First of all, could you give us a brief background about Bel Brands USA?
How has your subsidiary contributed to the phenomenal success of the Bel Group? Bel Brands USA were formed in 1970 and are headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps the most impressive facts about us is we have doubled growth in the past four years, making the U.S a significant contributor to Bel’s overall $2.8 billion in global sales in 2014. This growth is fuelled by the success of Bel Brands USA’s most popular brands, which are Mini Babybel and The Laughing Cow. As a global leader with over 150 years of industry experience and products ‘Bringing Smiles’ to 400 million consumers annually, Bel has 28 manufacturing sites worldwide, and three of these are in in the United States. These are located in Leitchfield, Kentucky, Little Chute, Wisconsin, as well as our newest plant in Brookings, South Dakota, which opened its doors for production in July, 2014. As a company that is continually focused on innovation and growth, Bel has big plans to expand its portfolio over the coming years to meet the ever changing needs of consumers and continue its mission of “Sharing Smiles” around the world.
As CFO, are there are specific financial undertakings that have been instrumental to your success?
Specifically speaking, I firmly believe that our use of SAP software has been key to our success over the past number of years. We have implemented SAP very successfully since 2010 and this has grown to become the back bone of our company from an ERP standpoint. As a result, we now have a very good level of integration from all functions. We are now at a phase where we are implementing a lot of additional applications that complement SAP, and will achieve more automation and state of the art reporting for our business partners. As such, this will allow them to the best decision possible for the company from a value creation standpoint
Are there any major deals or operations which you believe have helped your company grow and succeed even further?
In terms of deals, we acquired the Boursin brand from Unilever back in 2008 and it’s been a fantastic add to our existing brand portfolio. Since then, we have grown the brand a lot through focusing on our Boursin puck business and also through couple innovations.
At the moment, Bel brands is very excited to announce also the launch of The Laughing Cow—Cheese Dippers, which is currently happening now. We worked really hard to get the dippers cheese snack — soft cheese packages with tiny breadsticks — from Europe to the United States, and this took two years as the company needed to consider what changes would be needed to appeal to consumers in the US. Furthermore, the company is also interested in making another acquisition in the US at some point if the target is relevant to our brand portfolio.
Since your began at Bel Brands USA in 2008, you have been a key contributor in growing Bel Brands from $150 MM in net sales to $400MM. Can you tell us about this, and how your role has evolved throughout this period?
Generally speaking, my key role as the CFO has been building the finance team capabilities. When I joined, finance was accounting only and resources were mainly spread out between our different locations. My initiative was to centralise all finance functions into Chicago, where I revamped the accounting department with strong talents and created an FP&A department (financial planning and analysis) in order to manage budgeting process, partner with our business leaders and provide financial support to all our key business decisions. We have now an efficient and scalable team, with only a limited head count increase since 2008, despite the company doubling in size.
Furthermore, we have also put in place a category finance role to help marketing with innovation, new products and new customer decisions. This partnership has been a tremendous success, and FP&A has been valued as a critical asset to the organisation.
As the US subsidiary of a French listed group, we are not subject to The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which protects investors from the possibility of fraudulent accounting activities by corporation. Nonetheless, we still have to strengthen our internal control resources and process as it was somehow very limited. In that respect, we have created a dedicated department to build internal control culture within the organisation and also roll out key initiatives, with the right level of balance to controls in order to keep the entrepreneurial spirit and agility we have within our team while putting processes in place. On the whole, we found that this has been working fine and we have great momentum from our company employees working on those initiatives.
Alongside these implementations, we have also put in place a hedging strategy in order to provide cash flow visibility to our shareholders, which is critical given the high volatility we have seen on the commodity markets those past few years (record highs then record lows, etc.). This took a great deal of education as this was first time ever the company was implementing that initiative, but we had strong support from our Paris team.
As a core member of Bel Brands leadership team, what have you done to define and implement company vision, mission and values?
Looking back on my time here, I can honestly say that I very much enjoy being a core member of the Bel Brands leadership team, primarily because it is defined and implemented by a strong vision, mission and set of values that we live by every day. As a member of the U.S. Leadership Team, I am also an ambassador of the Bel Values. Our employer values are “Dare, Commit and Care”, and as a leader, we must be the examples of these values and live by those values. You can display and train your people on the company values but nothing is better than when you walk to talk.
How has the firm grown and developed over the years?
Companies across all industries have had it difficult since the financial crisis, and it hasn’t been a stellar ride for our company either over the past eight years. As in any start-up company, we experienced hyper growth during the first couple years when the priority was to serve customer at any price. Unfortunately growth is hiding a lot of sins and some important topics are put on the side of the road as priority is toward growth.
From my experience, start-ups definitely need to take a step back, build all the key pillars of their organisation, culture, tools and processes and avoid becoming “too big too fast”. This is particularly important as you have to be ready when growth slows to mitigate turmoil and need the flexibility to put the company back to growth in the smoothest and quickest way possible. This involves taking the time to put in place a long term strategy and sticking to it is critical in the company success. In 2013 and 2014, we had a slowdown with one of our business and also some major projects going on with the opening of our new Brookings mega Mini Babybel plant. We are now back to high and sustainable growth, well prepared for the future with strong teams and have delivered a very solid 2015. And the good thing is, we still have a lot of growth potential and very exciting projects on the agenda. I can tell you that ‘routine’ is definitely not a word in Bel Brands dictionary!
Can you tell us a bit about the launch of new products and what this entails?
What has been your experience of launching the various new flavours of the Laughing Cow launched over the years? This year we are proud to have two new launches within our one of our most popular brands—The Laughing Cow. One is a new flavour and one is a completely new product offering within the brands. We introduced the new Asiago cheese flavour and it has been working quite successfully with our consumers. As a company, we make a strategic effort to be aware of new flavour trends and products, so we can provide our consumers with what they want. In our consumer research, we learned that Asiago flavour was very popular, so we are happy that we could develop this flavour within our Laughing Cow brand.
As mentioned earlier, we are very excited about this launch of The Laughing Cow—Cheese Dippers, as it meets the needs of our consumers who love The Laughing Cow, but desired to have the product in a portable format that meets their on-the-go lifestyle.
Finally, what does the future hold for your firm? Bel is a consistently growing company, driven primarily by the strong momentum of its core brands and international sales. This continuous growth reflects the relevance of the company’s sales and marketing strategy, as well as the strength of its distribution network. Our ambition is to double in size by 2025, and to meet this challenge, Bel relies on the power of its brands. We are continually focused on R&D and new product innovation to continue to bring our consumers new products, flavours and cheese formats that will continue to make Bel one of the top three branded cheese makers in the world. We also recognise as a company, that having a presence in new, emerging global markets is key to growing our business internationally.
Finally, what does the future hold for your firm?
Bel is a consistently growing company, driven primarily by the strong momentum of its core brands and international sales. This continuous growth reflects the relevance of the company’s sales and marketing strategy, as well as the strength of its distribution network. Our ambition is to double in size by 2025, and to meet this challenge, Bel relies on the power of its brands. We are continually focused on R&D and new product innovation to continue to bring our consumers new products, flavours and cheese formats that will continue to make Bel one of the top three branded cheese makers in the world. We also recognise as a company, that having a presence in new, emerging global markets is key to growing our business internationally.