Publisher’s Note: Our Albert Park offices are closed for Labour Day. We hope you enjoy this classic piece from Bill.
Gerard Mulliez is often called the Sam Walton of France.
The Mulliez (pronounced Mool-yay) family got started in textile manufacturing 200 years ago. By the 1950s, the textile industry in France had collapsed. So, Gerard boldly took the family out of textiles and invested what was left of the family fortune in big-box retail stores.
There are a surprising number of similarities between the Waltons of Arkansas (of Walmart fame) and this retailing family of northern France. (More on that in just a second.)
The Mulliez family has businesses with annual revenues of about $60 billion and more than a quarter million employees. You’ve probably never heard of them. And you’ve almost certainly never seen a picture of them. They’re discreet, private and unassuming.
The family have huge discount shopping centres all over France and much of Europe. And they’re rapidly expanding in many emerging markets. The key to the family’s success was figuring out how to run large-surface, low-price, rapid-turnover merchandising enterprises. Once the family had the system figured out, they were able to apply it to several different retail industries.
The family has been in business for two centuries. But only in the last 50 years has it built one of the world’s biggest and most profitable family-business empires. And it has done it while also creating one of the biggest and most successful families.
I have identified six secrets to the Mulliez family’s success…
Success Secret No. 1: A big family can be a big help
It helps to have a big family. The founding couple had 13 children. Their children almost all had several children too. Three of them had seven children each.
The disadvantage of a large family is that you have to split up the wealth among more people. But the advantage is that you have more hands to do the work. And the odds are you will have some clever people in the group.
Success Secret No. 2: Make ‘everything for everybody’
Second, the Mulliez family decided not to split things up…but to have a system of ‘everything for everybody’ in which all children of the founding family shared equally in the family wealth (shares in active companies, mostly). The Walton family set things up in a similar way. Family members all received an equal share of a family-limited partnership.
This was a break with tradition in two key respects.
Typically, family members who are actively involved in the wealth-building process get a larger share of the family wealth than family members who are not actively involved.
Although it makes logical sense to incentivize family members to participate in the business by rewarding them with a bigger share of the pie, over time this approach can be divisive.
And typically in the north of France — where the Mulliez family is from — though wealth may be divided equally, women are usually given real estate and men are given the business (on the theory that men will take the risks and rewards of an active business, while women will be happy to have the security of real estate).
The Mulliez family decided to buck both trends. And these two decisions, taken decades ago, made a big difference to the family business. It kept the entire family focused on it, because they were all in it together.
Success Secret No. 3: Promote the affectio societatis
The third secret of the Mulliez family’s success is that the family makes a huge effort at affectio societatis. In other words, they share the same ideas, and commit to achieving those together.
This unites individual family members and gives them a sense of belonging to a collective group; in this case the family group. The family narrative is transmitted to each generation.
Put another way, the Mulliez family consciously reinforces the family’s original principles, values and philosophies. And they take active steps to perpetuate their family culture.
Success Secret No. 4: Keep out of the public eye
The fourth secret of success is that the family has been careful not to get caught up in the trappings of wealth or fame. They keep out of the public eye.
They won’t be seen on yachts in St Tropez or flashing their wealth in Paris. There are few — if any — photos of family members circulating in the press. Despite their wealth, few outside of their core circle of friends know who they are or what they look like.
‘When you talk to the media,’ says one of the family members, ‘you distract yourself from your own work. Worse, when you tell the media things as you wished they were, you alienate yourself from reality.’ The family lives by the famous dictum of St Francis de Sales, ‘Fame never did good. Good never got fame.’
Success Secret No. 5: Don’t sell
The Mulliez family has kept control of its businesses. It has had many chances to sell and reach for a ‘liquidity event’. But it has rejected them systematically. Mulliez family members are allowed to sell their shares only to other family members.
‘If we sold,’ says one family member, ‘what would we do better with the money?’
‘Besides, the stock market is nothing other than prostitution of businesses. You’ll never make me believe that something that is worth €100 today was worth €120 yesterday and will be worth €90 tomorrow.
‘The stock market is as though you had a daughter. And you made her put on lipstick and open her blouse and shorten her skirt and every day you put her on the sidewalk at a different price.
‘Don’t expect me to value our family wealth that way. Our businesses are not expected to last for days, or weeks or months, like stocks on the stock market, but in terms of generations. We don’t build enterprises to sell. We build them in order to pass along responsibility to our children. When you create an enterprise, it’s like having a child.’
Success Secret No. 6: Create active shareholders
The Mulliez family requires all shareholders — who are also uncles, cousins and other relatives — to play some role in the family enterprise.
Even if they are not active in the business, they are supposed to inform themselves about how the business is doing and help sustain its founding principles.
These interested, knowledgeable and committed shareholders allow the Mulliez businesses to take a more long-term outlook. They are not overly concerned with quarterly results or with dividend payouts. What concerns them is the growth and health of the extended business empire.
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