From small seeds, mighty oaks can grow

Sonepar’s story is the tale of a family-run business that conquered the world, becoming a vast global network, without losing any of its entrepreneurial and people-led ethos, or its independent family board of shareholders.

We’ve already shared an overview of Sonepar’s history here, or if you’d like to go right back to the first business ventures that brought our founding families together, you can enjoy that story in these animated films.

 

But this week, we’ll diving into the story of how Sonepar grew in its first two decades from a modest electrical distributor to the number one in its industry in France.

It’s 1969, and Sonepar is set up when the Coisne and Lambert families acquire le Comptoir d’Electricité Franco-Belge. As Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, Henri Coisne took his own move into the unknown: he embarked on growing a business in a sector he insisted he knew nothing about.

Sonepar was selling to professionals, not individual consumers. This meant that growth would be achieved only through building long-term human relationships. It was a people business – and that was a domain Henri understood.

Sonepar quickly adopted a strategy of acquiring other French regional distributors. In 1971, Sonepar would acquire Socolec, a regional distributor in le Mans, in northwestern France, adding Comptoir Lyonnais d'Electricité, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region the following year. Next came Sanélec in St-Quentin in the north and later French companies Teissier and Groupe Tabur, followed by the creation of the subsidiary Sonepar Ouest, in 1978.

Local trust, global ambition

Sonepar’s strategy was ambitious, but also firmly rooted in respecting the local nature of the distribution business. Key to this was the decision to allow the companies it acquired to keep their names, management and a great deal of autonomy: they were the specialists in their markets and Sonepar valued and respected this local knowledge.

It would prove an effective and enduring approach, that led to Sonepar spreading beyond the borders of France and moving into the rest of Europe in the early ’80s (starting with acquisitions in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands), and later across the Atlantic and eventually into China and Australia. All the while, Sonepar was consolidating the Group’s presence in France and, by 1984, its distribution network covered 100% of the nation’s mainland. The growth continued, as did Sonepar’s success, and in 1991, it became the number one provider in its field in thenation when it acquired GCE Distribution, then France’s leading electrical equipment distributor.

 

Innovation and people skills 

All of this growth, from a Parisian warehouse to the number one in France – all in not much more than 20 years – was due to Sonepar’s firm focus on innovation and people skills. And these remain the tenants of the business to this day, as Sonepar has grown from the number one in France, to the number one in Europe, to the number one across the entire world.

Throughout its growth, Sonepar has managed to stay both global and local. The company culture consistently encourages exchange between subsidiaries, creating an ecosystem where the cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences happens naturally.

The result today is a unique global network with annual revenue of €22.4 billion that nonetheless stays rooted in local needs, and remains an independent, family-run business. With enough ambition and hard work, big things really can grow from small seeds.