Bris Rocher discusses the original sustainable business that women have been in love with for more than half a century
Yves Rocher Group
In the Yves Rocher offices, 36-year-old Bris Rocher, CEO of the company founded by his grandfather, keeps his visitors waiting in a small, sunny vestibule. On a low glass coffee table, a few books are carefully laid out: all reveal a facet of the iconic French brand.
Yves Rocher’s natural cosmetic products are part of France’s national heritage. Many French families have enjoyed the thrill of receiving Yves Rocher’s famous little beauty parcels through the post at a time when mail order businesses were extremely rare.
Commitment to sustainable development
Using plants grown on the family estate of La Gacilly in Brittany to make his products, Yves Rocher was one of the first environmentally conscious entrepreneurs in Europe. A book of photographs shows acres of organic chamomile and medicinal plants in a hilly Breton landscape.
Another book, written by Rocher’s uncle, bears witness to the Rochers’ taste for traveling and their commitment to sustainable development through a system of partnerships, along with aid to entrepreneurial women living in developing countries.
We owe our success to nature, so the least we can do is to look after it.
“We owe our success to nature, so the least we can do is to look after it,” Bris Rocher explains. Sustainable development has been a cornerstone of the brand since 1959, decades before it became a regular item on boardroom agendas. “It is what Yves Rocher is all about, quality natural products that have always been affordable to a very large public.”
Bris Rocher, who became the head of the multi-billion dollar French cosmetic empire five years ago, remembers with fondness his summers when he helped with the harvests at La Gacilly. “I was barely 12, I started early!”
After a stint in the accounting department of the company, he moved to Arthur Andersen (now Accenture). “I needed to try my hand at other things, even if I secretly knew that I’d go back home, eventually.”
In 2003, back in France, Rocher was made Vice President of the Yves Rocher Group (eight brands active in the markets of cosmetics, clothing and homecare products) and, when his grandfather died in 2009, he took over the business, as the eldest of eight grandchildren.
One of the first decisions he made was to consolidate the business. In the 1970s, his grandfather had sold 60% of his company to French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.
“He was very ill at the time and he wanted to make sure his young family would be financially safe in the event of his death.” Having grown from a small family business to a national heavyweight, in 2001, Yves Rocher started the process of buying back Sanofi’s shares.
It proved a long legal process, and it took 11 years before it severed ties with Sanofi. The transaction, based on Sanofi’s financial disclosures, valued the company in excess of US$1.8b.
“This is a beautiful story. Usually, a family progressively loses control of the business its ancestors created,” he says. Today, Rocher, his family and their employees own 96% of the Group, which also includes classic French-style clothing label Petit Bateau and various perfume and beauty brands. The company is headquartered in the southwest of Paris, a short walk from the Seine.
Sustainable development For Rocher, it was essential that the family and employees regained total control of the Group’s destiny.
“Yves Rocher is not your average business. Its success is based on true values: loyalty, family, respect for the environment and excellence. You only need to visit La Gacilly in Brittany, a village of 2,000 inhabitants, to understand what the company is about. We have 1,000 different species of plants there, botanical gardens that are open to the public, an organic restaurant, and an organic hotel and spa.
“We also sponsor an open-air festival of photography every summer. As for our factories, all located in and around the village, they employ 3,500 people. It’s not just a pretty picture in a magazine, it’s real, it’s made of flesh and that is a beautiful thing.”
The Yves Rocher family is composed of a dozen members, all concerned with the preservation of the environment. Carrying on the ecological values upon which the business was built, the company has recently committed to plant 50 million trees around the world by 2015. “It is a huge task, but not an impossible one,” Rocher says, smiling.
Harmonizing digital distribution and mail order
In 2012, Yves Rocher’s sales topped US$3b, up from US$2.8b the previous year. Today, two-thirds of sales are within the Eurozone. According to Euromonitor data, the company’s French market share is second only to L’Oréal. And a company year-end report from 2011 counts one out of three French women as Yves Rocher customers.
“We have two strategic axes: the first is to develop our international activities, the second is to win the battle of mail order, online and digital distribution. I owe it to my grandfather, who was a mail order pioneer.”
Bris Rocher says that the company’s e-commerce and e-retailing have not cannibalized classic mail order: “They live in harmony side by side and are even profitable.” However, he continues, the Group must become a truly digital company.
Rocher cites Amazon and Apple as brands to emulate. Both have managed to seize, and now personify, today’s digital zeitgeist.
“Talent lies in the ability to follow society’s evolutions and help consumers as they change their ways of consuming.” Looking to the rest of the world, Rocher says, “Our DNA is strong. The Yves Rocher brand is meaningful and it is grounded in history. We must export our ethos.
Developing international activities
We must also develop our activities outside the Eurozone, to consolidate the future. We have recently bought an Italian brand, Flormar, which is being run by a Turkish family and is the number one make-up brand in Turkey.”
In parallel, Bris Rocher is opening Yves Rocher beauty shops in countries like Russia. “We were the second company, after McDonald’s, to open shops in Russia just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The thinking behind it was that, very soon, Russia would embrace capitalism and its middle classes would be hungry for products like ours. We now have 250 shops throughout Russia.”
A brand must evolve with its time, even if it is grounded in history.
China is next on Rocher’s list of countries to conquer, alongside Latin America. “The population is young and the middle classes are getting more affluent every month. China is, for us, an exciting new market.”
In 2006, Rocher commissioned an audit on Yves Rocher’s image. “You must always be at the top of your game and be aware of how others perceive you. A brand must evolve with its time, even if it is grounded in history. Traditional doesn’t mean stiff.”
As a result, the logo and the shops got a makeover but the quality of the service remained unchanged. Rocher often evokes his grandfather’s innate flair. “He had his feet firmly on the ground and his talent rested on two qualities: good common sense, and vision.”