Sonepar's expansion into Europe

By the end of the 1970s, Sonepar had consolidated its position as a rising star in France and started to look for the right opportunity to expand abroad. That opportunity came in 1981, when rival company Otra ran into difficulties. Otra comprised two entities: the Dutch electrical distribution company Technische Unie, and the German firm Otto Kuhmann. At the time, Otra was owned by a Dutch parent company called Ogem, which needed to quickly divest Otra.

Sonepar’s founder and then CEO Henri Coisne heard about the planned divestment and to his surprise, there were few other bidders looking to acquire Otra. “I was expecting a queue of candidates lined up to buy the business,” he explained years later in the book Sonepar, Or the Quintessence of Things (1998). “But, far from it – no one, or practically no one, was interested in Otra.”

Otra, like Sonepar, was a family-owned business, though its history stretched back to 1880. Otra had a similar level of revenues, but employed many more people than Sonepar at the time. It was losing money, but Sonepar’s CEO was convinced of the strategic value of the deal.

“Discussions dragged on,” Henri Coisne recalled. “In late 1981 or early 1982 I made an offer, but it was not accepted. The decision to acquire Otra was a vary daring one for us because our turnover was the same as theirs. It was much more than a step for Sonepar – it was a leap forward… But a visit to The Netherlands convinced me that the asking price was a third of the real value. It was a fabulous deal.”

Suddenly, in August of 1982, Henri Coisne got a call while he was on holiday in Cannes. Otra had accepted his offer and wanted to finalize the deal – fast. However, Henri Coisne knew the deal would only work if it had the backing of the Otra employees, so he signed an agreement with all the managers of Otra, stipulating that under no circumstances would Sonepar interfere with the running of the company, unless it ran into trouble.

Henri Coisne then appeared before an Otra employee committee and explained that Sonepar was totally dedicated to helping the company grow. For a while, the deal teetered on the brink, with Sonepar ready to back out unless they were sure they had the support of the Otra employees. In the end, the Otra employee committee was convinced and gave the purchase its wholehearted support.

The final agreement was signed in the Netherlands, in the Bilderberg Hotel, in October 1982, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The manager of Otra’s German activities, Hermann Hakes, later summed it up nicely, saying: “The fact that Sonepar was a family business was a point in their favor. We preferred that to some anonymous conglomerate. This family character was no guarantee for our future, but at least it ensured that we would be dealing with human beings.”

In fact, within a short period of time, the deal already started to pay off. Otra returned to profitability and, by 1991, had become one of the best performing Dutch companies in all sectors. More importantly, the deal was a first step into international territory for Sonepar and laid the foundations for the bold strategy of international acquisitions that would catapult the Group to the position of global leader.

Today, Technische Unie heads up Sonepar’s Dutch business, which generates more than €1.5bn of revenue for the Group through 40 local branches.

Europe, then and now

Sonepar's brands across the world occupy offices, branches and distribution centers large and small. Over the years they've grown and expanded along with the Sonepar family. Check out this image of our sites in the past and present. Move the slider in the middle of each image to juxtapose the past (left) and the present (right). 

Sonepar Deutschland, Germany

One of Sonepar Deutschland's sites in Niederlassung, Leipzig, in 1992 (left) and present day (right). Back in 1992, it was still under the Dittha branding, before all the German Sonepar brands were brought together under the name Sonepar Deutschland.

Sonepar in Poland

These shots of a warehouse in one of Sonepar's Polish distribution centers show the development of facilities at the site between early 2000s (left) and today (right). Sonepar expanded into Poland in 1994.

Sonepar Ibérica, Spain

These contrasting shots show just how much the technology, size and sophistication of the Sonepar office in Guerin, Spain, has advanced from 1980s (left) to the present day, on the right. Over the past 20 years, Sonepar has pursued an active acquisition strategy in Spain, growing to be the current market leader there.

Cebeo, Belgium

One of Sonepar's major Belgian brands, Cebeo joined the Sonepar family in 1986. Here you can see the Cebeo site in the Belgian city of Bruges, as it was in the 90s, and how it appears today. We're number one in that market. 

Winterhalter + Fenner AG, Switzerland

The St. Gall branch of Swiss subsidiary Winterhalter + Fenner AG in 1999 (left) and present day (right).

Sonepar Deutschland, Germany

Another before/after picture from Sonepar Deutschland, this time the old Atlanta distribution center in Niederlassung Berlin Tempelhof as it was in 1999 (left), and the same location today. 

Sonepar Italia, Italy

This is one of Sonepar's branches in Treviglio, in Lombardy, northern Italy, in 2008 (on the left), and present day.

Routeco, United Kingdom

Sonepar entered the UK market in a major way in 2014, joining up with the British firm Routeco, which charts its history back to 1978. Here you can see the Routeco offices in the late 1980s, and how they appear today. Sonepar is the market leader for electrical distribution and solutions in the UK.