“Different countries, same strategy? Big mistake…”

And Maxime Holder should know. As the CEO of PAUL International, he’s seen the bakery and café chain expand into more than 25 countries.

Maxime Holder is the guardian of a brand that’s been in his family for five generations and stretches back to 1889. Paul may have started life as a humble local bakery in the French city of Croix, but it’s now a mega international brand. And, while some might be tempted to stick rigidly to a tried-and-tested formula, its CEO has navigated a successful global expansion by adapting to the tastes and traditions of local markets.

Live and learn “I’ve travelled extensively and flown all over the world, but there’s no better way to learn what a country is really like than by living there. When I first moved to London, I wanted to sell my French Christmas cake – a sort of yule log called a Büche de Noël – but it was by no means a success. If I’d been here a bit longer, I would have known about the traditions, the culture and the way that the British people do things. The last thing that [British] people want to change is what they eat – they’ll drive a German car or wear an Italian suit, but it takes a little longer to come around to a French Christmas cake.”

Think differently “Our perception of the world is changing and there’s much less of an appetite for eating and drinking and wearing the same things in every country. Once, the same brands were everywhere and there wouldn’t be much of a difference between what you’d see on the streets in Europe and in America. What I now see is that it’s increasingly important for countries to keep their local brands and local identities. When we expand into diff erent territories, we should adapt the brand to complement the local culture. I think that it is these brands that will succeed in the next 10 years.”

Making mistakes is part of life “When I first came to the UK, I wanted to build the same shops that we have in France – the same look, the same produce, everything. So I opened up in a busy part of town next to the supermarket, expecting everyone to do as they do in France and buy all their shopping next door, but come to me for the bread. How wrong I was. They all bought their bread in the supermarket and I sold around 18 baguettes per day. In France, I would sell up to 800.”

Delegate wisely “I was in charge of my company for 10 years in France before I decided to expand into the USA, Singapore and the UK, but it was a complicated decision to make. I slowly came to realise that I wasn’t the best one to be the CEO in each of these countries, so I recruited other people and gave more power to them. For example, I recruited a very clever lady as CEO of Paul UK and for every business call I received, she received 10. It was perhaps the best move of my life.”

Family and work can mix “Paul is a family business that goes back fi ve generations. For the first three, the model was the same: the husband would make the bread and the wife would sell it. My parents moved that model on by developing the business, and it was my decision to move it on yet again by leaving the country and expanding into different markets.”

London is a global city “Here in the UK, we have 52 nationalities working for us. Fifty-two! This has such a special influence on what we do and how we do it, and when I have a meeting with my team, it makes a real a difference to the end result. Everyone has a voice, and a different influence. It’s why I decided to move to this country – if you can understand England, you can understand the rest of the world.”

Slower can be better “The world has changed so much in recent years. The internet is fast, markets move quickly – and young people think and react instantly. So, when I first went to Singapore, I tried to run before I could walk. I wanted to expand the business at ‘internet speed’. But, in the end, I had to take a moment to collect myself and to rewrite the story. I moved there for a year and – as before – learned the culture before I potentially made a mistake.”

I feel like I belong “I was once introduced to the Queen and it was a very proud moment for me. I had been invited to a reception in France on the 60th anniversary of D-Day and it was a symbol for me that I was part of the British community. There are no borders in Europe, so it’s easy to open a business anywhere, but it’s much more difficult to actually get involved in the community. My children go to school here in the English system – they speak with a much better accent than I ever will.”

Embrace your big breaks “The best deal I ever made was when I first arrived in the UK. I wasn’t selling much and customers weren’t coming into my shop, so I tried selling my products direct to the London hotels and restaurants. I knocked on the door of the Savoy and went to see the head chef, a German, who took one bite of my croissant and threw it in the bin. I calmly told him that this recipe had been in my family for five generations and he slowly came around. Long story short: I walked out of there with an order for 900 croissants and pain au chocolates. That deal opened the door to so many other customers – we now supply more than 60 hotels in London.”

Be prepared to gamble “In business, sometimes you have to push hard in negotiations. It’s a game that has to be played, but I don’t particularly like playing it. Once, I was involved in very tough negotiations over some conditions that I wasn’t prepared to accept. I said to the guy that I wasn’t going to sign and that I was ready to close all my shops rather than accept those conditions. It was like playing a game of poker, but I won the deal. Ultimately, I feel that the rules and values of my company need to be respected.”

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: http://www.ink-live.com/emagazines/easyjet-inflight