French group helps SMEs with strategy

 - December 12, 2006, 9:44 AM

Adour Compétitivité (AC), a French association of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), is helping its members in an original way. SMEs often face strategic or organizational problems but do not have the resources necessary to solve them. From its offices in southwestern France, the Pau-based association provides experts to identify problems and find the right specialists to solve them.

About 250 of AC’s 360 members are local industrial firms. “Most of them have between 10 and 100 employees but EADS Socata, Turbomeca and Dassault also are members,” explained project manager Jean-Michel Capdeboscq, one of the association’s five employees. Some 70 percent of AC’s member companies work in aerospace.

AC regularly supports SMEs when they want, for example,  to improve their quality standards to gain a certification, or to reorganize a production process.

The association sometimes has to handle sensitive situations diplomatically. “Once we were tapped to solve an alleged employee motivation issue. It turned out the SME’s boss had reached the limits of his skills after the company had grown and reached a critical size,” Capdeboscq recalled. In that case, the challenge was to gently make the boss aware of his limitations.

Specialized Support

After the initial assessment of a problem, AC’s experts find the right specialist among the group’s second category of members: consulting companies. A third category of members–research laboratories, universities and graduate engineer schools–can provide help in testing and specific developments.

If needed, AC looks for public funding at the local, national or European level. In these cases, the association usually groups together three or four SMEs that have similar problems and processes their applications simultaneously.

Every year, AC helps about 10 SMEs with long-range planning. “We start by listing the company’s characteristics–both advantages and drawbacks–in four fields: production, marketing, human resources and finances,” Capdeboscq explained. AC then works out a summary of the situation and asks each manager for the firm’s objectives for the coming three years. It makes a comparison between the current situation and the objectives, then over the ensuing 18 months AC will support the SME in making the changes it needs to reach its defined targets.

AC gives similar support in human resource management, which can include management coaching, employee training and recruitment. The organization has often been successful working simultaneously on human resources and production organization, Capdeboscq added. It also provides support in quality, safety and environmental performance.

Also noteworthy are AC’s efforts to create partnerships among SMEs. “We are endeavoring to regroup companies in clusters when they belong to the same industrial sector and are geographically close,” Capdeboscq explained. AC is also involved in COAST, a European initiative aimed at developing strategic business partnerships and alliances among companies along the west coast of Europe in Wales, France’s Pyrénées Atlantique region and Spain’s Basque country.

The subscription fee depends on the member company’s revenues. It can vary between €250 and ?2,500 ($308 and $3,075). However, these fees account for only 15 percent of AC’s €1.1 million ($1.35 million) annual revenues. Seventy percent comes from local authorities wanting to support a group of SMEs.