PROFILE BIC boss not disposable after all

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CLICHY, France: Bruno Bich stepped down from the helm of France’s ballpoint pen and disposable razor maker, BIC, a decade ago.

But at the age of nearly 70, Bich is back as BIC recycles his wealth of experience to ensure a smooth transition at the top.

Shareholders last week backed his return as chairman and chief executive officer for two years from June 1 due to CEO Mario Guevara retiring earlier than planned.

The stop gap will give Bich time to “finish preparing” the eldest of his three sons, 37-year-old Gonzalve, to potentially take over. He was also elevated to become one of two new executive vice-presidents last week.


Founded by Bruno Bich’s father, Marcel, who started out with a partner in 1945, BIC boasts that 1,000 of its pens, razors and lighters are now sold somewhere in the world every four seconds.

The group rung up sales of some 2.2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) last year.

“At BIC we have a saying, ‘honoring the past to invent the future’,” Bich told Agence France-Presse during an interview at the company’s offices in Clichy, a northwestern Paris suburb.

For him, honouring the past means staying true to the spirit of the values his father held dear — an ethical approach, taking a long-term view and a sense of “measured risk”, all while crossing swords with rivals like Gillette.

Incognito

After starting out in the world of New York finance, Bich joined the family firm aged 28, taking charge of its US branch which in time grew into one of the most profitable and dynamic of the group.

He rose through the ranks to become chairman and chief executive officer in 1993 until 2006, striving to bolster the BIC brand internationally.

Since then he has taken more of a backseat formally as non-executive chairman — but “without ever having been far from the job,” he stressed with a smile.

Every month he scrutinizes the sales figures, comparing them with competitors.

And he visits, he says, at least 20 shops a month throughout the world, slipping in to observe business being done without giving away who he is.

In supermarkets and at newsagents, Bich checks out the prices of BIC products as well as their availability on the shelves.

“I also take time to see people doing their shopping, especially at the start of a new school year”, a key period for buying stationery supplies, he said.

‘Ink in the blood’

The French market makes up about eight percent of BIC’s sales, but about half of its production is in France where it employs 1,300 staff.

Despite having been floated on the Paris stock market in 1972, 43 percent of the company’s shares are still in the hands of the Bich family.

They “have BIC ink in the blood,” said Pierre Vareille, head of Constellium which produces aluminium products and who has also been made BIC vice chairman and lead director.

“He is a good mix of boldness and caution,” added Frederic Rostand, one of the company’s independent directors and general manager of French dairy cooperative, Sodiaal.

BIC this past week changed its statutes to push the retirement age for management back to 72 in order to allow Bich to again pick up the reins for another two-year term.

Looking ahead, BIC will continue to try to increase its market share, with the focus on its basic consumer products in developing countries and, often more personalized, value-added ones in mature markets.

Launching into something new that also meets BIC’s fundamental criteria — fulfilling a basic function while ensuring the best possible price and quality — is also currently a challenge.

A decade spent trying to develop an affordable fuel cell battery for recharging digital devices such as smartphones that wouldn’t cost the earth for customers ended in vain last year.

“We’re still looking at new ideas but we’re concentrating on developing our basic categories where there’s still lots to do, plenty of opportunities,” Bich said.

China, in particular, is in his sights for the next few years, he said. AFP

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