Antoine Lemarchand, CEO: When Nature Discovers CSR

Antoine Lemarchand, ESSEC alumnus, owner and CEO of the much-loved French chain store Nature & Découvertes, shares the journey that took him and his firm resolutely into the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. 

The CEO’s journey to a vision

It is sometimes in adversity that true talent really reveals itself. Such was the case with Antoine Lemarchand, former ESSEC BBA student and now owner and CEO of one of France’s most loved and successful brands – Nature & Découvertes (in English, literally nature and discoveries). The chain store, offering a unique range of products catering not only for the explorer in us, but also the educator, the epicurean and the environmentally conscious, also stands out as having one of the most dedicated CSR and sustainable development policies among French companies today.

It was the economic crisis of the mid-2000s that provided the test for Antoine Lemarchand – how to turnaround a small, fledgling, family-run business via a change of brand name, strategy, workforce, mindset, target and higher purpose. Today, seven years after taking over the brand, Nature & Découvertes boasts seventy-seven stores in France and a further twelve throughout Europe, a customer base of 5.7 million and 1,200 employees.

Sustainability is an inherent part of the DNA of the chain, and if today the company’s purpose fully reflects the wish to make Nature & Découvertes a meaningful contributor to the common good, its seed was surely planted in the historical roots of the firm back in 1994. It was in this year that Antoine Lemarchand’s parents – François and Françoise Lemarchand – and their children discovered The Nature Company in the United States, a store created at Berkeley by Tom Wrubel, a professor of ecology. The message learnt was that it was possible to do business while respecting both nature and people, and in 1990 the decision was made to create their own brand based in France and following the Lemarchand’s core values of commitment and education.

Paradoxically, it was the combination of economic crisis and the recent rise of digital that has spurred Antoine Lemarchand to deepen the firm’s commitment to people and planet. These take the form of several strategies, initiatives and a clear vision, the first of them being customer-oriented in nature.

In a digital world, people need the human touch

The advent of online shopping, smartphone applications and big data for sales and marketing have represented both a threat and an opportunity for the firm in recent years. With currently 10% of turnover stemming from online sales, Antoine Lemarchand is nonetheless adamant on two areas of focus: to go for digital while keeping the firm’s obsession for its products and client experience as an overriding priority, and to use digital technology to help the company but not be driven by it. This being said, from the outset, the firm fostered its belief in the human touch, emotions and the quality time spent in its stores – something that indeed makes it more difficult to digitalise. Almost unique in this dimension a few years ago, today the competition for people’s emotions is fierce and we can now see cinemas offering not only the latest Hollywood production but also restaurants, music, bars, ice-cream parlours, concerts, readings and even exhibitions in an attempt to entice clients to spend a good time around the core product. According to Lemarchand, the difficulty is that the very nature of the customer has changed in recent years. For him, there are no longer clear categories of customer. People in developed economies are confronted with complexity, information overload, political and religious incertitude and even family disruption that have led them to perceive that the best way to get along is to master things themselves. The result, to coin Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is a client base interested in self-actualisation. They want to be autonomous, to learn cooking and DIY, states Lemarchand. They want to travel further and have control over their health and well-being; and finally, not fully content with what is taught to their kids, or how it is taught at school, they seek supplementary and alternative ways in which to educate their kids. For Antoine Lemarchand, being tuned in to trends and how your customers change, is essential. Moreover, he states one of key roles as understanding the sociology of the environment, people and the economy in which the firm operates. And far from outsourcing this aspect of the business, he does it himself – going to exhibitions, the theatre, shops and restaurants to see how they are changing with the times. For the budding entrepreneur, his message is clear – don’t distance yourself from your products: stay in touch with what gives you your identity and what will make the company survive and prosper. Above all, in a digital world, people need the human touch.

Towards a wider purpose

It was in this way that Lemarchand met and surveyed parents who were concerned by their kids’ schools and curricula and he decided to adopt a Montessori approach that strengthened Nature & Découverte’s founding commitment to education. The brand implemented an approach of producing its own unique products – from book publishing to eco-friendly amateur archaeology kits and learning bricks. Surprisingly, in an age where most of us under thirty automatically browse for knowledge on our smartphones, 20% of the firm’s turnover is today generated from children’s books and products for fun and active learning. Moreover, asserts Lemarchand, with the rise of digital, the role of the distributor of products is over but the role of the seller isn’t. Large stores rely on selling products designed by others but naturally come under direct attack by slashed prices from the big online sell-all competitors. With Nature & Découvertes, this is somewhat kept at bay by the fact that it masters not only its own sales of unique products (70% of turnover), but also the marketing of its USPs and purpose.

A second vision of the business venture was for the firm to contribute to biodiversity. Aware that by making goods the firm would take from nature, Nature & Découvertes very early on adopted a policy of informing its customers about its suppliers and their products – where they come from, what materials are included, and their story. For us, states Lemarchand, it is a key factor for the client to know why we made the choice to make something and who made it. The effort is also increasing to look for suppliers locally. Today, in the Nature & Découvertes market place of 10,000 products, 1,000 are wholly organic and 70% are manufactured in Europe. Moreover, one of the firm’s first initiatives was to create a Foundation which the company donates 10% of its turnover to as well as an additional €1 every time a customer joins the Nature & Découvertes loyalty club. Since 1994, the Foundation has established links with biodiversity stakeholders in France and beyond and employees in the field – head office, warehouses and in-store advisors –  are all committed to the cause and actively involved in various initiatives. Our belief is that the more we give to society, the more we receive, asserts Antoine Lemarchand. 13% of Nature & Découvertes capital goes to employees, 10% to the Foundation and 1% to the planet – a high level of commitment given the standard rate of 0.9% of big companies.  People may be cynical about this but if you look at the figures for disappearing species, it’s alarming, he continues. We’re beginning to speak about the “6th extinction”.

Facing the environmental and social challenge means doing so through words but also action, with the company encouraging its employees to find projects in the regions they live and act hand-in-hand with local charities and NGOs. Employees typically present an identified project before the Nature & Découvertes scientific committee to be granted a package of €3-5K to sponsor the initiative. Another action is “Enterprise and progress” which sees the firm welcome politicians and parliamentary deputies for a week to work in the company – for in France, a hefty 80% of politicians have never worked in one, the occasion providing awareness and an eye-opener to the future and sustainable business practices. Indeed, trust indexes point to an increase in trust levels for companies while others – politics, family and religion – are dropping. For Antoine Lemarchand, the company is therefore making a comeback as a vector for not only value but also of values. It also ties in with France’s President Macron’s attempt – following the European directive – to redefine the company and make it mandatory for firms to include a wider, societal purpose in their statutes.

Getting involved and walking the talk

Finally, Nature & Découvertes walks the talk through its ISO 14001 certification – managing sustainable performance – and its membership of BCorp and the certification it awards to companies committed to serving society, nature and people. According to the certification process, its member firms have to satisfy and demonstrate their initiatives to five key stakeholders: governance, investors, clients, society, and its employees. Regarding the latter, Nature & Découvertes has tackled the issue of making its employees “employable” both within the company and, if required to downsize, outside on the job market. A full 85% of the firm’s employees have an open-ended employment contract – something of a rarity in France – with a low turnover rate of 15%, an average employee age of 35, and an internal promotion rate of 58%. Figures that would turn some companies in the sector green – with envy. Antoine Lemarchand believes in employee empowerment and self-fulfilment. He is also conscious of the fact that not only do employees like to be able to think “me and my company”, but a priority question today for people and employees is “what is your role”? By combining nature, customer insight and delight and a vision for the common good, he seems to have discovered the right answer.

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