Every Monday, Nancy Simoneau meets with her chief engineer at her office in Boucherville, Quebec. The President of Groupe Simoneau tells him about an idea that could improve the industrial boilers the company manufactures and maintains.
She is not surprised if her engineer’s reply is less than enthusiastic. “What you’re asking for won’t work,” she has often heard.
But their discussion does not stop there. “There’s something in your proposal I’m going to look at. We’ll see where it goes,” the chief engineer goes on.
Then he comes back with a suggestion to improve the products or processes.
This scene has repeated itself numerous times over the past few years. “Sometimes my requests are completely ridiculous. But in being a bit far-fetched, I come up with an idea that can be converted into an innovation,” Simoneau says. “I’m not an engineer. But I have always pushed my engineering team by telling them: “You can do better.”
The result of these meetings? The company produces more compact and more efficient industrial boilers, an innovation that has fuelled the continuous growth of the firm of 85 employees. Its sales now total nearly $20 million, compared to $200,000 about twenty years ago.
It was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that brought Nancy Simoneau to the head of the company that her father, René Simoneau, had founded in 1984.
She had worked there for 12 years, and a transition process had begun in April, 2001. Her father’s plan had been to entrust her with complete responsibility for the company in 2006.
“The events of September 11 were a triggering factor for my father,” Simoneau says. “He reacted by coming to see me the same day to say: ‘The time has come to make your own mark. I’m leaving.’”
A university graduate in accounting and management, Ms. Simoneau had tried her hand at just about everything before becoming President of Groupe Simoneau. “I had been in purchasing, quality assurance and accounting, among other departments. I knew every position in the company,” she says. “But with my father’s departure, I had lost my mentor. I felt all alone.”
At that time, the company only looked after industrial boiler maintenance.
Simoneau decided to partner with an engineering firm and started producing her own boilers.
But the transition was a long and difficult process. “The main challenge consisted of maintaining the confidence of employees, suppliers, customers and the bank—all in an industry traditionally reserved for men,” she recalls.
Different generations have different visions. Simoneau had to establish her own management style, which differed from her father’s. Some long-time employees challenged her. “They said: ‘Your father wouldn’t have done it this way.’ So I had to have the courage to tell them: ‘I’m in charge now.’ ”
Gradually, Ms. Simoneau bought out all her father’s shares. She started selling boilers in North America, South America, Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, she was raising three children, who are now 14, 16 and 20 years of age.
Her sister Maud, 34, joined the family business in 1997. For the past two years, she has been Director of Operations. “Maud is very comfortable in her job, and this leads me to believe she’s ready for another challenge,” Nancy Simoneau says. “I want her to be fit for running the company if I have to be absent.”
Innovation is crucial for the company. “We are in a very conservative field. A boiler is one of the oldest machines in the world, one that hasn’t been reconsidered very much. At Groupe Simoneau, we’re calling virtually everything into question. That’s what innovation means for us.”
- Find a coach to guide and advise you throughout the transition.
- Establish your management style, be consistent in your decisions and let them be known clearly.
- Surround yourself with people who have complementary experience.
- Innovate constantly to stand out from the competition. Stimulate your employees’ creativity.
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