Sonepar is the world’s leading distributor of electrical products, solutions and related services, with 46,000 associates across the globe and annual sales totaling 22.4 billion euros – and it all exists thanks to the drive and people-focused entrepreneurial vision of Henri Coisne.
By his own admission, when he embarked on the venture – though already experienced in the military and a qualified engineer – he was far from an expert in the industry itself. Instead, he used his exceptional entrepreneurial acumen and relationship-building skills to turn a local business into a world leader.
In 1867, a first Henri Coisne, a farmer’s son from Armentières in the north of France, joined with merchant Léopold Lambert to create Coisne & Lambert, a textile enterprise that would grow and develop into the first half of the 20th century. Henri Coisne was born in 1923 in Armentières and belonged to the fourth generation of the Coisne and Lambert families, the direct descendant of the original co-founder.
After a childhood in the north of France, in June 1943 Henri Coisne passed both entrance exams to study at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy. He chose the Air Force, but before beginning his courses, he decided to enlist with General de Gaulle and join the Free France forces.
In the summer of 1943, accompanied by a handful of friends, he skipped across the border to Spain, and on into Morocco. He eventually made his way in January 1944 to the United States, to take up his place at the Air University, which had relocated to Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
He served with the French Air Force in North Africa in 1945, and then Indochina in 1946, before being posted to Bourget, near Paris in 1948. He saw active duty in both Vietnam and Algeria, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his military service, eventually retiring from the French Air Force in 1962 as a Lieutenant-Colonel.
A courageous approach
In 1947, Henri Coisne married Marie-Louise Colombier and the couple went had five children together: the fifth Henri, Martine, Sylvie, Marie-Christine (who would go on to take over as chairman of Sonepar) and Laurence.
In 1960, a board of 11 members of the fourth generation of the Coisne and Lambert families set about organizing the Group's diversified holdings. In 1962, Henri Coisne returned to civil life and joined the family shareholders, negotiating the favorable sale of the Cellulose d’Alizay. Together, the 11 members of the family board decided to invest the proceeds into a new project with solid growth prospects – electrical materials distribution.
In 1969, Henri Coisne led on the acquisition of Comptoir d’Électricité Franco-Belge, an electrical distribution company based outside of Paris, in a negotiation process that took 18 months. The proprietor Léon Teisenburger had spent five decades growing the company and wanted to leave his cherished creation in reliable hands. In the end, Henri was able not only to close the deal, but to negotiate for the hefty sale price (at that time out of reach for the family-run company) to be paid in installments over 12 years, thanks to the feeling of mutual trust and respect he had developed with Teisenburger.
This people-led approach to business, predicated on trust, underpinned Sonepar’s success and expansion as Henri oversaw first the company’s full coverage of France, which was achieved in 1977; then its expansion into Europe with the acquisition of Dutch firm Otra in 1982; and later, continued growth into Canada in 1984, with the acquisition of Lumen.
Trust and modesty
Despite the company’s ascent, Henri always insisted this was not due to his expertise: instead he invested in the know-how of Sonepar's subsidiaries and associates, entrusting them with the autonomy to run their businesses the way they thought best. In 1992, he quipped: “After 20 years in this profession, I am no more of a professional than I was on the first day!” This statement may have been a little modest.
In 1998, Henri handed the chairmanship of Sonepar to his daughter, Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette. She had already been involved at the highest levels of the company for 10 years and went on to consolidate Sonepar’s expansion in the US and then across Asia, Australia, and Central and South America.
Alongside his work for Sonepar, Henri Coisne also served as a judge for Paris’s commercial court (Tribunal de Commerce), was a member of the National Council of French Employers (Conseil National du Patronat Français International) and of the Franco-Netherlands Chamber of Commerce, and was awarded the Order of the Legion of Honor (Légion d'Honneur), the highest French order of merit.
In his younger days, he was also an enthusiastic skier and pigeon shooter. Now, aged 95, he continues to take a keen interest in the family company, serving as its Honorary Chairman.
An animated look at our legacy
Want to catch-up on the history of the Sonepar Group? Watch this animated look at how we've grown over the past 50 years!