Expanding the family business

Apollonia Poilâne is the third generation of the Poilâne family to head what is now a globally renowned bakery business, but which continues to produce solely at its base in France, and at a satellite bakery in London.

The Poilâne bakery business has a turnover in excess of €12m a year, and a global recognition factor married with exclusivity. Apollonia Poilâne is the third generation of baker to head the company, and she has plans to develop the heritage business for the rest of the century.

Leading and expanding a heritage business is a tightrope walk. “We already introduced cookies and biscuits, and have branded hardware accessories, books, and we are now working on a range of savoury products,” says Apollonia. Crucially, despite being the imagery surrounding the brand embracing anachronisms and conjuring up analogue craftsmanship, e-commerce was something she embraced a long time ago: “We have been online since 1997, and as a business you have to be alert to what is going on, and how it will evolve. Online used to be something anecdotal, and it was just seen as the dematerialisation of what happened on paper, but now the mental circuit has changed – it’s a crucial way to sell and market.”

The future for Poilâne will, in part, be digital, and of course issues of sustainability are a part of that future too – as they are for any business that wants to stay in step with its consumers. “We are a family business, with family values,” she explains. “So, I know that if I want this legacy to carry on, we have to think about the impact of it on people’s lives and the environment.”

The farming and production that makes up the product is all carefully monitored to be as sustainable as possible, and any new technology has to fit with the artisanal philosophy. “It is a constant dialogue my father captured with the term retro-innovation,” says Apollonia. “It is a spirit of test and trials in a quest to find a balance between time-proved methods and contemporary techniques. We believe that conversation and adaptations are what will sustain our future, whether in production or the services we offer.”

On a day-to-day level, Apollonia works with five key managers, who look after production, sales and administration, and each has a team that reports to them. “I delegate whenever I believe I don’t have expertise in a certain area, and when I think it will empower my team,” she says. The way in which she manages, and the team beneath her, are part of the brand story. “We have had people working with us for 40 years,” she explains. “It’s important to develop a work culture that encourages positivity. We have several people working with us who also have a spouse or child on the team. That’s something I appreciate and promote. It’s important to me.”

In a world where ESG (environmental, social and governance) considerations are becoming increasingly important for every business, Apollonia says that the quality of the working culture within your business is increasingly important for perceptions of the ‘S’ and ‘G’ in ESG. “I believe in developing relationships with people,” she says. “Yes, we have a HR department, of course, but I like to think I’m an approachable person, and the best way to keep in touch with the business, and develop it, is through conversation with the people involved in it.”

The Poilâne business is based on investment, but of manpower and connections more than finance. When her parents died, Apollonia was resolved to keep the company a family-run business. Her father, Lionel Poilâne, had been a reluctant baker – when Apollonia’s grandfather suffered a stroke in 1973, Mr Poilâne Junior had been planning on being an artist. He went on to describe his role at the bakery as that of being “a very bitter boy stuck down in the basement.” But he grew the business to be the success it is today. Which is what Apollonia sees as her legacy.

As part of her entrance exam to study economics at Harvard, she incorporated the sentiment that she needed to step up to manage the company, because “the work of several generations is at stake.” Tellingly, finding decent bread close to the campus while she studied, and managed the business, was impossible. So she sustained herself during her time in Boston by tracking down her own company’s import from Paris. And she continues to spread the footprint of her family’s unique product.

Poilâne supplies bread to the Élysée Palace in Paris, home of the President of France.

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