An interview with Stéphane Gigou, the man that François Feuillet wanted as his successor for the management of Trigano, the company he led for 40 years and continues to retain the majority share of
Words Antonio Mazzucchelli and Renato Antonini
As he promised, last year, François Feuillet handed over the control of Trigano to someone younger than him. François Feuillet, together with his family, retains the majority stake in Trigano (57.80%), and continues to be part of the Board of Directors and the Strategic Commission. He wanted a manager to trust as his successor at the head of the largest group in the industry in Europe.
The new chairman of the Board of Directors, Stéphane Gigou, is French but has lived in different parts of Europe. He has worked at various levels in the automotive sector, most recently as the head of Fiat Professional, the division of FCA (now in the Stellantis group) that produces the Ducato, the most widespread used base vehicle in the RV sector in Europe.
Aboutcamp BtoB interviewed Stéphane Gigou at the Salone del Camper, the Italian fair for the RV sector, which took place in Parma from 11 to 19 September. Here’s how the new president of Trigano answered our questions.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What repercussions has the pandemic had on the RV sector and, in particular, the Trigano group?
Stéphane Gigou: I would say there are two aspects to consider. On one hand, the demand for campers has increased because customers see the recreational vehicle as a safe way, from a health point of view, to spend their holidays, in a protected and autonomously managed environment: like a health bubble. This has generated an explosion in demand, that had already been strong for several years, but has now accelerated. And, it should be remembered, few had foreseen this success a year and a half ago during the first lockdown: everyone said, “cancel everything, the world is over…”, and instead the opposite happened.
This strong growth in demand is associated with the desire to get out into the open air after months of lockdown: people have remained at home and now want to rediscover nature, and we know that the search for closeness to nature is a top theme, it is part of the great “green” trend.
On the other hand, the industrial one, the pandemic has also highlighted many weaknesses of the economy and industry. We see how many companies, even entire sectors, are still totally upset. Just think of steel, for example, which seems to be in a war economy, but the same thing goes for wood, plastic, glass, electrical and electronic components… Our chassis suppliers have been out for weeks. This other side of the pandemic coin has led to the realization that perhaps we need to work differently, and in this respect, Trigano has shown great adaptability and remarkable flexibility that has allowed us to maximize the opportunity of the moment: if in the past, long-term production plans were made, now they continue to be made but we must be flexible so that we can modify them in real time and be able to keep production going using the material that arrives that day.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Regarding the difficulty in finding raw materials and high prices: in your opinion, how long will this situation last?
Stéphane Gigou: Nobody can say for sure. I think some issues are because of the current situaton and others more structural. Wood, for example, is an essential component of many products, and considering the challenges for the environment that we will have between now and 2050, will tend to be an increasingly demanded commodity, so will tend to maintain a strong demand curve. For other materials, however, there is a bubble, and things may change. Generally speaking, today we cannot make predictions, this is the truth. We are still in a phase of uncertainty.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is the current financial situation of the Trigano group?
Stéphane Gigou: Trigano works with its own funds. It has never based its growth and activities on financing. It is a very capitalized and strong company. Stocks are low and demand is strong, which is a positive sign. I think Trigano as a whole has managed production quite well this season. I can say that Trigano is a very solid reality in the RV sector and it can also be seen from the financial statements.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Have you planned any short-term investments?
Stéphane Gigou: We are always looking for external growth investments, both on the horizontal and vertical axis. Obviously we have limitations on the horizontal axis; the vertical one refers more to market opportunities and contexts that could lead us to do so.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Speaking of vertical integration, there has recently been an acquisition between groups that has caused a lot of talk: recreational vehicle manufacturers acquiring manufacturers of components for the first time. What do you think? Is this a strategy that concerns you or Trigano?
Stéphane Gigou: This is a very delicate issue as, today, we are in a market context where it is very difficult to get deliveries from suppliers, so a company could act on impulse and say: “I could do it better … so I build it myself, without external suppliers”. Trigano has integrated vertically on some activities: for example, we make a lot of mattresses and bed bases, so we know how to do this particular job. In other areas, however, we strongly believe in our suppliers and would like to continue working with them. But it is clear that if we fail to find a good balance in order to work together reliably, and with the right distribution of earnings, in the medium and long term, we will have to act in another way. Trigano has the strength to invest and develop activities by taking over from its suppliers. I repeat: today this is not our strategy, we will be forced to integrate some activities only if we do not find valid solutions in the interest of Trigano.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Speaking of non-European experiences, is the acquisition by Trigano of an American manufacturing company desirable? Some American companies are shopping for companies in Europe, and vice versa. Do you remain focused on Europe, or do you see the possibility of opening up to overseas opportunities?
Stéphane Gigou: Trigano has grown in sectors where it could obtain a leverage effect of scale and consumption, and this implies having a commonality of product, components and homologation rules. Going to markets where this scale no longer exists is not in Trigano’s plans. My mandate is to have a company that is at the peak of competitiveness, if you want to be super competitive you must have a recipe. We know our European recipe. Having a distant reality, outside this logic, is not in Trigano’s plans today. We are Europeans and we remain in Europe.
Aboutcamp BtoB: So you are not thinking about emerging markets, for example, Asia?
Stéphane Gigou: No, not for now.
Aboutcamp BtoB: And Eastern Europe?
Stéphane Gigou: That is a geographical area where we are already present. Some countries are very active – I am thinking of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but even Romania, with small numbers, is growing strongly. We are happy with the performance of some of our business units in these markets. These are expanding markets and the offer is being structured more and more.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What is your view on the changes in the mechanical bases and above all in the engines? Some European RV manufacturers are experimenting with alternative powertrains to diesel. How does Trigano Group see its future? Might there be a radical change that leads to a drop in public interest in motorhomes with traditional engines?
Aboutcamp BtoB: We know that the Trigano firmly believes in exhibitions: it has promoted, sponsored and supported them even during complex times. What are your views on this?
Stéphane Gigou: We strongly believe in fairs. These events, which take place at the beginning of the commercial season, allow a large number of people to see the largest possible exhibition of vehicles, and this helps them choose. The more brands there are, the better it is for the customer who can see all the products at the same time and in the same place. Some believe that the fair is an event for “seniors”, but it is exactly the opposite. At the latest RV sector exhibitions we have seen many new potential customers who come to the fair and discover the product, perhaps even with naivety … I happened, for example, to hear a lady in one of our stands who noticed that “on campers there is also a bathroom”. We believe that fairs are an essential moment for our business. The major trade fairs, such as Düsseldorf, Parma, Paris and Barcelona, and even Birmingham, which unfortunately will not be there this year, are key moments for us and for our customers. Obviously, they have an important cost for companies, but at Trigano we evaluate this cost on the whole of our business: participating and collecting orders brings greater benefits than being absent, saving money. Only at the fair can the customer enter the shower, try the bed, or see the depth of the wardrobe.
Aboutcamp BtoB: It seems that recently François Feuillet visited the group’s factories a little less often. Does he take care of his vineyards a little more now, or is he still very busy managing and controlling the Trigano group?
Stéphane Gigou: Mr. Feuillet produces one of the best wines in France, this is true; in Trigano he works with me on the company’s strategy and so far we have agreed on all issues. It is clear that if we were not in agreement, the last word would be up to him, as the majority shareholder. To be able to do this work in an enlightened and correct way, François Feuillet must remain informed of what is happening in the business units. We have established that once a year he will accompany me on one of my visits to the various business units. François Feuillet has managed the company for 40 years and he knows many people in the various business units, people he likes to meet. Let’s say that today we have found a good balance for teamwork, in which I am the Chief Operating Officer.
Aboutcamp BtoB: François Feuillet said that you are “a charismatic man with a clear vision”. Who is François Feuillet to you?
Stéphane Gigou: François Feuillet is one of those leaders you rarely meet in life. In fact, it has happened to me twice in my career. A few years ago I met Sergio Marchionne, a manager with whom you could be more or less in agreement, also because of his rather direct and decisive ways, but at every meeting you could learn something. For me, François Feuillet is that kind of person. I am sincere, it is a privilege for me to work with him.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is your vision of the group and companies always perfectly aligned with that of François Feuillet? How does the group you manage today differ from the past? Have there been any changes or will there be any?
Stéphane Gigou: I hope to be able to give the company greater dynamism. Trigano is already a dynamic company, but I would like to bring a different dynamic. For example, we have created the junior committee, made up of young people who potentially represent the future of the company: we meet periodically and we have given the committee tasks to perform, working on issues that are important for the future of the business. In the company, I took slightly different risks in terms of management, so in times of difficulty I was not afraid to store more, as the company was able to do this, and it was certainly useful also in the subsequent phase. However, I inherited an incredibly well managed company.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is there something you want to communicate to the RV sector?
Stéphane Gigou: First of all, I want to reiterate our loyalty to suppliers and the desire to be able to work well over time under the conditions set out above. The challenging environment we are evolving in is a good test for the suppliers to prove their commitment to Trigano by suppling in the needed volumes of parts and components.
I also have a message for the distribution network, this year has started in a very complex way for the well-known supply issues impacting the manufacturing. This situation has a direct impact on delays in deliveries which Trigano is not happy about. My message to the distribution network is that you can count on Trigano’s best efforts to produce the highest possible volumes, this with the previously elaborated request to the supplier base to deliver.
Beyond the current context, I have a general message to the whole sector. This is a very positive message. Trigano believes strongly in this industry, we have and will have many challenges, but the outlook for the future is definitely positive. I am confident we have a strong future.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You already have your own accessories distributor… In the future, could you also have a Trigano product distribution network, so as to bypass the traditional dealer?
Stéphane Gigou: Let’s take Great Britain as an example, where Trigano has 14 points of sale in a network called Marquis: today, this network is the first distributor of the Hymer brands in the UK, so it distributes products competing with Trigano, and the Trigano brands are sold by Marquis but also from other independent dealers. This is possible due to the balance and equal treatment that Trigano guarantees to Marquis and other dealers. For us it’s a recipe that works great and has no reason to be changed in the UK. So even where we have growth plans, as for example in France in retail, this distribution model for important dealers is not questioned, as long as they know how to guarantee the right customer experience.