French gift box company Wonderbox is continuing its expansion across Europe, after its recent acquisition of Belgian and Dutch competitors Vivabox and GiftForYou. In the ongoing process, Wonderbox will need to toe a fine line, between keeping the initial virtues which enabled the French company to become a European leader and preserving the local value of its newly-acquired subsidiaries.
Shortly after its creation, Wonderbox pulled out of the American market, so as to focus on the native French one. This rollback wasn’t linked to a cultural incompatibility, nor was it due to lack of profitability, but founders Bertile Burel and James Blouzard made the decision, in the early days of the companies development, that two birds in the bush weren’t worth the one in the hand. Today, after continuous development over the past 10 years, Wonderbox is facing a new challenge: transposing its successful business model abroad, with three major acquisitions. In 2015 and 2017, Wonderbox had acquired Belgian company Vivabox and Dutch company GiftForYou, establishing and securing its leadership in Europe, position confirmed by the acquisition in 2018 of the Portuguese company Lifecooler. Previous overseas installations were organic subsidiaries, whereas Vivabox, GiftForYou and Lifecooler are competition overtakes. Wonderbox has now lifted its turnover to 220 million euros and aims at 400 million by 2020. In order to achieve this transformation, careful attention to local cultural differences will have to be paid. CEO Fabrice Lépine gives an example: “The concept present in the Nordic or Germanic countries is rather the fact of being able to offer a specific activity. It is not a multi-choice but a single targeted choice. It is therefore the buyer who chooses the activity and offers it. This concept is developed in these countries, but the multi-choice offer is not yet developed.”
The new challenge will therefore be how to keep the mother company Wonderbox coherent and safe in its identity, while not crushing and rolling over the local cultures. CEO Fabrice Lépine wishes to safeguard the DNA of the company which he crafted over a decade, but also to shy clear of the temptation of becoming a marketing steamroller, replacing local offers with a single monolithic and globalized one. Indeed, Wonderbox is fully aware that cultures differ, even between neighboring countries, and that the newly-acquired offices are the places where those cultures are known in their finest detail. Fabrice Lépine explained in an interview given to a French media that Wonderbox and its partners have succeeded in taking local and scattered offers, varying in nature like all B&Bs, or all parachute clubs, or race-car driving centers, and make them homogenic for example. However, because Wonderbox was able to make it on this relatively new market for gift boxes, it is important that the company’s fitness be preserved and shared throughout all the companies in the group. Throughout its existence, Fabrice Lépine reviewed processes, studied markets beforehand and implemented quality monitoring tools which enabled the company to survive the market consolidation. “First of all, we do everything we can to encourage feedback from customers and partners. All this allows us to maintain almost daily contact with our partners. As a result, in the event of an alert, the latter rises extremely quickly. Upstream, our partners – historical or more recent – are rated by mystery shoppers and testers (400 each year)”, he says. The goal is to inject the mother company’s thorough management practices into the new subsidiaries but keep their knowledge of the market and the relevance of their offers.
Ever since the market consolidation after 2011, Wonderbox has been strengthening its position against competitor Smartbox, a goal which will be furthered by Belgian, Dutch and Portuguese acquisitions. These acquisitions make Wonderbox present in most major Western European countries, namely Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. But most of all, these acquisitions are a test. Wonderbox knew it was able to open foreign offices, as it had already done so several times in the past. Fabrice Lépine wanted to ascertain that his company was able to encompass a former competitor without emptying it of its value, by crushing the fine knowledge of the local market, as so often happens. Wonderbox brought the marketing power and the development appetite to the table, while acquired subsidiaries brought their market shares and the knowledge of local cultures. Fabrice Lépine attributes the success to the continued desire to listen, both within the office (for employee recommendations), and outside on the markets. “The only way to stay ahead of demand and constantly innovate is to listen. We are constantly listening to the market, our customers and our partners. In addition, we have opted for the diversification of our offer and a presence as close as possible to the field. When we enter a foreign market and buy a brand, we keep that brand because it already has a certain notoriety”, he says.
According to Fabrice Lépine, the name of the game is to keep listening. French companies don’t work like Italian ones, and the Dutch market is not the Belgian market. Who can help make sense of it all? Wonderbox aims to maintain the values of its new branches, and not replace them with those of the mother company, because it is those closest to the market who know it best. And can therefore find the cracks in which synergies and added value can be found and created.