Perpetuating success with a product-based business model for over a century is an incredible achievement. However, even such a well-established business has the difficult task of continually adapting to a marketplace in flux while not losing sight of its fundamentals.
Charles Alland of Alland and Robert, a family business with a 134-year history, is a sixth generation family member tasked with finding such a balance. His position is unique in that his business’ primary product, acacia gum, has been their mainstay since the company was founded in 1884. Needless to say, the industry has changed significantly since then.
Alland and Robert began when French chemists Francisque Alland and Alfred Robert formalised business arrangements to import acacia gum from Africa. In 1967, René Alland bought out the Robert family, to preserve tradition the Robert name was kept in place.
When Charles’ father Frédéric Alland took over as CEO in 1984, he accelerated the process of internationalisation. Now, as the company prepares for succession, Alland and Robert must look to emerging markets and innovative applications for their product.
Recently Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Charles to discuss the company’s history, the transition of power and the future of his family’s business.
From the very beginning, acacia gum has been instrumental in Alland and Robert’s success. Can you give us some background on its use?
You come into contact with acacia gum every day – generally in food and drink where it’s applied as an emulsifier or encapsulation. It’s completely organic. Acacia trees are tapped, and the tree exudate or hardened sap is collected, that’s it, and by no means is it a new a product. The Ancient Egyptians used acacia gum to adhere the wrapping to their mummies. This is not our primary focus today, but it’s really important we invest in understanding some of these uses as well. Honestly, it’s taken a lot of time and effort to fully appreciate the various applications of acacia gum and it’s truly an extraordinary product.
As an international business that relies heavily on product supply, how do you ensure continuous access?
Sourcing is the most essential part of our business. Because it’s a natural product, we must contend with the environment – there are good seasons and bad, and it’s not just the physical environment, further complications arise when you consider the socio-political landscape of Africa’s Sahel region. We can mitigate these factors because we have strong ties with our suppliers. Some of these relationships date back to 1884, and we have photographs of my great-grandfather in Sudan at that time to prove it.
We’re heavily invested in those suppliers, and we try to make sure they have the resources they need for success when it comes to supplying the gum but also in sourcing labour. Acacia gum is a primary source of income for millions of Africans – tapping and collecting the tree exudate is a traditional way of life for many farmers.
Representing the sixth generation of a family business is an incredible achievement. How has the company survived the changing business landscape of the last 134 years?
All the credit goes to the previous generations of my family. Over the years, markets, trends and the way we do business has changed drastically. Flexibility is key – if you’re only doing what you’ve done before, you’re not moving forward and you’re going to lose market share. Open-mindedness is another important asset.
Alland and Robert conducts business in almost every part of the world. How have you found success on so many fronts when other family businesses struggle to internationalise.
First of all, this wasn’t always the case – it was my father that led our global expansion efforts. He took over after a period of difficulty for Alland and Robert and immediately decided to focus almost entirely on acacia gum. All of a sudden, we started doing 95% of our business internationally and now, all of our major centres are overseas. We still have some old bases in France, but those are more historical.
What was it like for you to join the business? Is that something that you knew you were going to do growing up or was it unexpected?
I wouldn’t say it was unexpected. About a year and a half ago my father asked if I wanted to join the business and I told him I’d be delighted. That said, we were always immersed in the culture of the family business – Alland and Robert is inseparable from the Alland family. I’m honoured and incredibly grateful for the opportunity and I will do everything in my power to further develop the business.
Are there other sixth generation family members working alongside you today?
It’s just me at the moment, but I’m very pleased to say my sister Anne-Sophie will be joining us in September. The company is continuously growing, and we are all busy which is a good problem to have. Alland and Robert is evolving but at the same time, we’re being careful not to lose sight of our core business priorities.
How do you feel it’s going in terms of the process of succession?
I think it’s going very well. It comes down to effective communication and compartmentalisation – things need to be kept separate when it comes to the family and the business and thankfully, we’ve all been well prepared. The employees know it’s a family business and they understand that my sister and I will have a say in its future. It’s important to speak up not just when things are going well but also when they aren’t.
The aim of succession is not to replicate the past but to get a new perspective on the present – it’s about bringing new strengths and aptitudes to the business. My father went through the same process when he succeeded my grandfather and learned from it. He’s utilising that experience now.
When my sister joins us this fall, it will be an adjustment for sure, but it’s going to be a positive change. The success of Alland and Robert is founded on the involvement and opinions of all of its parts. I look forward to talking to my sister about different projects and finding collaborative solutions moving forward.
What does the future have in store in terms of research and development for Alland and Robert?
You’ll have to understand if I don’t share everything. What I can say is that we’ve been investing a lot of money in product development. We have a partnership with the University of Montpellier in France and researchers there are tirelessly working towards finding innovative applications for acacia gum. Also, we’re currently exploring the trend for organic and vegan products as it’s a very exciting prospective market and in fact, we already see this reflected in our sales. Alland and Robert as a company is agile, flexible and open-minded. I believe family businesses have the potential to move much faster than non-family firms.
When you think about the next five to ten years, what is your greatest wish for Alland and Robert?
I wish to see growth. We’re trying to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, not just replicate what they’re doing. Hopefully, in doing so, Alland and Robert will continue to thrive.