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La Petite Bretonne: 50 Years of Innovation

08 August 2016 by National Bank
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Serge Bohec has been in business since 1966, but refuses to rest on his laurels. At La Petite Bretonne, innovation is much more than a buzzword—it’s a state of mind.

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Photo: courtesy of La Petite Bretonne

Serge Bohec was only 16 years old when he started his first business—a bakery specializing in French madeleines, small, shell-shaped sponge cakes. Six months after arriving in Quebec, the young Breton started making this traditional French treat in the basement of his family’s home.

Fifty years later, he is president and director general of La Petite Bretonne, a business that employs 180 people and produces 1.2 million micro croissants every day. Mr. Bohec distributes his products to some 3,000 outlets across Canada, the United States and the Caribbean. He credits his success to his ability to adapt and innovate.

Innovate to survive

For an entrepreneur, innovation is a matter of survival and Mr. Bohec uses the word to describe all the major business decisions he’s made over the years. Automating the production of micro croissants and chocolatines (chocolate-filled buns) in the Blainville facility is a prime example: “We won awards for our products but we had many employees,” he recalls. “That’s not a contest that I wanted to win. We needed 40 people to hand-turn the croissants—it was expensive, the repetitive motion caused problems with tendinitis and our staff was too large. Now, with 11 employees, we can produce 50,000 per hour and about the same number of mini chocolatines.”

To achieve these levels of production, Serge Bohec designed both the production lines and the machines, which he had built in Europe. Although he has no training in engineering, “I kept at it until I got it to work,” he explains. Automating production achieved many goals, including offering more challenging jobs, declares the company’s CEO. “Operating a machine is more interesting than doing manual work,” he explains. “Many of our employees are happier with their jobs now and we are able to pay them better. As a result, it’s easier to find workers and our employees are more likely to stay with us longer—some have been here for 35 years!”

Serge Bohec says he doesn’t understand why a manufacturer would resist automation. “Maybe they’re afraid of taking on too much debt,” he speculates, “but these purchases are wise investments. The equipment pays for itself over time through increased productivity. When it comes to mass production, automation is what enables a business to survive.”

Evolution and specialization

That survival instinct inspired Serge Bohec to develop La Petite Bretonne’s best-known product: micro croissants. Creating a fluffy pastry rather than the multi-layered version common in Europe appealed more to the North American palate. Added bonus: the micro croissants stay fresher longer.

Continually improving the company’s products remains key to La Petite Bretonne’s success. “You have to analyze current trends and adapt appropriately,” Mr. Bohec states. “That’s what we did when trans fats were banned, for instance. We updated our recipes.”

A dozen years ago, the entrepreneur chose to abandon several product lines and focus on the company’s top sellers: croissants and chocolatines at the Blainville facility, and cookies at the Joliette facility. “It’s impossible to be the best at everything,” he admits. “Better to concentrate on a few products and make them the best that they can be.” According to the CEO of La Petite Bretonne, innovation often comes via specialization.

Learn to delegate

“My employees are my greatest source of pride,” boasts Serge Bohec. La Petite Bretonne workers launch and lead initiatives to fine-tune recipes and production processes, and propose improvements for everything from marketing strategies to IT systems.

The entrepreneur learned to delegate responsibilities after the death of his wife Michèle in 1988. “I had two young children to raise and a business to run,” he recalls. “The experience taught me that I needed to change the way that I work; I learned to develop trusting relationships with employees and to assign them important tasks.”

Serge Bohec credits the new approach—and his ability to stick with it—for the business’ profitability. “In retrospect, it was easy to delegate,” he says. “It’s a matter of accepting that things might be done differently and absorbing the costs associated with mistakes made along the way. I find it hard to accept the errors sometimes, but that’s part of being an entrepreneur. After all, I make mistakes—why would my employees be any different?”

In business, Serge Bohec says it’s a matter of forging ahead without fear. “We can change direction and adapt,” he concludes confidently, “but we can never give up. Never.”

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