The European leader in automatic pool cleaners with a high level of service, Hexagone Manufacture is accelerating its development and is now targeting the American and Chinese markets, driven by the belief that robots are only useful for helping people.
A niche… in a niche market
A wonderful friendship was behind the creation of Hexagone Manufacture. When a friend of his was looking for an idea to create a business, Richard Chouraqui advised him to look at the niche market that is automatic swimming pool cleaners. Hexagone Manufacture was thus founded in 1987. In the early 2000s, the company was facing serious problems. In 2002, Yoann Chouraqui, 30 year old entrepreneur acquired a stake and became joint head of the company.
It worked perfectly, as Hexagone Manufacture’s fortunes recovered in spectacular fashion with revenue increasing from €300,000 to €2.5 million by 2006. Convinced of the company’s potential, Yoann decided to acquire his partner’s stake and set his mind on conquering Europe with increasingly high-tech robots. “We currently generate annual revenue of €10 million, have 7 European subsidiaries and our products are distributed in 54 countries around the world”, says Yoann Chouraqui.
Before conquering the world, an essential repositioning strategy
Olympic pools in Rio, London, Beijing,… Hexagone Manufacture has references that would make many of its competitors green with envy, but Yoann Chouraqui keeps a level head and looks at how far they have come. “When I took over the business, I knew immediately that our growth would require us to go global and innovate. But before embarking on that, we needed to ensure that we had reliable products that could meet the most stringent requirements so that they could become an indisputable reference on the market”. This factor was all the more important given that the company works almost exclusively with local authorities. “We’re on a niche segment of a niche market, with a duty to guarantee our clients a level of service close to 100%. When a facility has to temporarily close because of a technical issue, it is always taken very badly by users.
To increase our market share, we have innovated not just in terms of our products, but also in terms of our marketing methods. Instead of selling equipment, we offer local authorities leasing contracts associated with service contracts that cover the product’s entire life cycle. If a product breaks down, we’re on site within hours”. With a selling point like this, local authorities rapidly came onboard, and 25% of public swimming baths in France are under contract – a market share of 65% – and 30% of European pools that belong to local authorities use devices supplied by the company. Indeed the company has just received the Innovation Award from the French Mayors Association.
Very high R&D investments
From an innovation standpoint, Hexagone Manufacture has serious advantages that are continually strengthened with over 10% of revenue devoted to R&D. “We have incorporated a new type of intelligence within our robots, which can clean a 25 metre swimming pool in just 45 minutes, compared to 5 hours with traditional equipment”. What about the impact on jobs? “Despite what many people think, the impact is neutral.
As we explain to our clients, our robots save technicians time that they can devote to taking water samples and undertaking more technical and rewarding work instead: our devices alter the person’s duties without jeopardising their job. As a business boss and a citizen, I am very sensitive to the issue of the impact technology is having on employment. For me, a robot is only appealing if it removes a task that is repetitive, arduous or dangerous for employees.
Acceleration strengthened by a broad range of expertise
Hexagone Manufacture is in the midst of an acceleration phase, and this first and foremost requires new offers. In line with its societal commitments, the company has developed specific equipment for people with limited mobility. “It’s very important for us to enable everybody, despite a disability, to have access to a swimming pool. We therefore quite simply transformed this belief into a new offer, and we are the leading company in France and number 2 in Europe for our mobile systems for lowering people into the water”. Hexagone Manufacture has also just launched a world first: a robot capable of cleaning both artificial turf and gymnasiums. “By taking our device away from the pool, we have opened up a major potential market with market share to win in the United States and China. I’ve just been on a trip to these two countries, and initial contacts are proving to be very positive”.
The company now has to meet the challenge of its growth, and to achieve this it has opted for independence driven by the adoption of new skills. “I could bring an investor in, but I prefer to remain independent in order to preserve our heritage: I have three children, and want to maintain their ability to eventually take over the business from me”. In terms of expertise, Hexagone Manufacture is looking to strengthen its teams by recruiting talented new staff. “Today, we need to expand our senior management with professionals who have acquired substantial experience within major corporations. Many like the idea of joining an industrial SME that will provide them with an opportunity to pursue their ideas via short decision cycles. We are also eager to have highly-motivated employees in every field”.
To recruit them, the company is prioritising know-how and attitude over CVs. “I look at a person’s energy and enthusiasm. They must want to move forward with us and know how to communicate with and listen to others. I also look to the expertise of other business bosses as well as those in charge of public bodies like the BPI, whose accelerator and excellence programme we have recently joined. This interaction enhances our thought process”.
To attract new clients and talented staff, Yoann Chouraqui is also banking on the sharing of strong beliefs. “We support, for example, Because International through its ‘The Shoe that Grows’ initiative”. This NGO’s ambition is to provide children – notably in Africa – with sandals that will grow with them, rather than giving them new pairs of shoes as they grow. “It’s both ingenious and pragmatic; precisely our positioning”.
In this respect, Africa represents one of Hexagone’s markets with clients in Northern African countries, in Angola, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Benin and in South Africa. “However, the market is not very developed because of a combination of a poor level of public facilities and low labour costs that is not, as yet, inciting authorities to invest in automated systems”.
Robots are only useful for helping people.
Yoann Chouraqui, CEO of Hexagone
The key role of a banking partner
To accompany Hexagone Manufacture’s growth, Yoann Chouraqui is also counting on banks, and in particular on Societe Generale. “In February, I got the opportunity to meet Frédéric Oudéa at the TOP 2019 event, a speed-meeting between bosses of large corporations and those of small and mid-sized businesses organised by the Group. For me, it’s a strong signal that shows the attention it pays to all its clients, including SMEs like us”. And there is a wonderful story behind this relationship with Societe Generale.
“I had a project to acquire premises. In the car park, a neighbour who’s an entrepreneur introduced me to their account manager. I told him about my leasing requirements, and a couple of hours later I received an offer, which I accepted. We’ve been working closely ever since. I found a level of responsiveness and professionalism at Societe Generale that made me want to have a close working relationship with them”. In that relationship, Yoann appreciates the expertise of his contacts at the bank. “The bank provides me with high-quality and reactive bank staff while helping me with my internationalisation strategy”.
Driver of the future
Yoann Chouraqui is looking to the future via a major driver: technology. “To succeed, businesses will increasingly have to respond to new technology from a triple standpoint. Innovate with solutions that provide users with substantial value, know how to efficiently manage the enormous flow of data they have access to, and define then proficiently steer their infrastructure networks, notably in the field of computer-integrated manufacturing.
We are thus in the midst of a genuine industrial revolution”.