Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Entrepreneurs at the French Chamber

Pic of President introducing the evening speakers on stage

Anglicity was delighted to attend its first meeting as an Active Member of the French Chamber of Great Britain. This first session was entitled: From Scratch to Success: Business Stories’. President Estelle Brachlianoff introduced the panel of 3 visionary entrepreneurs and chair Eric Albert, City Correspondent for Le Monde. It was an inspirational evening providing welcome respite from Brexit discussions and uncertainty. It proved that you can succeed no matter what the odds.

The French Chamber's panel of entrepreneurs at the French Institute

Pic of Alain Afflelou, French optician and entrepreneur
Alain Afflelou
Alain Afflelou is one of the best-known entrepreneurs in France. He is a trained optician with a good eye for business. His name is closely tied to the French optician chain that he founded and now runs as CEO. He is the face and brand in his company’s advertising.

Alain’s description of his faltering beginning was highly entertaining. An initial refusal from the bank to finance his optician business did not stop him. The cheeky 20-year-old complained that they were ruining the dreams of two people – his and the man who wanted to retire. He ended up with a larger bank loan than his initial approach and bought the building.

Pic of the chair, Alain Afflelou and his interpreter
That first shop was in Bordeaux. Other trained opticians might have been content to just run that one business in Bordeaux. His drive had its roots in his arrival from Algeria as a teenager. He went on to take over the franchises of Carrefour’s opticians. He made his takeover seem a funny tale of envelopes. He didn’t speak Spanish, but he didn’t let that hinder his expansion into Spain later either.

It rapidly became apparent that here before us was a shrewd operator. Alain recognises opportunities, drives a good deal and is an instinctive salesman.

Jean-François Cécillon
Jean-François Cécillon talked us through the highs and lows of his career. He relocated to London at a time when it was not so commonplace for a Frenchman to live and work out of London. He tagged along socially too with his British colleagues as their token ‘Frog’. The move did not make sense to his colleagues back in Paris. Jean-Francois relished the chance to travel the world. He showed us a video of all the stars that he worked with during his career at EMI. He made things happen, managed creative egos and used his gut instinct tellingly.

The most memorable moment was his description of a shirtless 20-year-old standing on his low coffee table, reciting some words. That young man was Robbie Williams. Those lyrics became the hit Angels. The rest is history.

Jean-François’ career at EMI became history too. He was not downed for long. Too young to retire, he has proudly fought his way back.

Pic of Ning Li smiling during the discussions
Ning Li
At 32 Ning Li was the youngest entrepreneur present. His tale was no less extraordinary - if not more so. He arrived in France for his education at the age of 16 from China. His parents could have done their homework better. He didn’t speak a word of French. He set about the task by learning the dictionary from cover to cover - page by page.

In order to help his parents out financially, he decided to look for a job. Where can a Chinese boy with little spoken French get a job? He headed for Chinatown and struck lucky. He found a family of Chinese immigrants with a bakery from his home region. As well as passing his BAC (just, so he says), he became a trained baker by working in all his holidays and spare time.

Ning could have settled for the safe career that his French higher education often provides. His admiration for that immigrant family pushed him towards life as an entrepreneur. The desire to buy an expensive sofa resulted in him co-founding his online furniture business

There were mistakes along the way – such as using nude women to sell furniture to a largely female target audience. He admits the mistake. Yet, sometimes bad press gives you a higher profile than you could otherwise achieve. The resourceful Ning now gets customers to volunteer their homes as his showrooms.

Three very different men. Three different career paths. All three inspirational.

The above event was the third in the series that form part of the French Chamber of Great Britain’s drive to recruit more SMEs. At the end Managing Director, Florence Gomez announced a special publication is planned in response to Brexit.

Photo credits (except 2nd photo from top): Joana Saramago and with kind permission of the French Chamber of Great Britian