Female MBA Rises To Top Of French Industrial Empire

After an MBA at EMLYON Business School, Sylvie Guinard has risen to the helm of her family's business. The CEO of five years says her industrial empire is built on the value of diversity.

This time last month Sylvie Guinard was back on campus. It was Entrepreneurs’ Day at EMLYON, the leading French business school, and she was a distinguished alumnus. Budding entrepreneurs would have taken note.

Sylvie did not look like your average manufacturing expert. But her CV is impressive and she has been running an industrial empire for the past five years. That is also more remarkable than it may seem.

There are but a handful of female industrial workers. There are far fewer CEOs. There are also less female entrepreneurs and business owners, and less female MBA graduates, although that is improving.

When Sylvie acquired all of Thimonnier's operating company’s shares in November last year, she joined the dwindling list of leading female company bosses. She now owns 100% of the business.

“In France, women have so few responsibilities in the engineering industry that they are not perceived as a threat, but rather as added value,” said Sylvie, who graduated from EMLYON’s MBA program in 2002.

“For me, diversity in all areas is a great enrichment. It is also damaging to have only men or only women [in a company].”

Thimonnier, her family’s business, was started 150 years ago. The company operates in a bevy of different industries – food, medical, cosmetics and packaging, to name but a few. Her ancestors began with a single sewing machine. Today, the company operates in more than 150 countries and has an army of about 60 employees.

“International markets now represent 85% of our turnover,” said Sylvie. “[The] growth drivers of the business are clearly outside Europe. Our playground is global and our direct competition is equally important.”

Yet that globalization brings its own set of challenges. The company operates in Canada, America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. “We encounter difficulties in language, not in trade, for which at least English is acquired,” she said.

“Our extensive international experience makes things a little easier for us now… or just much faster than before, for results for our clients.”

The business is perhaps best known for its design and manufacture of packaging machines into flexible bags, DOYPACK ® pouches and rigid shells. Thimonnier produces more than 20 billion pouches each year. About 70% are exported. The company is based in Saint-Germain-sur-Rhône, eastern France.

Sylvie sees Japan as the biggest competitor to her flagship product, DOYPACK ® pouches. Germany may also pose a threat to their medical equipment business. It is not surprising to hear that innovation is a key component in the company’s growth.

Between 10% and 15% of turnover is spent on research and development. “In recent years, the research was primarily directed towards the development of new welding techniques [and] innovative processes,” said Sylvie, who became Chef d'Entreprise in 2009.

“The axes of ‘quality and cleanliness of machines’, and the pace and performance, are our main areas of continuous improvement. Our job is very technical because handling pouches and filling [them is] complex.”

For every entrepreneur like Sylvie who decided to go it alone because of family ties, there are those who have taken the leap for lifestyle reasons. More than 25% of all business school prospects are considering entrepreneurial careers, according to research from GMAC last week.

This would not be unusual in the depths of recession, when some full-time career paths dried up, but it has surprised some economists at a time when the MBA jobs market is in rude health.

For some, the entrepreneurial buzz marks a shift in mentality at business schools – aided by programs like EMLYON’s, which caters for the solo career path. For others, it has proved an insurmountable challenge. Start-up statistics aren’t pretty.

But Europe is built on family businesses. According to research by The Family Firm Institute, family firms make up 75% of all European businesses. They employ more than 50% of the workforce. Such companies have proved more resilient during times of economic stability.

It is little wonder that Thimonnier looked an attractive venture. It is thought that family businesses create between 70% and 90% of global GDP annually.

At 36, Sylvie has not had a clear-cut path to the helm of her namesake’s industrial empire. Before an MBA, she studied at Estaca, the leading French transportation engineering school.

It was part of a childhood ambition to become an astronaut. She is still passionate about space and aeronautics. It explains her technical background.

“One of my pride (sic) is to have participated, operationally, in the first flights of Ariane V [a low-Earth orbit rocket ship],” said Sylvie.

In 1996, she was an engineer and the head of research projects at Techlam. In 2001, she moved onto Renault Commercial Vehicles. After the 12-month MBA program at EMLYON, she then rose through the ranks at Thimonnier from 2002.

Business schools could have been forgiven for a few moments of triumphalism when MBA rankings figures were released in January.

Diversity is a major focus at schools. EMLYON made huge gains in female student enrolment, leaping 33 points. More than 60% of the school’s MBA class is female, significantly more than some competitors. Nearly 90% of the class are also international.

However, schools will be quick to admit that more work needs to be done. Few MBA cohorts have an equal gender balance. It has given rise to initiatives to promote more female business leaders and more female MBAs.

Sylvie said that she values diversity, but few females in her position have gone on to head major corporations. However, she insists there is a “certain evolution”.

“I bathed in a masculine universe a long time [ago] and I've realized that if a woman has to struggle a lot at the beginning of her career, it is recognized when [she has] acquired skills,” said Sylvie.

“So [we] must combine talents, backgrounds and work in the same community… this is what creates the wealth of the company and this is what I really want to keep. It is our family business culture.” 

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