Expanding to a new continent is no small feat, but through perseverance and selective acquisitions, Sonepar has grown from European player to market leader on both sides of the Atlantic...

By 1984, just 15 years after its founding, Sonepar had achieved full coverage of mainland France.

At the same time, the North American markets were beginning to bounce back after a recession at the start of the decade. The time had come to jump the Atlantic and go west.

The first steps

Only two short years after its first European expansion with the acquisition of Otra, Sonepar was looking to move further afield. Across the Atlantic in the North American market lay a host of opportunities. With the acquisition of Lumen in Quebec, Canada in 1984, the Group got its first foothold outside of mainland Europe. 

French-speaking Canada was a natural toe-hold for Sonepar on the continent – especially since the region was emerging from a deep period of economic downturn – and time has proven the value of this investment. Lumen was able to grow and expand Sonepar’s presence in Canada throughout the 1980s, and Sonepar Canada now comprises seven brands with a total of 113 branches employing around 1,900 associates.

The journey west

But it took until 1998 for Sonepar to make its first move in the world’s largest economy, the USA. This was a year of new frontiers for Sonepar and the year that Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette, daughter of the founder Henri Coisne, became the first Chairwoman of the Group. The time was ripe for a bold move, so Sonepar closed a deal to purchase Massachusetts-based electrical supply company Eagle Electric.

They renamed the company NorthEast Electrical, and the business flourished. It now has more than 30 locations across New England, with 55 delivery trucks and 500 employees.

The pace was set for rapid expansion in the USA with New Jersey’s Cooper Electric Supply added to the family the following year, and another brand, World Electric Supply, located in Florida. Just one year later, Capital Tristate, Brook Electrical Supply and Viking joined the fold. And the expansion continued with the acquisition of Eoff in 2002. By 2004, revenue from US companies had already reached $1bn. But Sonepar’s strategy for aggressive expansion – tying local experience to global vision – was just getting started. The Group added Irby in 2005, Freidman Electric the following year, and Crawford in 2007.

Rapid acceleration

As 2008 dawned, and the world juddered through the first pangs of the Great Recession, Sonepar and Rexel’s acquisition of the global Group Hagemeyer brought a raft of new companies to the Sonepar family, including all of Hagemeyer’s North America brands and distribution centers. This catapulted Sonepar to the forefront of the industry in the US, and by 2010, Sonepar USA was the number 1 electrical distributor in the country.

The deal also expanded Sonepar’s presence in Latin America. The Group had already acquired a presence in Mexico through the acquisition of Alcione in 2000 and Santiago in 2003. The Hagemeyer deal added Vallen’s Mexico operations, which introduced a dynamic specialist in safety equipment and the specialty oil and gas market. Vallen Mexico pioneered disruptive solutions such as vending machines for tools and safety gear to reduce accidents and deliver superior client solutions, and Sonepar has gone on to expand rapidly across Central and South America.

The US rises to the top 

Ten years before the Hagemeyer deal, France and Holland alone accounted for 80% of Sonepar’s annual revenue. But as business boomed in the US, the country came to represent 30% of Sonepar’s annual revenue, reflecting the success of this new diversified client and sector portfolio. 

The pace of acquisitions in the US has continued throughout the past decade, with OneSource Distributors, IES, Codale, IDG and others joining the team. In 2016, IDG was merged with Sonepar’s Hagemeyer North America assets and rebranded Vallen – which is now a major cog in Sonepar’s North American activity.

Sonepar’s growth in North America has been one of the Group’s major challenges and achievements of the last 20 years. From the starting ambition to reach a billion-dollar turnover within the first three years, the US and Canada together now account for approximately 10 billion dollars of revenue annually for the Group. With an ever-expanding and increasingly competitive digital market we are entering a pivotal period, but this 30-year history has laid the foundations that allow a French family-owned company to maintain its No. 1 spot.

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