Some people just have a way of winning you over immediately. They have that je ne sais quoi that’s welcoming, open, energetic and inspiring. Jean-Luc Grisot is one such person. The managing director of Valrhona, one of the world’s largest suppliers of fine cocoa and chocolate products to pastry chefs and chocolatiers, as well as the 2015 recipient of the European Candy Kettle Club award, focuses on managing a complex operation with a “humanistic” touch.
As he explains, “It’s impossible to obtain results without a humanistic approach.” In this sense, humanistic refers to employee empowerment and engagement.
The managing director points to the company’s double-digit growth during the past four years, punctuated by strong profits each of those years, as evidence.
“That’s the reason why we’re not financially oriented,” he explains. “Our success is a result of this humanistic approach. We provide an environment where people have the freedom to work, to share in a project. Consequently, when we let employees invest themselves into a project and the company, the results are very good.”
Of course, despite Grisot’s charm, I had heard this many times before when interviewing chief executives. You know, the pat phrase, “We’re a people-oriented company.”
And yet, Grisot won me over. Maybe it’s because Grisot likes to smile and laugh loudly. I tend to warm to folks like that automatically. Or maybe it was his response to my question asking him how confident he was in this “humanistic” approach.
Grisot’s answer was direct and powerful. “The first sign of that is you see people smiling here. They are proud of the work they’re doing in Valrhona.” And yes, during the course of my visit, I did see people smiling. Not every individual, and not every minute, but enough to suggest that they liked where they were.
Naturally, as he explained, this policy of employee engagement and empowerment can be time-consuming and unwieldy at times. After all, detailing company strategies and initiatives to all isn’t as efficient as barking directives.
But it does fuel involvement, inspiration and subsequently innovation.
Take for example, the company’s commitment to take 25 customers as well as 25 employees to visit one of the cocoa plantations that the company currently works with every year. I doubt that Valrhona’s accounting team enjoys that particular line item on the balance sheet.
Still, it works. As Grisot points out, ““It gives sense to our purpose. Both customers and employees can see for themselves what we are doing to help the community. The first impressions are incredible, of course. By the end of the week, we truly have advocates for the Valrhona way.”
And what is the Valrhona way? It means direct involvement with planters and communities. Currently, the company sources cocoa beans from 18 different countries.
“We have direct relationships with the planters,” Grisot points out. “We know them. And everywhere we can, we are helping the planters’ communities. First, by securing long-term agreements with the farmers, buying their entire crops. Then, be it building new schools or providing a filter for clean water, or whatever the community needs, we’re involved.”
As a small player amongst the multinationals, “We’re doing our part,” he adds. “There’s no ‘green washing’ at Valrhona.” Last year’s community projects totaled 17 in eight countries.
That also applies to its customers. Since 1989, Valrhona has worked with more than 10,000 artisans and chefs, focused on optimizing their skills and talents. Today, the company operates four schools (Tain l’Hermitage, Tokyo, Paris-Versailles and Brooklyn), and employs 25 pastry chefs.
“It’s not just about providing training; rather it’s about providing inspiration, about using new ingredients, exposing them to new ideas, targeting new trends,” says Grisot.
I’d say this humanistic approach provides a pretty good blueprint for success. In Grisot’s words, “I really don’t understand why other companies aren’t doing this.” Me neither.