The International Entrepreneur – Cultural Tips from France: an Interview with Omar-Pierre SoubraThis week’s business cultural interview takes us to France! Omar-Pierre Soubra shares his insights on how to navigate parts of French culture.

What do you see as unique cultural characteristics of France’s culture that are reflected in France’s business culture?

I will sound obvious by saying “French food”! You can talk to any French businessman or businesswoman around the world, if you start talking pâtés, Bordeaux wine, escargots, cheese, you have a head start. Food, lunches and dinners are very important place to do business in the French culture. Whether you’re in France or you host a French person in the US for business, you should pay extra attention to the restaurant and the wine list you choose. Although they will tell you it does not matter, it actually does.

The second aspect may sound a bit elitist, but it is not easy to access the right people to do business with in a company (especially large ones). Well educated people compete during their studies to be accepted into a prestigious school (referred as Hautes Ecoles: Engineer Schools or Commerce Schools). Most schools are accessible only through a competition for which you prepare at least two years after your Bachelor’s Degree. Once you are admitted to one of these schools, it almost guarantees a great high-paid position in a French company. These positions usually come with privileges like having an assistant who, unfortunately, is not business savvy.  But the assistant may be your only entry point if you’re trying to get a appointment with their managers… Breaking the barrier of the assistant is an art!

In your opinion, what are France’s most competitive industries in world markets?

There are three major industry revolution France is extremely competitive:

  • Renewable energy, sustainability, clean-tech. There are amazing labs, clusters and companies in France that are very advanced and propose solutions to these issues.
  • Digital assets and programming. The French engineering school system has been creating and continues to develop excellent programmers and software designers. For years it has been part of the engineering culture.  In the early 1980’s almost every home in France had a computer connected to a network and accessing online services. This was done through Minitel, a French invention, which was the equivalent of the Internet (almost two decades before it reaches what we know today!). Also, next time you watch a blockbuster movie, stay until the end and look at the credits to see how many French names are in the visual effect section.
  • Pharmaceutics and Cosmetics. The French industry of the cosmetics is probably known by 80% of the population on Earth, with popular brands like L’Oréal. These international successes have driven a savoir-faire (know-how) almost everywhere in France. A few days ago, I met with a young, energetic entrepreneur who is starting a cosmetics distribution of French creams and lotions for athletes in Colorado. In less than a week, this entrepreneur managed to get the doors opened to major sport retailers in the US as his cosmetic products were made in France and extremely innovative!

What’s the best way to find potential French business contacts?

The best way to find potential partners in France is to rely on your French-American Chambers of Commerce (visit the Rocky Mountains site at www.rmfacc.org if you live in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah or Wyoming). These international non-profit associations promote and develop commercial exchange, trade and investments between France and the United States.  Even if your local Chamber does not have direct contacts in the industry, the French-American Chambers of Commerce are all connected and can get you to the right person. The Chambers have connections with the advisors and institutional structures as well as members who probably went through the same process and who can share their experience with you.

France has developed a unique network of successful French entrepreneurs, businessmen and businesswomen based around the world: the French foreign trade advisors (“Conseiller du Commerce Extérieur Français”).

Finally, supporting structures developed by the French government help foreign companies start operations in France: “Invest in France” is one of them.

What do you wish people knew about doing business in France before they arrive in the country?

I usually start this conversation by “You won’t sell with Superman”. Let me explain. From branding and budgeting perspectives, most companies start by promoting their brand in France by using the same advertising campaigns and brand image that they use in the US. There was a company trying to promote its product with a Super Hero in their trade magazine ads. It worked very well in the US, but in France it was automatically associated with arrogance and domination. This company’s objective was to get emotionally connected by the pride its customers have when they used the products. My advice is to start with the objective of your campaign (including emotions as this is one of the most universal way for humans to communicate), then work with a local French advertising agency to reflect this and trust them (or ask you French-American Chamber partner if the proposal from the agency works!).

From your perspective, what’s the business climate like for entrepreneurs in France (supportive vs. unsupported, culturally accepted profession vs. not accepted, etc.)?

Entrepreneurs need to keep a low profile while doing business in France. One clear example is with customers’ or prospects’ visits. You can use existing customer testimonials and references. But forget about visiting a customer with the latest German-engineering high-end car that you can afford because of your success! It will immediately result in pushback from the customers with a reply like “with all the money you make on us, you can give me a larger discount!”. If you like expensive cars, keep it at home, for the weekend, but drive to your customers with a low profile car.

About Omar-Pierre Soubra,

Omar is the Director, Techno-Marketing Innovation Manager at Trimble Navigation and also the President of the French American Chamber of Commerce, Rocky Mountain Chapter. Omar is a French native and has been developing a team of professional marketers in different parts of the world. He has been with Trimble Navigation, the leader in positioning solutions, for over 13 years, in various roles from European Sales manager to Portfolio/Market Manager. Omar holds an engineering degree in LASER and Photonics from Polytech Orléans, France, a Bachelor’s in Engineering, Electronics and Electricity from the University of Dundee, Scotland and a Master of Art in Sales and Marketing from the Chamber of Commerce of Versailles/Yvelines, France. You can read more about Omar’s career on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/omarsoubra. In addition to his marketing communications responsibilities, Omar is an innovator at heart and holds several patents that have been developed and used in current products and solutions. Omar has been living in Colorado since January 2005, with his wife Mélanie and three lovely boys: Quentin, Lucas and Gaētan.