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Supplying success online

Nicolas Potier, CEO of Equistone-backed office supplies business Bruneau, talked to PLATFORM+, about responding to 2020’s unique challenges while accelerating its long track-record of growth.

AS FRANCE BEGAN to work from home in the early spring of 2020, Equistone-backed Bruneau, one of France’s largest business supplies companies, had to meet a sudden and huge increase in demand for certain products. The company rapidly reconfigured its product offer, its website and merchandising. As a result, Bruneau was able to launch a whole range of “Covid products”, many of which had previously been minor items or not even on its inventory. This new product category now accounts for between 10% to 15% of sales.

As a result, by the summer, sales were 10% ahead of the previous year. “It has been more of a V-shape recovery for us,” says Bruneau’s CEO, Nicolas Potier. “The experience has shown that we have a resilient business model. It has demonstrated the strength of our e-commerce model, which accounts for 90% of our sales, while some of our competitors depended on feet-on-the-street.”

Mr Potier believes that the business has also matured through the experience. “If you have been successful in a crisis situation and had to mobilise in a concentrated way, then you can do it again if another crisis occurs.”

In the meantime, Bruneau is set to continue its long-standing strategy of diversifying its product base, diversifying into new SME segments – which now includes the home office – and diversifying internationally. This is a time when the fittest go hunting. In July, Bruneau acquired Viking Spain, after Office Depot quit the region, doubling the company’s presence in that market. The company continues to be on the look out for ways to expand its geographic presence.

In this push for diversification and growth, the partnership with Equistone has been vital, he says. “Equistone has been very supportive of our acquisitions and are willing to invest. Every month we hold positive discussions and receive constructive challenge from them. They bring ideas and views and ask good questions – but they rely on us to provide the answers.”

Equistone has been very supportive of our acquisitions and are willing to invest. They bring ideas and views and ask good questions – but they rely on us to provide the answers.

Online opportunity

Bruneau logo and image

Today, 90% of Bruneau’s orders come through e-commerce channels, up from 35% in 2015. At that time, digitalisation of the business was a key challenge. Bruneau has successfully achieved this transformation.

“Since I joined the business 10 years ago, Amazon has been active,” says Mr Potier, “but the reality today is that we are growing profitably regardless of our competitors.” It is this confidence in the robustness of Bruneau’s business model – the capacity to develop the marketplace and the potential for external growth – that underpinned Equistone’s investment in Bruneau in 2017, when it acquired the business from Weinberg Capital Partners.

“Equistone had been interested in this business in 2015, so I was impressed by their willingness to wait and make the investment at the second opportunity,” says Mr Potier. “They ­did not think that the big return was behind them – and they are right. Our track record over these past three years has been very good. Now we have passed the storm of Covid-19, it will remain so.”

Another factor is Bruneau’s merchandising. Its B2B focused website is more specialised and orderly – and is backed up by customer service and advice. “It is easier to choose correctly what you need,” he says. In addition, Bruneau still publishes a print catalogue twice a year. “A paper catalogue that complements the website remains an advantage,” says Mr Potier. “It’s easier than a screen when people want to discuss purchases with their colleagues.”

Bruneau also offers the opportunity for office managers to negotiate special terms for particular products, as well as credit facilities.

Bruneau’s response to Covid

For a business focused on growth, its rapid reorganisation in order to continue serving its customer during the worst of the pandemic has created a quiet confidence that it has both potential and resilience. After all, March 2020 brought surprises that nobody had predicted.

“Immediately, we had to meet several challenges,” says Mr Potier. “We had to continue activities but make sure that our staff did not get infected.” Half of Bruneau’s employees remained on-site, while the rest work from home – and half of them had never done so before – which meant rapid provision of technology.

A daily morning meeting reviewed the health and safety of staff, and reported the previous day’s orders; customer service issues; product offers and marketing; and the cash position.

During the period of lockdown in France from mid-March to the start of May, sales fell sharply. Bruneau put in place the state-funded ‘partial activity’ schemes. For six to eight weeks, 50% of the office staff were on furlough. Many of Bruneau’s customers – tens of thousands of small businesses across France and Belgium – disappeared. “There was nobody to receive the packages. Thousands of parcels each day were not being received because people were not at their offices.” Protocols had to be rapidly established for drivers delivering parcels to customers at home. A call centre run by a sub-contractor shut down completely. “We were a little bit submerged for a time,” says Mr Potier.

The company was one of the first to access a state guaranteed loan but this and other contingent measures were never, ultimately, required.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter how good you are at reacting if you don’t have the fundamentals in place –  in this case a strong established B2B brand, a slick e-commerce platform and great customer service. Because Bruneau had all this at the start of 2020, its future beyond Covid-19 looks brighter than ever. 

A full version of this interview appeared in PLATFORM 04, Winter 2020/21