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Family businesses, an entrepreneurial success story

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Family businesses, an entrepreneurial success story

The Réseau Entreprendre recently published a book entitled “Family businesses, human adventures that help regions grow”, in which the Chairman of the IMI Group, Antoine GERARD, talked about his experience alongside around twenty other entrepreneurs.

The book also describes the characteristics of family businesses and analyses their economic impact on regional development and employment.

Zoom in on the section devoted to the IMI Group.

Zoom in on the section devoted to the IMI Group.

When he bought Cheval Frères, a family business that had been around for more than a century
six generations), Jean-Pierre Gérard dreamt of creating “the Valeo of the watchmaking industry”! His son Antoine, who has since created a group of eight companies around Cheval Frères, is well on the way to realising this dream, but at the cost of some complex changes!

A market turned upside down by competition from Asia

When he took over Cheval Frères, the Swiss watchmaking industry was flourishing and relied on a large number of subcontractors, some of which,
like this micromechanics company, were based in the Biel/Bienne region. But competition from Asia is forcing the Swiss watch industry to make considerable changes: its share of the world market, in terms of the number of watches produced, has fallen to 2%. However, while retaining 50% in value terms, IMI was able to keep pace with this trend by transforming itself into a “technology integrator for luxury goods”.

Jean-Pierre Gérard has six children, but only one of them, Antoine, the third sibling, after a varied career with Gemini, Bossard,
Essilor and Roquette Frères, says he is ready to join Cheval Frères. In 2007, he took charge of Hardex, a recently acquired company specialising in ceramics. In 2009, he became Chairman of the Group’s Management Board, with his father on the Supervisory Board.

A father-son partnership put to the test

In terms of character, father and son are sometimes far apart, but “passing on the family business also means accepting change”, says Antoine Gérard. It has to be said that the crisis of 2008 has had an impact. Sales halved. Fortunately, from 2010 onwards, there was a succession of good years, and Antoine Gérard admits: “My father still gave me a great deal of insight into the market as a whole.

In January 2014, 80% of the Cheval Frères business was destroyed by fire.
fire. What it produces as a subcontractor accounts for €15 billion of watch industry sales! With a great deal of ingenuity, the company kept all its customers and even acquired such an aura that it was approached to take over another subcontractor two years later.

Becoming a majority shareholder

2019 is another difficult year. An IMI subsidiary has just lost its first customer, a historic heavyweight in the luxury watchmaking industry. We have to downsize. The family aspect of this entrepreneurial venture makes things complex. “The Board of Directors is not the Sunday dinner table and vice versa”, insists Antoine Gérard. From the outset, an allied financial group has owned 40% of the group, and it will press for Antoine to become the majority shareholder and take over the shares held by the family. During the negotiations, he was fortunately able to count on the active support of his teams and his parents. Because “the interests of the company come before personal or family interests”.

A great success for the group

Even if it remains very discreet about its performance, IMI can pride itself on having supplied some of the most remarkable components for the most expensive watch in the world! Today, the group employs more than 800 people, produces technical feats that are very difficult to reproduce, and has conquered a strong position in the luxury watchmaking industry. Antoine Gérard has a few lessons for us:

  • “Operational decisions must be taken quickly.
  • Relations with staff must be based on dialogue, and if we can’t reach an agreement, it’s always because we’ve missed a problem.
  • In a family business, there has to be an embodiment of the ‘owner’.
  • Nothing can ever be taken for granted. You always have to worry about tomorrow
    tomorrow, adapt and above all remain humble.”

Antoine Gérard is heavily involved in Réseau Entreprendre® (President of Réseau Entreprendre® Franche-Comté and member of the Federation board), and is keen to share and pass on his commitment.