Companies which initiate international expansion will inevitably encounter the same conundrum: how to remain within their area of expertise and respect their own processes on the one hand, and not disrupt local customs on the other. French gift box company Wonderbox has a recipe of its own, validated by its long string of successful international expansions.
With a recent succession of international acquisitions, French gift-box leader Wonderbox has been tackling a classic hurdle for expanding companies. Forgetting about where the company came from and focusing exclusively on the new market’s parameters amounts to starting from scratch, which no company wants to do. On the other hand, transplanting domestic methods abroad is unlikely to succeed, both because markets all differ, and because the strategy will come off as imperialistic or blunt. It is precisely this double jeopardy which Wonderbox has managed to elude in recent months, during their sprout of growth which saw namely the acquisition of Belgian company Vivabox, Portuguese competitor LifeCooler, and the Dutch firm GiftForYou. CEO Fabrice Lépine explains the balanced stance with which Wonderbox approached the expansion phase: “Going to the Netherlands wasn’t our first idea. When entering a structured market, there are always barriers to overcome; hefty investment is needed to deploy, with no guarantee of seeing our money back. When we acquire a company, everything must be done to integrate it properly to the rest of the company. This also implies understanding how it works, so as not to disrupt its operation.” The end game, which rests on maintaining the mother company’s DNA and the embracing of local cultures, is the mutual nourishment of all parties involved.
HULT Katie Reynolds says: “Multinational and cross-cultural teams are likewise becoming ever more common, meaning businesses can benefit from an increasingly diverse knowledge base and new, insightful approaches to business problems. However, along with the benefits of insight and expertise, global organizations also face potential stumbling blocks when it comes to culture and international business.” In order to respond to that risk, Fabrice Lépine keeps the thoroughness inside his office, and adopts a flexible stance outside. Outside can mean within Wonderbox’s departments, or even outside the country. Wonderbox has tried, over the years of development, and even now that it has established itself as a leader, to keep the flexible and responsive nature of a start-up. Insofar as international expansion goes, Fabrice Lépine’s policy is to adapt products to the local clients as every acquisition yields new customers. The risk is high, when selling online, to uniform products and let the chips fall where they may. Wonderbox chooses otherwise, aware that this would amount to passing the high value contained within diversity. “In recent years, we have had quite a strong external growth, even if our organic growth continues. These brands have a real regional identity and reputation on which we must rely. They are as close as can be to the culture since they are the result of it. Our international expansion will therefore consist in remaining faithful to these local roots while bringing our own expertise, experience and quality standards”, adds Fabrice Lépine. An acquisition does therefore not amount to the crushing of local products or ways of doing business, but carefully integrated with previously existing offers.
The bond between the two characteristics, rigor and flexibility, is the capacity and desire to listen, according to the CEO. Here again, there is a high risk, once maturity has been reached, that management will be overwhelmed with various tasks, and slip into a dangerous comfort zone. When things are running as smoothly as with Wonderbox, temptation can arise to believe that all has been figured out, leading to the feeling that listening is no longer necessary. Fabrice Lépine insists that a listening capacity is paramount, both inside and outside the office. Employee recommendations and assessments are valued. Co-founder Bertile Burel says: “ The idea came from a gift to our employees : 500 euros to test gift-boxes. Informal results were interesting, but hard to seize altogether. So, we drew up questionnaires. Every time we receive a customer complaint, we send out our Dream Testers.” Local customs and preferences are also carefully studied and considered after an acquisition. “The only way to stay ahead of demand and constantly innovate is to listen. We are constantly listening to the market, our customers and our partners. In addition, we have opted for the diversification of our offer and a presence as close as possible to the field. When we enter a foreign market and buy a brand, we keep that brand because it already has a certain notoriety. We are also looking to determine what efforts are needed to create our own brand recognition as a result of our partnership.” adds Fabrice Lépine.
The strategy implemented by Wonderbox has enabled it to survive the early stages of the very unstable market, and quickly dominate its environment. By the CEO’s own admittance, it was sound management which spared Wonderbox while all competitors were falling apart, upon market consolidation. But thorough management doesn’t equal a rigid attitude, or the effortless oversight of local identities. Keeping sharp the ability to listen, inside and outside the company, is the only way to keep balance on the rocky roads of international expansion.