CHRONO Flex: from idea to success story

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UP'Magazine met with Alexandre Gérard, Chairman of a multi-faceted "family" group in the building and public works sector, which develops innovative services on a daily basis around two areas of activity: on-site intervention, consulting and communication. A particularly innovative company in management that advocates new concepts to free the company to better reinvent it: the culture of a certain idea of happiness.
Here's the testimony.

The company CHRONO Flex is aimed at the construction industry, where it offers on-site troubleshooting of hydraulic hoses. These hoses are located on construction machines such as backhoe loaders or aerial platforms. They are fragile and indispensable elements. 

Their idea? Place everything needed to dismantle and repair the hose in a van, directly on the construction site. That means human skills on the one hand, and technical means (stock, machines, tools) on the other hand. We like to present this service innovation as a kind of "hose emergency service". What we announce to our customers is: "arrived within the hour, repaired within the hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout France".

The service offered also includes technological innovations: customers can call us on a single number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; thanks to the geolocation of the intervention units, they are able to propose an optimal intervention time, announced in a few seconds; immediately after the intervention, an electronic report including intervention performance, photos, traceability, carbon footprint... is sent to the customer.

Today, this service allows customers to halve the overall cost of breaking a hydraulic hose.

It all started in Nantes, in 1995...

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In 1995, the only way to repair the hydraulic hoses of construction machines was to bring in his own mechanic who spent his time going back and forth between the company, the construction site and the professional counter where he bought spare parts. It lasts for hours! And during this time the machines are at a standstill.

Three company managers, coming from the construction industry and confronted with these frequent and costly downtimes, have the intuition of a service to be developed around the repair of hydraulic hoses. They entrust the management of the company they have just created to Alexandre Gérard. At this stage, the company is summed up by Joël, the first mechanic, and Alexandre. The very first decision is to go and buy a bucket, a mop, a table and a telephone. The adventure is launched.

For a year and a half, they refine the model on the Nantes region and prepare for growth. In June 1997, they called on financiers who joined them to build the national network. An incredible period begins: they discover the 3-digit growth (100% of growth per year), they hire every week. As a company manager, the job is constantly changing. They have to adapt to managing a team that goes from 10 employees to 20 then 40, 80, 160... These years are intoxicating. They live a whirlwind! And yet, they maintain a very modest lifestyle. What drives them is a strong desire to succeed and a lot of pleasure in action.

2007, the consecration

In 2007, the five companies created generated more than €24 million in turnover. CHRONO Flex alone, the main company, achieved 22 million. That year, they carried out nearly 100,000 interventions, 85,000 in France and 15,000 in the French overseas departments and territories and other European countries. And for the first year, they posted a significant positive result of €1.8 million before tax.

Everything seems to be in order. They've made their bet! The company is beautiful, structured, powerful and efficient, like an aircraft carrier.

In the face of the crisis, how to reinvent the company?

2008, the crisis. 2009, the shock for CHRONO Flex. In 2009, they lost 34% of their turnover. This is very complicated to manage. They will have to fight for eight months trying to reinvent the company but the market is collapsing. They won't be able to fight back and will be forced to lay off staff in order to save the company. It's a terrible experience to part with people they don't want to lay off. It creates a terrible atmosphere in the company. And the constraints of French labour law are only exacerbating the crisis they are going through.

In 2007, they were all proud of this adventure. Two years were enough for everything that had been built to evaporate in one fell swoop. These are very difficult times for everyone.

The quest and the encounter

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Aware of his responsibility as a business leader, Alexandre then asks himself what he can do to prevent this situation from happening again. He starts looking ... without really knowing what to do. And then, one day, "the" encounter that will change his life occurs:

"In the spring of 2010, I received an invitation to a conference entitled "The 21st century company exists, we have met it". The speaker is a certain Jean-François Zobrist, a company manager at the head of the Favi foundry in Picardy, a leading company in the gearbox fork sector. The title appeals to me and I decide to go there. When I arrive in the amphitheatre, I discover a small man, bearded, bald, and... dressed in a blouse. I remark to myself: "Well, if this is the company of the 21st century! ».

I begin to understand when he starts telling his story. "Yes, that's the business of the 21st century! "Jean-François Zobrist talks about love, shared dreams and vision, co-constructed values, removing controls. It strikes me! I know intuitively that's what it's all about! As soon as he has finished speaking, I rush to him and ask, "How do we go further? "And then he says, "Do something about it". "There's a noise, I misunderstood," I tell him. And he repeats to me: "You've understood well, take care of it! ». End of discussion. I return to the office in a black anger: "The solution is there, within reach, and I don't have access to it. »

Awareness

That doesn't mean I'm giving up. I buy Jean-François Zobrist's four books and read each one twice. I understand then that I have made two big mistakes as a business leader, which I was not aware of.

First mistake: I manage the company for 3% of the employees, i.e. those who do not respect the company's rules of the game. For example, those who put a bit of pro diesel in their personal vehicle, or those who do their shopping at weekends with the company's credit card. In each new case, the company's management decides to add a line on the internal rules to stop the 3% from slipping. In the end, these new rules do not prevent them from continuing to try to "rip off" the company, but on the other hand they create invisible barriers around the remaining 97%, those who do their job well. These rules are gradually neutralizing all their initiatives.
Second mistake: I forgot my elementary school math class. I forgot that 1 is less than 20, 50 and a fortiori that 1 is less than 300. In fact, who decides in the company? My management team and I make almost all the decisions. And as the company grows, I continue to do so, without question. In 2007, the company has more than 320 employees and we still decide everything. I've hidden the fact that 1 is less than 20, not more. In doing so, I am depriving the company of an extraordinary wealth: collective intelligence. Imagine the power of 300 brains mobilized towards the same goal!

On my invitation, the entire management team reads "The beautiful story of Favi" by Jean-François Zobrist. We exchange, reflect, debate and then decide to take the company down this path... Without knowing where this path would lead us!

The CHRONO Flex mutation

The first steps: entogether with my team, we tried to understand the concepts at work at Favi, and then we decided to take three steps:

- rebuild our tent together, that is to say both the shared vision that supports the building and our values. This work takes several months in the form of small meetings all over France.
- removing the "little stones in the shoes", which means removing all the little things that spoil the daily life of employees.
- cleanse the signs of power. We're asking ten randomly selected employees what they think. We are not disappointed! "Who has a big office? A parking space near the entrance? Who has unfiltered computers that allow you to go on Facebook?" Today I have no assistant, no office, no title on my business cards and when I come to the office, I always park in the back of the parking lot.
All this happened very quickly, in a few months, in 2010.

The discovery of the liberated company

It is also in 2010 that Hervé, a friend, sends me "Freedom Inc." a book by Isaac Getz and Brian Carney, two authors who visited thirty atypical companies around the world and collected a veritable treasure trove. But the book, which I know contains the ingredients of the recipe I am trying to make, is in English. I am very frustrated because my level of English does not allow me to perceive the subtleties. As a result, I have limited access to this treasure. 

The characteristics of these unusual companies are as follows:
- These companies are outperforming their sector of activity;
- These companies offer their employees a great deal of freedom of action and a form of collective quest for happiness.
Among the examples cited, I discover Harley Davidson, Gore and ... the Favi company, by Jean-François Zombrist.

I do some research and discover that Isaac Getz is a professor of management and leadership at ESCP, a Parisian business school. I contact him. He grants me an interview. The power comes on right away. It's the beginning of a real friendship. I take the opportunity to propose him to create a small club of entrepreneurs to offer business leaders like me a space to support us in our development.

That's how Isaac Getz and Brian Carney modeled the key success factors for these companies. The "recipe" for switching from Company X to Company Y (MacGregor) is fourfold:
1 "Stop talking and start listening. Second, renounce all symbols and practices that prevent employees from feeling intrinsically equal.
2. Begin to openly and actively share its vision of the company to allow employees to take ownership of it. But this should not be done before Step 1, because people who are not considered equals will not be interested in that vision.
3. Stop trying to motivate employees. You read that right. Instead, create an environment that will allow them to develop and lead themselves, and let them motivate themselves. If they understand the vision referred to in Step 2, they will take care of the rest, as long as we let them.
4. Remain vigilant. To preserve the freedom of his company, the manager must become the guarantor of its culture. In this case, as liberator Bob Davids says: "Constant vigilance is the price of freedom. »
I understand then that "I" is going to be the main problem in the equation! It was a question of completely changing my attitude as a boss. For example: Stop talking... now, who talks in a company? The one who decides, so me! 

Freeing a company means first of all freeing it from its leader...

The first step was to deal with the underlying problem, which was me. Freeing a company is first of all freeing it from its leader! I decided to be accompanied by a coach. I was lucky enough to work with Jean-Loup Péguin, who allowed me to let go, to explore myself and to tame some of my beliefs. I was also fortunate that my entire team of managers also decided to work on themselves during 2011, with the help of several coaches.

As far as the field teams were concerned, even though we were trying a lot of little things, we were still not communicating. Our principle: "You do things and only then you explain". At the end of 2011, we felt ready to make our parachute jump!

Implementing change

D-Day: skydiving

In the jargon of the liberated company, "parachute jumping" corresponds to the implementation of an irreversible act. This metaphor is clear: it is impossible to get back on the plane once you have jumped. This act shows everyone that tomorrow will never be like yesterday. Saturday, January 7, 2012, is the day we have chosen. For weeks we have been preparing our "jump" meticulously. On this day we have invited the whole company to the annual big mass.

Switching from aircraft carrier to speedboats

Our goal for this day? Reinvent the company. The aircraft carrier has proven to be insufficiently agile during storms. Never mind that. Instead, we propose to all those present, to revive the company in the form of an "Armada of Speed-Boats". Why speed-boats? Because they are small, agile, fast. Launched in the same direction, it is the whole armada that converges towards the same goal.

Redraw the territories of action and create "captains".

We then handed out maps of France and asked the staff: how many speedboats do you want, implied, how many regions do you want? After thirty minutes, the teams had decided to create thirteen regions.

Then we said: "On a boat you need a captain, what do you think his role is? " The teams determined the captain's missions in thirty minutes. Finally, we continued to challenge them: "Now that you've decided to create 13 speed-boats, now that you've decided on the role of the captain... Who among you best embodies the exemplary nature necessary to ensure this role? Coopt them! ».

At the end of this working session, eleven masters had been designated, one group had chosen to postpone its decision until the following day because there were absentees, and another group that did not wish to have a "master" sent a representative. We had rebuilt the company in only an hour and a half!

Enable former middle managers to design their new functions

Three months before the big "leap", we told the middle managers: "You have three months to think about another job. Imagine the job you want in which you are going to enjoy yourself and create wealth. What you want. You won't change your salary. »

On D-Day, the middle managers had the opportunity to take turns announcing that they were changing jobs. Two became captains, one joined the sales department, another went to set up his insurance company and one tried a new assignment. It didn't work out. He has since left the company.

Create project groups to make business decisions

Also on January 7, we announced to the teams that it would now be up to them to make the decisions to manage the business. Everyone had the opportunity to join one of the twenty project groups. It was not easy. These groups didn't work right away, but we learned as we went along.
Our role as a former management team, renamed Team Inov'On (CHRONO Flex's parent company) now consists of supporting the decision-making groups in project management to get through the different stages. This support is important because the majority of our employees are mechanics and it is our responsibility to pass on the necessary know-how to them to the best of our ability.

How does it work? Let's take the example of a telephone contract that expires and needs to be renewed. We broadcast the information on the company's social network. Those who are interested get together and choose a representative, or moderator, whom they co-opt. Once the facilitator is chosen, the process is as follows: first, remind them why they are there, namely to serve the company's vision and not the leader's or their own interests. Second, surround themselves with all the experts they deem useful, whether internal or external. In this respect, former managers are regularly consulted. They have become experts, facilitators and referents. After this consultation phase, the working group makes a decision.

The Inov-On Team intervenes only if we believe that the decision taken by the working group may not serve the company's vision. The project group is then invited to rework its decision. This is a first limit to the autonomous functioning of working groups. The second is the budget. If the budget associated with the decision is equal to or less than the previous budget, then the decision is free. But if the budget is higher, then the Inov-On Team participates in the decision, so as not to put the company at risk. Apart from these two limits, we do not intervene on the decisions of the working groups which are applicable to all.

Move away ... far, far away.

Five months after our parachute jump, I went on a world tour with my family. It was for me a childhood dream, a need to spend time with my wife and three children, a physical need to change pace and experience unique things. This trip allowed me to detoxify from work. I was "addicted" to the company. It also, I hope, represented a tremendous vote of confidence for the teams. When I left, I simply told them: "do your best. »

And let it go, even on pay!

While I was away, on the other side of the world, the working group on "well-being" decided to launch the subject of remuneration. This could lead to the company exploding. "Gobble, gobble, gobble! "I have to say that I wasn't very serene when I heard that. But I couldn't tell them to stop, they're waiting for me to come back to talk about it. 

During nine months of work, each of the company's employees gave their opinion on several occasions in order to build a remuneration system that was implemented in March 2013. There is now an operating account for each intervention vehicle. This is absolute transparency. Each month, 15% of the vehicle's margin goes to the technician who carries out the interventions. An additional 15% is distributed equally among all employees in the region on the regional margin. Every six months we do the same thing at company level, distributing 15 % of the margin equally among all the company's employees. The result? From March 2013, turnover jumped by 15 % without any further action on our part! The results were multiplied by four. When I saw that the company was in better health when I found it again than when I left, I had to put my ego in my pocket. The company had demonstrated that it was doing better collectively.

What is the role of the CEO of a liberated company?

Recall the vision, day after day, several times a day

My first role is to recall the vision, day after day, several times a day. Because even if the vision has been co-constructed, it tends to evaporate into the daily routine. When a team member asks the Inov-On Team, we ask them which decision will best serve the company's vision.

Building a nurturing environment

My second role is to help build a nurturing environment. Indeed, I do not believe that one can decide well if one is not well trained or well informed. We therefore offer training courses via our "Permanent Universities" where every employee can come and train. We also offer training days "Live My Job"on the anniversary date of joining the company. This day belongs to the employee, who can come and "feed" himself by discovering the daily working life of another employee, a supplier or a customer. Finally, teams can take part in "Learning expeditions" to discover the approach of other companies, often on the road to liberation.

Preserve the field of freedom created

My third role is to preserve the freedom we have created. That freedom is fragile and I am the guardian of the temple.
Watching others grow is an extraordinary pleasure.
Sharing our adventure too.
And we're only a quarter of the way there.

CHRONO Flex's latest advances on the road to liberation

New arrivals, new responsibilities, hierarchical levels

- When integrating new team members, they are invited to make a solemn commitment to adopt our values and become ambassadors of them. If they refuse? We have a drink together and they go home.
- For each new recruitment, it is the team that welcomes, unanimously recruits the new team member who validates his trial period.
- Each team co-opts its captain for a period of three years.
- This co-option system has been extended if there is a change at the head of a team.
- Two teams, HR and Fruizz, our communication agency, operate in complete self-management.
- We have returned to three hierarchical levels: the division managers who are "coaches", the Team Leaders (including the captains) who lead and coordinate the activity and the team members who do the business. Team Innov remains in support.

Project groups and investment decisions

Our investments are now decided by the teams. In 2013, we went on a tour of France to meet the teams and discuss two key topics with them: market share - specifically how we gain or lose market share - and the impact of investments. We observed all kinds of decisions at the regional level: some excellent and others frankly too timid. These are the rules of the game: leave freedom and autonomy. We need to encourage learning, and to do this we need to value all types of learning, both failures and successes, in order to develop initiative.

Developing a professional project within the company

In autumn we will reactivate "InLab". The idea is to give employees the opportunity to develop new professions. Each of the employees will be able to present a development project with the group's vision as its sole framework, namely "the passion to do business differently for the success of our client. "It's a collective from the teams that will decide whether or not the company will support this employee to help him/her achieve his/her project. This is how we will create the jobs that will make our future.

Employee commitment

Our greatest wish is that as many employees as possible enjoy working in this company and are therefore committed.

If I believe the Gallup report, which gives an account of the rate of employee involvement around the world - engaged, disengaged (they come to leave) and actively disengaged - France is at the tail end of the European pack, almost on a par with the Netherlands, with a rate of 9% of engaged employees, while the United States has 30% of its engaged population. This means that, on average, only 9% of employees pull their entire company forward.

Our dream? To have more than 50% of committed employees. The consequences would be very positive. By contagion effect, the company can quickly grow to 70% of highly involved people. This translates into pleasure, creativity, initiative and ultimately performance. The endogenous growth of this type of company is often 10 to 20% per year. And in the presence of mechanisms for sharing results, this leads to a virtuous circle, both for the employees and for the company. Which leads Jean-François Zobrist, who loves provocation, to say: "There's no better way to make money than to be a humanist. »

Happiness and performance

For Laurence Vanhee, the equation of this system is based on four words: Freedom + responsibility = happiness + performance.
The freedom given to employees combined with the responsibility they take on, both in terms of vision and values, produces happiness for the employee and better performance for the company.

Our four values

Here are the rules of life or values that we have collectively chosen:
- Performance through happiness: if we are happy at home, we will be more efficient;
- Cultivate customer love: the customer loves us, we maintain an emotional relationship with the customer;
- A respectful and responsible team;
- An open mind, an open spirit.

By way of conclusion

What's the bottom line? To free the company was to free it from itself (freeing itself from the leader). The collective is more efficient than top-down management.

A quote?
"Tomorrow will not be like yesterday. Il will be new and it will depend on us. It is less to be discovered than to be invented. » Gaston Berger

Any advice to a business owner interested in the company being released? "Read the books of John Francis Zobrist and Isaac Getz and get it over with."

A word to the skeptical business leaders? You come to this model through two doors:
- The exhaustion of putting so much energy into the business for so little result: the pain;
- The admiration of the model: seduction. I think we are sensitive to this type of organization if it awakens deeply rooted intrinsic values.
Then it takes time, work on oneself and a lot more time because changing culture is not something that can be decreed. We were lucky to see an economic return only fourteen months after our parachute jump. This is not the case for all the companies that were liberated. It took Harley Davidson ten years to tip over.

Any plans? Continue to work on the nurturing environment so that the teams can continue to grow. Keeping a benevolent eye on the teams... 

And go on a family trip to discover the world!

Credits: Director: Maria Boutet - Editor: Laurence Postic / ©Pois Chiche films - France 3 Pays de la Loire

Remarks collected by Christine Marsan and co-written with Thomas-Emmanuel Gérard for UP'.

www.inov-on.com

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