania was very difficult. We had to shut down factories and move production elsewhere. Also when we had to face the collapse of the caravan market; when I joined Trigano in 1981, the French caravan market was over 90,000 units: today in Europe it is around 60,000. The market has shrunk dramatically. But life was not always difficult, as we also had a 14-year growth in registrations of motorhomes, until 2007.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is there anything you haven’t been able to accomplish?
François Feuillet: More or less I have done everything I wanted.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Have you ever made any mistakes?
François Feuillet: Yes, often! I have created companies that I have not been able to operate with satisfaction. I have tried to diversify but without positive results. But I’ve always tried to go on. It is said that “errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum”. I say that “errare humanum est” but persevere is for men who have a long-term vision and who sell quality. Even if you make a mistake you have to try to go on and very often a solution is found.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You are very powerful and highly feared. But it seems to us that, from the companies of the Trigano group, people leave when they retire, not before. Is this true?
François Feuillet: True, our employees leave Trigano when they retire. I know people who, throughout their career, have worked only for the Trigano group… for 45 years. I think Trigano gives employees a project of work, growth, strength, and the ability to scale positions. Our employees often have four or five career advancements. In Trigano, we often increase wages so that our workers always have fair recognition. After that, I have big flaws. The most important is that I always see the negative aspects and when someone has worked wrongly even for only five percent of the total done, I always start the meeting with him underlining that five percent . I never start by complimenting him. But I think this approach is appreciated in the long run.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Two symbolic figures in our sector, Erwin Hymer and Pier Luigi Alinari are no longer with us: what were your relationships with these two entrepreneurs and what memories do you have of them?
François Feuillet: I had excellent relationships with these two entrepreneurs. It was a very honest relationship with Erwin Hymer. When Hymer had production capacity problems, Trigano became Hymer’s subcontractor: we produced caravans for them. We always shared ideas and it was truly an incredible relationship. When Erwin started having health problems it was a sad period for me because I believe that Erwin Hymer was the most important man in our sector and a high quality industrialist. Also with Pierluigi, I have had an equally incredible and important relationship. Maybe I was sorry that he sold PLA to the Rapido group instead of Trigano, but he was already quite old and everyone makes mistakes. In this sector we have been fortunate to have quality entrepreneurs who have supported the work over the years. I wish also wish to mention characters like Hobby’s Harald Striewsky, another long-time entrepreneur and, obviously Pierre Rousseau the owner of Rapido. In our industry we were not financial companies which change shareholders every four years or companies that operate badly and go bankrupt. Luckily we were family owned companies managed by entrepreneurs with a clear vision and sharing the same values.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What do you value most in life?
François Feuillet: The value of one’s word. In my opinion: never lie and when you make a commitment you have to remember that it is not just for business, but for life.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You are a very rich man. Forbes quantifies your assets as being worth $1.2 billion. At the same time you are known as a very thrifty man. How do you spend your money?
François Feuillet: I don’t spend money because, until now, I didn’t have the time and above all, what I like doesn’t cost much. My interest in life is not to satisfy needs, because when you have satisfied a need you have lost a goal to pursue. I’ve always done things step by step. Obviously, I bought some vineyards to make my wine, but at that time they were quite cheap. I think that satisfying one’s needs with a lot of money does not lead to true happiness.