Philippe de Selliers: “Leonidas wants to double in size in France”
Leonidas made the big back during the lockdown and postponed the examination of its project of new factory to 2022. But he maintained the employment and put big on France.
The Brussels chocolate maker Leonidas has helped its workers (400 direct jobs), its 45 own shops and its 1,255 franchise stores in 40 countries (400 in Belgium) to get through the crisis without letting anyone go. However, he hopes that the recovery will come, because the network is still suffering in tourist regions, explains us its CEO Philippe de Selliers.
In 2020 Leonidas lost 20% of its turnover, but kept the job: how did you do it?
We are very proud to have maintained direct employment and succeeded, so far, in retaining the vast majority of our network. Because our products are distributed by 1,300 stores around the world, 95% franchised: they are freelancers who work for us. It was a big challenge. Because if Leonidas is a family business, these 1,300 independents are also family companies, with fixed costs, rents …
“We are fully aligned with post-crisis customer expectations.”
If a group like ours can find solutions to the lockdown, it is less easy for these small businesses – and especially since we are working with fresh products and when, when the first lockdown was imposed, the franchisees had stockpiled in anticipation of Easter! It is also about our survival, however, because our strategy is to sell through specialized stores and not in supermarkets …
And we can live without chocolate …
Yes, our raison d’être is to offer the customer something more, moments of happiness that franchisees share with them. During the lockdown, studies showed that people were looking for closeness and social connections.
Then at the first deconfinement, we saw that the customers were coming back more readily in stores located in small towns that in the big cities, and that they wanted to discuss with the traders. We offer a 100% Belgian product, of superior quality, from local production and distributed in local stores: we are fully in line with customers’ post-crisis expectations.
“If the recovery does not occur in the coming weeks, we risk seeing some closures.”
You say you have been able to keep the “vast majority” of your network. So all the jobs could not be maintained?
The network has remained roughly the same, there was no loss of stores, but it’s a bit early to jump for joy. We feel that the stores still suffer a lot in tourist centers. In these areas, retailers have held out, but if the recovery does not occur in the coming weeks, we risk seeing some closures.
How much in Belgium?
About ten. The topo is the same internationally: it is difficult in tourist centers. Another element to take into account: in France, which houses our second network, the sector received a lot of help, but it will have to be repaid! Third element: commercial rents. We have helped our retailers as much as possible to negotiate their commercial leases. The majority of donors have been very open-minded in helping them – in their interest too, of course.
You have also postponed investments in 2020. Are you going to resume them this year?
There are three types of investments. A, factory. We had decided before the crisis that we would decide, in January 2021, whether we would build a new factory or if we would keep the current one. We decided … to postpone the decision until January 2022 at the latest.
“It is no longer in our time to build a factory in the city center because of the reactions of local residents, the need for mobility, etc.”
Would it still be in Anderlecht or elsewhere?
Probably more in Anderlecht. It is no longer in our time to build a factory in the city center because of the reactions of residents, mobility requirements, etc. But we did not cancel this investment! We just postponed the decision.
Two, maintenance. We continued with these investments, sometimes with a postponement of a few months, no more. Three, communication. From 2017 to 2020, we had invested a lot in the media and advertising. There, we decided to ease off. Because we wanted to manage our cash as well as possible during the crisis, on the one hand, and it would have been risky to buy media space in advance without visibility on possible containment measures.
But we’re going to start doing it again, especially in France, where we see great growth potential. There are 300 stores there, it was planned before the crisis to increase to 500 in five years. Our ambition remains to double in size there.
And where are you in e-commerce?
The first lockdown showed us that we were not ready. We had a nice little site … We redesigned an e-commerce site, found logistics partners, revised our prices … So that at the second confinement, we were ready this time. We reach 98% customer satisfaction, and we will continue to improve things.
How much of your income does the site generate?
Not much, Barely 1 to 2%. But remember that some stores have their own site. This is particularly the case with partners in the United States and Japan. Our site covers Belgium and neighboring countries.
“I believe that people will always come to our specialty stores to choose their own pralines … But some say that I am not a visionary!”
Are you going to develop e-commerce in the future?
I believe that chocolate will always remain a product of pleasure and exchange. People will always come to our stores specialized for choose themselves their pralines on the advice of our sellers. It’s not like clothes, selling pralines online is still a bit “cold” … But some say that I am not a visionary! (laughs)
Have you suffered more from the crisis in some of your export markets?
The crisis has allowed us to strengthen some of our ideas. Belgium, where we have 400 stores, has enormous growth potential: it is confirmed. As are confirmed the potential of France and the good behavior of the Netherlands and Germany. We also count on strong growth in Japan and North America. What seems to us more difficult to assess, on the other hand, it is Asia (excluding Japan). The crisis seems to have modified the way of consuming there. To check.
“I do things seriously without taking myself seriously. And I expect that from my teams too.”
And how did your shareholders react to the crisis?
We are 100% aligned, them and me. At no time was there the slightest doubt, whether on the sustainability of the company, on the desire to invest for the future or on the management. We made mistakes, of course, but overall we managed the crisis well. I do things seriously without taking myself seriously. And I expect that from my teams as well.