“C’est qui le patron?” (CQLP) is a brand on fire. It’s not the kind of fire that Nicolas Chabanne has any intention of putting out. The business that he founded in 2016 has sold over 282 million products and now has 34 product references contributing to the sustainability of over 3,000 producer families. I began our recent conversation by asking Chabanne about his upbringing to get a better sense of his early driving forces.

The early years

Chabanne was born in Moulins, in the centre of France, in 1969 but at a young age, he moved with his parents to Madagascar. At the age of seven, he returned to France and lived in a number of regions with his family before settling in Provence, in the south of the country. This variety of childhood backdrops have given Chabanne an innate ability to adapt and respond to whatever life throws at him, something that CQLP embodies as he explains later in our conversation.

As he retold his early years, Chabanne did not come across as someone traditionally destined for success from an early age. School was not a fit for him, and he highlights a lack of focus for classroom learning, but he did enough to get through secondary school. Having completed his “Bac” (the Leaving Cert equivalent in France), he went to study literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.

By his own admission, he continued to lack focus and instead of studying, he “spent more time eating in the college restaurants… holding onto the same mindset of my 11-year old self”.

Building a value-based business sustainably

These formative years did not deliver academic applause for young Chabanne but all was not lost. During the period, working across various projects with like-minded people, he realised that it was only through a greater sense of the collective that real change could happen. 

As Chabanne describes in relation to CQLP: “Everything we do, it’s always collective. We look at things through this lens. We are very comfortable with our shared values.” A tangible example of this approach was highlighted by the decision to redistribute CQLP’s year-to-date CQLP profits (over €460,000 to May 2021) to help the maximum number of producers and people in difficulty in France either directly through the CQLP fund or through third parties likes Auroremarket.

According to CQLP’s website, this approach was agreed because “in a global crisis, there cannot be a part of society who wins while others lose everything”. 

Throughout the course of our conversation, Chabanne consistently promotes this narrative that focuses on a collective greater good. However, as he describes the background to CQLP and the value system at its core, I could not help but find myself asking: What is in it for Nicholas Chabanne?  

At a very basic level, 5 per cent of the retail price of CQLP-branded products goes to the company which owns the brand – ultimately to Chabanne and his team to cover salaries and operational expenses. The company essentially acts as a marketing consultant for products made by farmers and processors to its specifications and distributed under its brand through the usual retail channels.

At the scale at which CQLP is now operating, Chabanne has the potential to make a significant income over time. In 2019, the company he owns with a small number of close associates, posted €4.3 million in revenue and returned a pre-tax profit of €784,000. This is indicative of well over €100 million in sales of products using the brand.

So, he and his team are certainly not running a charity, but the balanced approach seems a fair one to ensure that the business can grow sustainably. As Chabanne says: “We don’t abuse our values for the sake of commercial gain.”

Structuring the unstructured

Whenever I speak with an early-stage founder, especially someone like Chabanne who has experienced exponential growth from day one, I am always keen to understand how they manage to deal with the lack of structure and the rollercoaster of highs and lows that they must endure.

In Chabanne’s case, his approach is refreshingly honest. “There were only two or three of us at the start, for the first 18 months or so. It was crazy!”

CQLP has never had a business plan. It doesn’t have shareholders or external funders looking for a formal roadmap to manage its growth, and the business has experienced such rapid growth over the last five years that other areas have taken focus. “Things happened so quickly. The first year we sold 33 million products, now we are selling more than 100 million products every year. In this context, you focus on ways to maximise support for the largest possible number of people,” Chabanne says.

So how does a business like CQLP stop from going off course? 

Digging a little deeper with Chabanne, two elements stand out. The first one is an obsession with listening to what consumers want and engaging with them to bring it to market. In this regard, CQLP embodies his ability to react and respond to emerging trends and changing consumer sentiment with incredible speed. 

The second is a preoccupation with transparency. Take a look at the CQLP website and you can see how many units they have sold of certain products, the cost per unit broken down to highlight every aspect of the cost and even their monthly profits. Having this openness with all aspects of the business has allowed Chabanne to build trust and momentum with consumers, retailers and producers in unparalleled ways.

As the business has grown, so too have the revenues and the cash surplus generated by recurring sales, but the commercial success has not been a distraction for Chabanne. “We don’t care about profitability… When I speak with other brands, I tell them to focus on values, they might even earn more that way!”

“There are no salespeople in the shops. That’s the beauty of it.”

What is nearly more astonishing for a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brand like CQLP is that the business has no sales representatives. Not one. This is unheard of within the FMCG sector where sales representatives are the default mechanic to drive engagement with store managers, maximise in-store sales opportunities and increase overall sales. CQLP does not seem to need a sales team. 

Instead, Chabanne has managed to raise an army of consumers who are effectively operating as brand ambassadors, driving positive word of mouth, participating in in-store promotions alongside producers, encouraging store managers to stock CQLP products and ultimately buying into a co-operative mentality that can collectively support local producers. “There are no salespeople in the shops. That’s the beauty of it. We are totally free and independent. It’s a real consumer brand.” 

By involving consumers in the whole product process through an open membership co-operative, from selecting what product should be developed, under what conditions and for what price point, CQLP has become a brand of the people.

The business has removed the need to hire sales representatives directly or to invest in expensive national marketing campaigns. The grassroots approach adopted by CQLP is significantly more cost-effective and enables the business to return to its suppliers money that would alternatively have been spent on sales and marketing promotions. 

Building a team

It is incredibly hard to scale a business as quickly as Chabanne has without a team that is extraordinarily talented and passionate about delivering on a shared vision. The business now has around 35 full-time staff but, surprisingly, Chabanne seems slightly removed from recruitment. He even goes so far as to say that he has a healthy dislike of interviews.

Instead, the senior members of his team identify the right people and Chabanne tends to sign off on new recruits by focusing on one key question: “What are your personal values?” 

He strongly believes that getting an alignment of values across a team will lead to happier staff, and will deliver an impact that will far outweigh the potential of technically stronger teams. “It is no longer a one-person operation. An idea that truly works is one that is in everyone’s minds at the same time. You just have to make the collective conscience resonate. That’s what makes the strength of a collective adventure. We are all equally important.” 

CQLP and Ireland

Chabanne and his team have already been approached by a number of individuals or groups looking to launch a version of CQLP in Ireland, probably under the brand name “The Consumer Brand”. In a previous article, The Currency highlighted some of the challenges in doing this but the opportunities are equally clear.

There is certainly a strong appetite from the CQLP team to launch in Ireland but, again, Chabanne emphasises the importance of value alignment with whomever they decide to partner. With negotiations underway, it feels like a question of when, rather than if, CQLP products will be competing on Irish shelves in the near future. 

Not an overnight success

Speaking with Chabanne, you get a clear sense that anything is possible. With the right people, the right effort, some good fortune and a transparent shared value system, businesses like CQLP can have a real impact and outperform existing brand leaders. 

Chabanne has been working with people who share the same collective values and aspirations to deliver for the greater good for almost 25 years. CQLP is not an overnight success but rather the representation of many years of hard work and loyalty to some core principles. 

This continuity of effort is clear as Chabanne talks about other food-related businesses that he has been involved with including “Le Petit Producteur” (The Small Producer), a food business that shares real images and contact details of the producers on its packaging to inspire greater levels of trust or “Les Gueules cassées” (The Broken Faces) a food business that saved “ugly” fruit and vegetables from wastage by repackaging them at reduced prices. 

These businesses continue in the background (Chabanne mentions a relaunch of “Les Gueules Cassées” is on the cards) and have undoubtedly helped to form the foundational ethos for CQLP. Yet with CQLP, Chabanne has arrived at a point that perfectly meets the consumer zeitgeist, and the pandemic has helped to accelerate its relevance with consumers and producers looking for ways to attain increased sustainability.

Nicolas Chabanne: “We don’t abuse our values for the sake of commercial gain.”

Chabanne is a natural storyteller. As he articulates the background to CQLP and its future potential, you cannot but feel a sense of excitement and probability that the future will be as he describes. 

His unwavering belief in a shared value system and the collective greater good are compelling. In a capitalist world where individuals have opportunities to maximise commercial opportunities for their own personal benefit, Chabanne views things differently. 

By the end of our conversation, I am convinced that this is not just a clever PR spin. Chabanne is a founder with an overarching belief that, together, the collective can work more creatively and sustainably and that can lead to better outcomes for everyone involved, producers and consumers alike. This view of the world is delivered with such energy and enthusiasm that anyone listening is compelled to engage. 

When a business is deeply rooted in a value chain so connected, transparent and inclusive, it somehow makes sense how you can grow a multimillion-euro business without a business plan or sales team. Expect to see a CQLP product in a shop near you soon.