Where the Puck is Going to Be

Lessons in innovation from the French Postal Service
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Lessons in innovation from the French Postal Service

Being the chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association does not provide many financial perks; however, my experience has been life changing. Both personally and professionally, I have learned and experienced more than I could have ever dreamed.

This has helped me tremendously as my company navigates its evolution out of what I consider to be a dead end of simply selling specialty audio/video products. I feel strongly about the fact that the specialty audio/video industry in its current form will likely never regain the momentum it had a decade ago. I refuse to be a victim in any part of my life- especially my business. I have never blamed the economy, competition or bad luck for anything that has not gone right. My company is constantly searching for opportunities to evolve and I am pleased to report we are having a terrific year. I am especially energized by the state of our industry including the opportunities that lie ahead.

That brings me to my recent trip to CES Unveiled in Paris. As I fly over the Atlantic and write this article, I am reminded how lucky I am. One of the great perks I receive for being the Chairman of the CEA is that i get exposed to the best and brightest innovators from all over the world. I get to meet and get to know some incredible people. Many of which I have the fortune to now call friends. The people I meet are innovators, leaders and people that literally change the world.

I was invited to have a private dinner with Phillipe Wahl, Chairman/CEO and Nathalie Collin, Deputy CEO (Executive VP equivalent in the US) of the second largest company in France- La Poste, the French postal system. France's postal system is akin to our United States Postal System.

I don't set my agenda during travel with CEA and when I received my schedule I was a bit surprised to see such a meeting. On the Uber ride with CEA's CEO Gary Shapiro, I expressed my confusion as to why we were meeting with La Poste and simply believed they wanted Gary's advice or consultation on various initiatives or shipping strategies for the consumer electronics industry. However that was not the case.

The affable and charismatic head of La Poste along with his equally impressive Deputy CEO laid out for us a bold and dynamic plan to evolve the postal service of France into an innovation hub. Taking their 285,000 employees to create a de facto technology gateway for all of France in their daily interaction with French citizens as well as an ability to reach all over Europe. Their plan includes leveraging the trusted postman to develop a relationship inside the home. Immediately, I realized we were not there to offer input or insight, but rather to listen to the ambitious and bold plans.

La Poste has been around for 439 years, stuck with deep traditions and now facing head winds as we reach the end of "snail mail". Mr. Wahl, a former banker, took the reins at La Poste in 2013. He understood that on a date in the near future, there will be no more letters to deliver. La Poste's threats include: declining revenue from legacy services, increasing competition, rising wages and no sound way to cut expenses fast enough. He took immediate action, realizing he needed something new. He put in place many initiatives that are still evolving- expanding the shipping service throughout Europe, offering business services (payroll, accounting, etc.) to small businesses, becoming competitive and transparent in package delivery, buying 90,000 smart tablets for their carriers- opening all sorts of possibilities for expanded services and many more initiatives to evolve his company. He hired Ms. Collin, a former music executive to head up the digital evolution and take the postal service in an entirely new direction. La Poste is on the verge of growing exponentially in services and are taking the IoT opportunity very seriously. While I don’t feel comfortable sharing details from our dinner, I will tell you that La Poste's plans surround leveraging the face-to-face daily interactions between those 285,000 trusted employees and millions of people all over Europe.

The details of what Mr. Wahl revealed is not important to this article. What is important is the bold and honest approach he took towards a business that would otherwise be facing extinction. He was able to see what others didn't. He skillfully took inventory of its businesses, its assets, its people and made moves. He understood the challenges and the existential threat La Poste faced. But he didn’t run from them. He made the biggest challenges the foundation for a turnaround. He engaged with CES by sending his people to events, supporting innovative initiatives, utilizing research, learning from member companies, and showing up. Mr. Wahl is acutely aware that in order for La Poste to be successful, they must align with the CES and the innovation platform. Even though my business is not directly affected by these initiatives, I could not help but get excited with the enthusiasm by which these executives spoke of their plans.

Mr. Wahl was a successful banker prior to him being tapped for the top job at La Poste. I doubt he had any financial need to assume the role. He accepted the position because he saw what others did not- a chance to be an innovator of the IoT evolution. He never once blamed the challenging circumstances he found himself inheriting. He wasn't a victim. He had clear vision of where his company needed to go, the energy to motivate its employees and customers to get there.

Listening to Mr. Wahl, I was reminded of Wayne Gretsky's famous quote: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." Mr. Wahl isn't dwelling on what happened. He has a clear vision of where his industry is headed and what he needs to do to be successful. I am not qualified to judge whether these bold moves will work or whether Mr. Wahl will be successful in the breadth of all that he shared with us. He is, however, an inspiration to me and how all businesses should be examined.

The world is changing, evolving, innovating all around us at speeds we have never seen. One thing is for sure -- if you are practicing old methods and strategies that are not successful, then they certainly won’t be successful in the future. If the second largest company in France, with its 285,000 employees can be innovators, surely we can find the innovative spirit in each of us.

Daniel Pidgeon is a principal of Dallas-based retailer Starpower and the chairman of the board of the Consumer Electronics Association.


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