Appointed Thetford’s Global CEO in January 2012, Stéphane Cordeille, is driving the company to new heights. We met him at the Birmingham RV show.
Words Terry Owen
Cordeille was in the middle of a very busy show schedule which included Dusseldorf, Scandinavia, the US, Italy and Paris. Whilst preparing a strong coffee, he told us that he was no stranger to the UK. Indeed, as a student he read commerce and management at the university of Exeter. On graduating he returned home to his native France to work for a pet food company called Friskies (part of Nestlé).
There his career developed in a sales and marketing environment, starting on the bottom rung of the ladder as a merchandiser and working his way up to become the sales manager. Then, in 1988, at the age of 25, he left to join Thetford. In the 32 years since then, Cordeille has gained a mountain of knowledge. He’s also risen from the bottom to the top.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How did you become global CEO for Thetford?
Stéphane Cordeille: I started as Sales Manager for France before moving to Thetford’s Netherlands HQ in 1995 where I was asked to take more responsibility for Sales. In 1997 I became Sales and Marketing director for Europe.
In 2002 we introduced refrigerators to our range of products in Europe. Initially we had some problems getting the factory at Etten-Leur to run smoothly. The day before I was due to start annual leave, I complained to my boss that I wasn’t happy about it. I thought he was joking when he said, “If you’re not happy, why don’t you run it?”.
However, on my return he was in my office first thing. “Well” he said, “are you going to run the factory?”. I agreed and moved to Operations, running the Dutch factory for sanitation and refrigerators for three years until 2005 when I became Managing Director, Europe.
I held this role until January 2012 when I became global CEO. We agreed with my shareholders that I could do the job from my base in the Netherlands rather than move to the US. Of course, it’s meant a lot of travelling but I think it’s worked out very well.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Tell us about your travel.
Stéphane Cordeille: My time is principally spent in the US and Europe but also increasingly in China where we invest in developing the local sales and operations.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you own any manufacturing capacity in China?
Stéphane Cordeille: Yes, we do. We bought a small producer of cooling units, north of Shanghai, and have made significant investments to modernise it and increase production capacity.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you have further plans to source parts from China?
Stéphane Cordeille: Like for most international companies, China has become a major source for our components. Some of that comes out of our own factories and the rest from contract manufacturers.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What other facilities do you have in China?
Stéphane Cordeille: We have a local sales office but also Engineering, Quality and Procurement groups whose job it is to oversee our suppliers. We try to manage all the new challenges related to long lead time supplies by being physically present where we source our products and components.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you worry about your products being copied?
Stéphane Cordeille: Every one of our products has been copied – refrigerators, toilets, and so on. Whilst it is undoubtedly a problem, we are not overly worried about it. Recently at an European show we came cross a Chinese company with slimline compressor fridge that was an absolute ‘knock off’ of one of our European products. We managed to get hold of a sample but found out that the quality and performance were just not up to our standards.
This is quite typical of a Chinese copy. Whilst the look, dimensions and features and are very similar to the original product the quality standards are just not there. This is something that is really important in the RV world.
But quality is only one part of the story. From a supply chain and service standpoint these manufacturers simply cannot offer what we do. Apart from being close to the customers, we have extensive supply chain facilities including a European distribution centre in Etten-Leur from where we can supply any quantity and combination of our products. In addition, we have our sales and service team throughout Europe. They support the installation and certification of our products at the OEM’s as well as dealing with any service issues that may arise with dealers or end users.
All these things make it more difficult for any Chinese (or other) player to come and compete with us. Whilst they are obviously cheaper (we have a big organisation to support) and an OEM could save some money initially by buying a copy of one of our products, the full cost is only realised once it is installed and needs servicing. This is something that our customers understand very well.
What’s more it is common to have to buy a full container of the same product, and if something goes wrong between the installation and the end user there is no one to provide support.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Tell us more about the service you offer globally.
Stéphane Cordeille: Many companies claim to be global but we believe that being truly global begins with thinking local. It’s a reverse process in which you begin by understanding your local markets before you start globalising your service.
It starts by having local teams close to the customers and markets, and understanding their needs. For example, in Europe the demand for compressor fridges is currently intensifying, driven by the increasing electrification of RV’s and improvements in battery technology. In response to this Thetford is the first company to have built a complete range of compressor fridges that totally match the needs of the European market in terms of sizes, needs and quality standards.
At the same time, in the US, the demand for compressor fridges is also increasing for similar reasons. Rather than try to make the European range suit both markets we are making a dedicated range for the US. We are effectively working in parallel, rolling out our best technology on a global platform but implementing it locally according to the needs of that market.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How does customer support fit into this?
Stéphane Cordeille: I believe that, for the size of Thetford, we have one of the most comprehensive support networks in the industry. We believe that being global is not about spreading your logo across the world, it is about having a dedicated support network in each country that you serve. To this end anyone involved in our supply chain can have the training, support and spare parts needed to do their job effectively. For example, in Scandinavia we have a small but well trained organisation who supports and service our products and trains the local dealers wherever needed.
In total, globally we have about 100 sales and Service staff dedicated to our customers out of a total workforce of some 1500 people.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What are you doing in Australia?
Stéphane Cordeille: Australia and New Zealand have become a very important part of our business. Recently we opened a new facility just north of Melbourne, in Campbellfield, Australia. Employing some 20 people it replaces a smaller facility that had been there for some years.
We serve the Australian market in the way we serve any other market in that we have a product manager, service personnel, and over 300Thetford-approved dealerships who can service our products. In New Zealand we have around a dozen approved dealerships.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What do you see as the biggest challenges Thetford will have to meet in the next few years?
Stéphane Cordeille: Undoubtedly the biggest challenges will come from technology changes or the ‘technology disruptors’ as we call them. The biggest driver here will be the move towards the increasing electrification of RV’s. As an appliance manufacturer we accept that our products will need to change and this is something we are already working on.
We have technology platforms for each of our product lines – sanitation, refrigeration and cooking. In the next two to three years we are planning to bring products to market that will be game changers. These will be completely new products, but ones that we believe will meet the ongoing needs of our customers.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is Thetford doing to reduce the environmental impact of its activities and products?
Stéphane Cordeille: All of our buildings are audited to see how we might reduce their emissions and energy consumption. As a result of this at Etten-Leur we are looking into the feasibility of installing solar panels on the roof of our buildings. We are also adding extra insulation to reduce heat losses.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you have ‘end of life’ strategies for your products?
Stéphane Cordeille: The first thing to say is that all of our plastics are recyclable. We do have a chart detailing how most of our components can be recycled but we still have a few that can’t be. These are principally some of the chemicals in our cooling units which are currently made safe for disposal whilst we try to work out a better way to recycle them. Overall, I would say that some 80% of our components are currently recyclable.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What are you most proud of during your time at Thetford?
Stéphane Cordeille: I’ve never been one for looking backwards, I constantly look forward and one of the things that keeps me awake at night is worrying about how Thetford will look in five years’ time and whether we’ll still be competitive. To be a good CEO I believe you must never sit back and rest, you must be constantly looking forward. Our world is changing rapidly and I believe that a lot of companies will get into trouble in the coming years by failing to react fast enough to the technical disruptors that will occur.
To ensure I stay abreast of developments I constantly put myself back in ‘the student’s chair’ to keep my eyes fresh and curious to what is going on around us. I’m proud to say that Thetford is a company that does not stand still. We are constantly moving forward and bringing new products to market.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you see Thetford moving into other product areas beyond those already catered for?
Stéphane Cordeille: We always look at any opportunity to expand. However, we are not racing to increase the size of the company, like some others seem to be doing. We want to be a dedicated supplier and that means staying focused on our core areas and on our core market. Every product we bring to market has to be the best.
If we do enter a new product area, we will seek to add value through innovation, technology and specifications that the competition does not have.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What hobbies and interests do you have outside Thetford?
Stéphane Cordeille: I’ve always enjoyed playing football and rugby but now I’m getting older I’m looking more towards sports such as golf. Of course, I travel a lot so, when I’m not working, I like to spend time with my wife and family.
Being French my other passion is wine. With others, I buy wine in the south of France and sell it in the Netherlands, supported by presentations when needed.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Do you have a favourite wine?
Stéphane Cordeille: It’s red for sure, from the Rhone area, coincidentally not far from Trigano. It’s one you may not have heard of called Côte Rôtie. It’s not cheap but it’s full bodied and that’s what I like.