In this exclusive interview, MICHEL LECLERCQ, the founder of DECATHLON, speaks with CHRISTINE MOLLE. DECATHLON is the world’s largest sporting goods retailer, and has over 1,400 sports shops in 47 countries. Michel’s motto for DECATHLON is, “The pleasures and the benefits of sport for the greatest number.”
Q: Bonjour Michel. What would you like to speak about today?
ML: I am more a man of action than reflection. Sometimes I compare myself to Lucky Luke, because I tend to think after I act. But I also like the fact that the company has a vision. Vision feeds on past actions. I can recognize the meaning of my life by looking in the rear view mirror. So, what I see in the mirror of the past I project forward into new projects; I project myself. If a new project makes sense to me, it becomes an additional freedom. If it does not make sense to me, it becomes a constraint. I like to be a free man, so I like it when projects make sense to me. I also like it when the people with whom I am associated in these projects can be free; it is important that the majority of the people who are associated with any project share the meaning of the project. If they share the vision, then they share the “why” and they will be free to invent the “how.” I really like to reflect on how to support as many people as possible to find meaning in their life in their professional activities.
It is important that the majority of the people who are
associated with any project share the meaning of the project.
If they share the vision, then they share the “why”
and they will be free to invent the “how.”
I really like to reflect on how to support as many people as possible
to find meaning in their life in their professional activities.
Q: What values have been important to you in your professional life?
ML: For me sharing is important. The company must bring happiness to people, and for this it is important to share with my collaborators the meaning embodied in the products and in the organizations. The company must be empowering, liberating, as a result of sharing the meaning. And in this I assume the consequences of the decisions I make, and the collaborators too.
A standing man is better than a lying man.
My current conviction is management by meaning, by “why.” Before there was the leader, the referent now is the meaning. It is the embodied sense. If it is embodied by parents, teachers, or bosses, that’s fine, but management by managers is out of date. We have to manage by meaning, by why, not by how (how = money).
Q: You say that business must bring meaning and happiness to people. What do you mean by that? What is happiness for you?
ML: Shared happiness is greatly amplified. Do not confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is fleeting, more superficial. Happiness is a state that lasts.
My definition of happiness is that I live better, and I act in line with the meaning of my life. At that moment I feel happy. While eating chocolate and drinking red wine I have fun, whereas feeling useful to others gives me a lot of happiness. It is what many people have told me in the workshops I have run on meaning in companies, with workers and students: 80 to 90% of the people I meet say they feel happy when they are useful to other people.
If money and shareholder enrichment are the goals of the business, then the business will be built, it will be run, and it will be made up of mercenaries who will obey orders when they have an interest. If the company has a humanistic, generous sense, then the collaborators will have a mission, and then the business will be much more dynamic, creative, and empowering. It will deserve the trust of its users and its customers. And the results will be much better. So the capitalists will find themselves there.
I am wary of saying this, because I risk attracting those cheats who use the search for the common good, ethics, ecology, etc. only to make more money for themselves. That would not be ideal, but it would still be better than using amoral methods like polluting the planet etc., even if the motivation is money.
So I try to testify to this in the workshops that I run, within a framework known as “Happier People” that I created three years ago after retiring. This is the last business I have developed.
Q: In 1961, when you were 22 years old, you worked at Auchan as a butcher. You had stopped studying engineering. What was your motivation?
ML: 40 years ago, large-scale distribution started with the motivation of low prices to give purchasing power to the greatest number of people. It was the need of the time.
I was recruited to Auchan in 1961. The meaning of the company was “to improve the quality of life of the working classes of workers in the factories of Roubaix.”
My uncle Gérard was the President of Auchan, and his son Gérard was the general manager. They both visited very regularly and reminded us of the meaning of what we were doing: “Allow workers and the lower classes in the city of Roubaix to improve their quality of life.” My friends with whom I worked and I were very mobilized by this sentiment. I had a lot of autonomy and responsibilities because the meaning was very clear and I shared it.
Q: In 1976 you opened your first Decathlon store. What led you to do that?
ML: I had been fired! I was made redundant and I succeeded in transforming a difficulty into an opportunity. Suddenly, the second company in which I worked was DECATHLON. At first the meaning was not very explicit, and it had to unfold gradually as the business developed, to as to be able to bring it to life from a distance. And now the meaning is expressed in the phrase “Sport for everyone.” In French, we said: “The pleasures and the benefits of sport for the greatest number.”
The success of DECATHLON is due to this shared sense which allows freedom and autonomy of direction. I do give direction, but from a distance to very autonomous people who know their profession, without micromanaging them: “To allow the pleasures and the benefits of sport for the greatest number,” without applying precise instructions. It gives our people a lot of autonomy and a lot of energy.
When we have a strong sense of the company’s purpose, the rebound is much less difficult because we are not only focused on the “doing” but also on the “why.” If we have difficulties, if we get stuck in the “how,” we find energy through the “why,” which is much more permanent than the how: Why? For whom?
The process of asking why is sometimes difficult, while it is easy to answer, “For whom?” For example, people in internships answer, “So that my children, my wife, and my friends are happy.” This makes it easier to answer this question “why?”
Q: In 1986 you started to design and produce DECATHLON sporting goods. What was your motivation?
ML: It was a strategy, a “how,” but it was still important. I didn’t conceptualize it until afterwards. I’m thinking about it even more right now, because there are struggling companies that are performing worse than before – companies that have lost their soul a little in my opinion. I think money has become far too important in these businesses.
DECATHLON is revived by the “why” conveyed by the products – the meaning is conveyed by the products. Products that are our own brand, designed by us, under responsible subcontracting, convey a why which is specific to the company; they convey a sense of the company.
And it irrigates the whole business like blood. The hormones in my blood irrigate my whole body – my heart, my brain, my energy. The blood of the company are our products. It travels throughout, from the reception docks to the shipping docks to the checkout counters in our stores.
Employees who handle cigarettes will not have the same mindset as employees who put soccer balls on shelves, because cigarettes are harmful whereas soccer balls are beneficial products. As a result, our employees have more sustainable energy, to manufacture, to transport, to present on the shelves, and to dispatch to the warehouse, because they are working with soccer balls and not cigarettes. This is what I try to testify about in the workshops about “Happier people.”
Q: What do you think is most important in today’s world?
ML: I don’t want to talk about the world today, as my responsibility is these companies and those who work in the companies. I have ideas about the world today, but I don’t have the expertise to talk about it.
I hope that, by my action, DECATHLON has a beneficial influence on those who work there and on the environment, its customers, and shareholders.
If the collaborators, the customers, the users of the products, the environment, the citizens who are around the sites of establishment are winners, the company will have excellent results and the shareholders in turn will be winners. My belief is that shareholders should come last, not first, otherwise it’s called a financialized company and, in the long run, it doesn’t interest employees to work there.
Q: What have been your inner resources? How have you kept your balance?
ML: The etymology of motivation comes from same root as motor, or action. I’m someone in action – not for myself, but for others. I like to help others. For example, I am a heterodidact – I learn from others rather than being self-taught.
Q: What vision do you have for the future of companies facing the challenges of global warming?
ML: At DECATHLON, sustainability and global warming have a huge influence on the employees I meet. For example, spraying of cotton causes pollution, uses a lot of water etc. There is a collective consciousness that is being created. Global warming will also have positive consequences, depending on the country. We look at what is happening, and the opportunities for rebound. We look to difficulty as a source of progress. We are working on it intensively.
Q: What place does family have in your life?
ML: 100%, everything. These various aspects of a person’s life are not added, they have a multiplying effect. A person who is happy in their personal life will also be happy in their professional life and vice versa. There’s no opposition. You shouldn’t sacrifice one for the other.
Q: You are 80 years old and you have started a new business, a training center. Can you tell us your motivation?
ML: It is a training center so that more people can be happier.
It’s a direction, not a target, not a goal. Happiness is not quantifiable. How to find the meaning of life in our professional activities? Shared happiness is amplified. Pleasure is different from happiness. Pleasure is more fleeting, more superficial. Happiness lasts. I invented a definition that suits me: “I live better, I act in line with the meaning of my life, so I feel happy.”
Q: What would you say to young people today?
ML: To try to make your environment and their friends happier. May all the people around you be happy.
Q: What words of wisdom would you like to share?
ML: I’m not a sage, that’s not my thing. I can just say that money should not be the goal of any business. What seems important to me is love – love for the other. It’s always been the way of the world. What’s important does not change. It is acting for the good of the other, not just wishing for it.
Q: Thank you for your openness and for this moment of sharing.
Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL
Interviewed by CHRISTINE MOLLE
July 30, 2020
July 30, 2020
July 30, 2020