Interview of Jean-Louis Bouchard in Belgian newspaper L'Echo

Published on 02 February 2022 Econocom Group

"We’ve learned from our failures"

Econocom is undergoing a new governance change. For the second time in four years, its founder Jean-Louis Bouchard will be handing over control of the IT group after a 49-year reign of ups and downs. Why now? Well, ‘why not?’ says, with a mocking eye, the man who rarely appears in the media.

We met up with him just a stone’s throw from the Château de la Hulpe during his flying visit to Belgium to inspect the local teams one last time. Four years ago, Jean-Louis Bouchard wanted to hand over the reins to his son Robert after a wave of success and huge growth for Econocom. A bitter failure which he put an end to barely 8 months after his departure by taking over the head of the group. "It didn’t work because the executive team was on its way out. The teams were exhausted by those years of growth. Certain top talents were more suited to a certain size of firm than to the size we’d reached. Our acquisitions weren’t yet finalised. There were too many varying entrepreneurial cultures. It wasn’t the right time."

When he thinks about it, he even says, "All the ingredients were there for it to go badly." Staying clear-headed, he does not spare his son: "He wasn’t experienced enough. He’d been in the group for two years, but in a subsidiary. He wasn’t familiar enough with how the group worked. I actually think no one could have done well in that role." His son is still on the board of directors and chairs the firm’s audit committee. He also represents his brothers and sisters in the group. On the off chance that Jean-Louis Bouchard were unable to work anymore, Robert would represent the family and its shares – over 65% – in the company.

Econocom founder Jean-Louis Bouchard is stepping down from his CEO role at the Franco-Belgian IT group, which generates €250m in revenue in Belgium.

Final curtain

Back in business eight months after handing the reins over to his son, he wanted to spend the next three and a half years, which have just gone by, ‘learning from the failures of that period’, so he could start a handover that he hopes will be more successful this time. This learning curve has involved debt reduction, online advertising, and a new management control system. "The foundations are in place for the group to enjoy a new period of strong growth," he explains.

He is handing over his position as CEO to Laurent Roudil, subject to validation by the group's general meeting on 31 March 2022. This new governance tacitly closes the door on a family-centred future for Econocom. "I’ve a son who works in our entity in Spain. He’s the group's IT manager, but he’s not aiming for a top executive position in the coming years." So the change puts an end to a long chapter in Jean-Louis Bouchard’s life. And like any good captain, he is not abandoning ship. The company’s founder is keeping some responsibilities in the company, such as corporate communication. "Econocom is in a fortunate position – it’s in a digital technology and IT services sector that is doing well. I’ve still got a lot to do. We can double or triple our revenue by the end of the decade."

Several acquisitions in sight

To achieve this, Econocom needs to grow and expand further in Europe. "We only operate in a small part of Europe for the time being. If we could generate, throughout Western Europe, the same level of revenue our Belgian entity makes, then we’d reach €10bn."

Econocom has not made this an official aim, but there is an increasing demand from its clients to have a greater presence in European countries. To support its growth and its clients’ needs, Econocom will have to add several high-growth ‘satellites’ to its ‘galaxy’. Jean-Louis Bouchard confirms that several projects are being studied, including some in Belgium. The group is targeting firms that make €20m on average with around a hundred employees. Discussions are also underway to acquire a company in cloud computing. Other acquisitions in the software sector could quickly follow.

Yet there is no question of being on all fronts, says the founder of Econocom, which was called ‘Europe Computer Systèmes’ in its early days. "When you try to do everything at the same time, you’re left with no time to tackle what’s not going well." As always, lessons are being learned from the past. Especially after a pandemic that impacted the group. In March 2020, the company, which leases out equipment and IT services, saw some of its clients – including a big French automotive group whose name will not be revealed – stop paying their leases for several months. That quickly caused panic, especially as the group’s results were not yet what they are today, with an 8% fall in revenue that year. Then, in 2021, late deliveries affected Econocom in a similar way.

"The whole of China is at a standstill. Delivery times are very long for everything today. Whether for IT hardware, wood or the motor for my entrance door in Paris which is broken. You just have to wait."

Could this have a long-term impact? "No, I don’t think so. We can stay ambitious, despite a tough period for everyone. In the fifty years I’ve been in digital technology, you can’t say the sector’s been declining."

Consolidation on all floors

The sector is undergoing consolidation on all sides. Jean-Louis Bouchard and the IT group’s directors have not missed this trend. "There’s a global trend – a change in scale. And a change in scale means mergers at all levels. What counts is size. To meet large clients’ needs, you have to be big yourself."

The door is therefore open to extend the services Econocom offers its clients. The group will not be offering a universe in the metaverse as from tomorrow, but, as a keen observer of technological developments, Jean-Louis Bouchard is on the lookout. He shares with us his fascination for blockchain technology. "It’s an amazing revolution." He has developed a portfolio of cryptocurrencies made up of bitcoin and Ethereum so he can understand how they work. "The concept is so powerful. We’ve invented a currency that doesn’t depend on states. For how long will states accept to give up some of their sovereignty?" Cryptocurrencies will not be taking up his new free time entirely. He still plans to play a role at Econocom, though he will probably be spending more time in his stables than in the firm’s offices.

Closer to his horses

He has not ridden a horse ever since he fell from one and damaged some of his ribs. But his passion for equids is as vibrant as ever. His face lights up when he talks about them. He plans to spend a little less time with his colleagues so he can spend more time with his horses. ‘I’m sure they’re fed up with seeing me anyway," he concludes with a laugh that still echoes in the room.

Article translated from L'Echo. The translated article can also be found at Econocom UK website.