Stephane Richard, Orange CEO interview

My French Link > Investment

Stéphane Richard

Stéphane Richard, you manage one of the world’s biggest telecommunications groups with a large footprint in Africa and the Middle East. How is French culture an asset to your company as it does business in 28 countries?

Orange is an international player with a unique characteristic: we are the only European group with a strong presence in Africa and the Middle East. That is truly distinctive in the telecoms landscape! As for French culture, it is carried first by the language. In francophone Africa, it is a bridge between us and the countries, which makes it easier for us to conduct business. Orange also has close ties with the embassies in all those countries. But it is more than a culture: it’s a network grounded in cultural and diplomatic affinities. Is there a French corporate culture? I’m tempted to say yes. Comparing Orange to other international telecom groups, I find that the French are good at international expansion. They have a real capacity to adapt to local ecosystems. When we enter a country, our goal is to strike a balance between local and expatriate managers in the company. Actually, Orange has few expatriates in the Africa-Middle East zone: just 60 employees out of a region-wide staff of over 20,000. We aim to recruit locally and I think that we have developed considerable expertise in this regard. We are highly adaptable and open at Orange. So instead of coming in with a ready-made system to apply to their new markets, I think that French companies are more like “sponges” in the sense that they create a hybrid culture that blends their corporate culture with the local mindset. This is what has enabled French companies to successfully expand abroad.

There are many French groups ranked among the top 500 global companies in proportions that exceed the share of French GDP in world GDP.

Orange is a hotbed of innovations that are not limited to the world of telecommunications. In what ways are the cultural diversity of your staff and your quest for differentiation around the customer experience as embodied in the “Essentials 2020” approach ways to internationalize “French innovation know-how”?

The idea behind “Essentials 2020” is both simple and vast: We want to give our customers an unparalleled experience every day and all our actions work toward that goal. Their experience must be the best possible relationship, starting with initial contact and lasting for the entire duration of their time as a customer of our group. This is a real challenge in our business, where products are sold in mass. At Orange we have over 8,000 people working on the innovation chain. Our technocenters and labs enable us to be well rooted in the countries that comprise our market, where the needs are quite specific and there is immense creativity. We are very present in Tunisia, Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire and Jordan.

Can you give an example of how that works?

With regard to innovation, the best example is payment via mobile phone. That project originated in Africa. I’m referring to Orange Money, which allows customers to access banking services such as money transfers and mobile phone payment and now has nearly 18 million users. This use was born in Africa to meet a local need, then was extended to Europe. In fact, Orange Money was just launched in France to provide a simple, economical way to send money to Africa using a mobile phone. Another example is reloading prepaid SIM cards. An emergency “additional units” system was implemented. The ability to credit a few units so that users can top up their cards was created in Botswana and subsequently became a widespread success. Plus it builds customer loyalty. In the area of connected agriculture, we launched m-farming services in order to improve farmer income, boost agricultural productivity and strengthen the value chain.

Now that you are Co-Chair of the AfricaFrance Foundation, will the responsibilities that come with that position reflect even more robust support for the African continent, along the lines of the 2015 Africa Social Entrepreneur Award that was given out in Cape Town a few weeks ago?

The foundation’s goals are compelling. The original idea was to contribute to and accelerate Africa’s economic take-off. In that respect, forming a club where businesses talk to businesses is something relatively new, especially because the French and the Africans are on an equal footing. The mechanism is unusual: the French and African private sectors work together to issue recommendations to the authorities on certain topics. The foundation is participating in the economic aspects of the next France-Africa Summit. Other substantive issues are also being addressed, such as training – digital in particular. In this way, civil society, through a club that serves as a forum for discussion, analysis and the pooling of resources, is working to help speed up economic development through the private sector.

Orange is a partner for this year’s Euro 2016. What does it mean for Orange to take part in an international sporting event?

This is an opportunity at two levels. First there is the technical challenge of providing all the communication services for the tournament because Orange decided to make Euro 2016 the most connected UEFA Euro in history. The group is responsible for the transmitting live feeds of the matches being played in 10 French stadiums, plus more than 680 wireless Internet access points have been installed in the fan zones.  More than 800 group employees are assigned to this exciting undertaking. Beyond the technical aspect, Orange partners with major events that bring people together. After working as the official telecommunications operator for major international tournaments like the 1998 World Cup or, more recently, the African Cup of Nations, it seemed quite natural to partner with Euro 2016. We like to be where the action is and the UEFA Euro 2016 is a major public event. It’s a point of pride for us. We are talking about two billion TV viewers – matches that enthrall the entire planet, especially in Africa and the Middle East. When you talk to people there about Euro 2016, their eyes light up.  And six of the European countries where Orange does business are participating: it will be a big party for us at Orange!

Many international companies choose to expand to France. In your opinion, what are the three biggest advantages that drive “France envy” in their executives?

I would start with the education and skills of employees. Then I’d say the French mentality. They like their companies, especially compared to the rest of the world. We have productive, imaginative and efficient employees.  Of course, our labor is sometimes a bit more expensive, but it has many strengths that you cannot find elsewhere. And in technology and industry, we have real opportunities. With regard to digital, we are particularly dynamic and are the leading European country in creating start-ups. Finally, I would point to the quality of life in France and the quality of our infrastructure. The road and rail transport systems are very valuable, as well as our digital infrastructure, thanks to the committed policies of government and operators. At Orange, for example, we install fixed or mobile ultra-high speed networks with fiber optics or 4G wherever our customers need it.”In conclusion, and to tackle France from a different perspective, what would be an ideal weekend for you? Where would you go and what would you do?

I like going home to Cévennes in the Massif Central, but I also love the mountains and skiing.  Depending on the season, I would think about the seaside; a weekend on the French Riviera is very tempting. Otherwise, a weekend in Bordeaux or in the Dordogne is quite pleasant. You can see I’m at a loss to give you a clear answer: France deserves a lot more than a weekend!