Alexandra Grandpierre, Director of POK SAS, tells International Fire Buyer about her time at the company, and how they are looking to expand their workforce
How long have you worked at POK?
I joined the family business in 2012 as Managing Director. I brought my manufacturing experience from the USA, Germany, and the UK, which has proven to be very useful today.
The reason I came to POK is that I’ve always wanted to do something of my own. So after working for several employers, I decided to look for a product to manufacture and to sell. I wrote down the ground rules for a product I could stand behind.
The last question I asked was, “Would Richard Branson invest in it?” It needed to have all the elements of the perfect industry. It needed to be a product that people would recommend, something relevant and useful. It needed to be customisable, capable of handling special requests, and, ideally, something very technical, requiring constant innovation. Finally, it should be ethical. It had to be something that I would be very proud of.
My partner pointed out: “Alexandra, you just described the products of POK! Why not move back to France?” So I joined the family business in Nogent-Sur-Seine. What I found there was better than I could have imagined. We have fantastic manufacturing facilities: A machine workshop filled with Mazak tools, a mounting shop, a hose reel factory, and a welding shop. POK manufactures fire-fighting products developed for the entire planet: hand nozzles, monitors, wyes, fittings of every size and kind. Best of all, all profits are always re-invested in the technology and research and development, which is the recipe for a long lasting business!
What is your background?
I studied electrical engineering at Rouen University in France. I spent my last year as an exchange student in the USA at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I should have stayed one year but remained five to complete my Masters’ and my PhD thanks to a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. After that, I found an excellent job at Infineon, an electronic chip manufacturer in Germany. I am half German so the language is not an issue for me. Working in Germany in a six sigma, improvement-driven environment was essential in order to experience the ‘quality’ culture. This experience applied to POK means that I will ensure that the quality manager has high-level input in production processes — that quality has priority.
I also learned a great deal about communication, being involved in technology transfer. So when I want to make sure someone understands what I’ve said, I ask questions! It’s a good way to check for understanding. Projects often fail because of a poor communication.
I spent a lot of time in clean rooms improving processes with operators. I was impressed by the high level of expertise at our ground shop. I’m sure this is because we used an assessment centre for recruiting. And the fact that Germans tend to be very well educated. At POK, we give multiple tests before we hire anyone because we only want to work with the best!
I also went back to school for an MSc degree in management. I chose the London School of Economics because of the history of the English with the workforce which is very fascinating. My scientific background made it challenging to be forced to consider shades of grey. Most of all, I learned the importance of being consistent. A good organisation has consistent processes. After that, I worked for two other UK-based companies.
What is your biggest challenge at POK?
In my first few months, adjusting to the French mentality was difficult. I accepted many things when I first started that I no longer tolerate today. I’ve definitely gotten more demanding. For example, we are slowly changing to better suppliers.
Initially, I proposed changes, I listened, I even warned, but I when I saw no improvement, I began to implement positive changes. The result is, we’ve all seen that it is possible to get what we want! This, of course, is a never-ending process. So, now, when I hear that I’m too tough, I just take it as a compliment! Probably, if I were a man, nobody would care.
My biggest challenge today is finding planning time for staying ahead of the game because I must still spend time in production and shake hands with hundreds of staff members. I’ve acquired a consultant to help me with this every Thursday morning. It’s a bit like getting slapped in the face because it’s a constant reminder to do things now – in this lifetime and not wait for the next. Fortunately, we are a ‘flat’ organisation – a family business. So we can make decisions very quickly.
However as with any project, they only move forward if you place the right people on them. For example, to increase our market share abroad, we need more English speaking people. I recently offered a marketing position to an excellent lady from California who will move to Nogent-Sur-Seine in May. One of her goals will be to speak English each day to all of us. I would like for our official language to become English. Last year in 2014, we did more sales abroad than in France and this trend will only increase.
What types of people are you hiring?
You can see several profiles are listed in the career section of our website, though that’s only part of what we need. We need sales staff members in our Nogent-Sur-Seine factory which are technical and speak French, English, German, Spanish, and/or Portuguese. We also need French and English speaking trainers to demonstrate equipment on the field and teach our staff and distributors abroad. They will also need to promote our new products. It’s not an easy task as we launch two new products per week, and there’s a constant need to keep people trained and current.
We are looking worldwide for active country managers or consultants who are experts in hydraulics and fire-fighting to give technical support to our distributors in USA, India, UAE, and other places.
We’re seeking technicians in mechanical engineering to work in our research and development office. We need to expand our current staff of eight which is responsible for inventing new products and improving the existing ones. This team has to respond to our clients’ needs and see that each country gets the latest appropriate products. Here, English is essential and speaking German would be a plus.
We’re also creating a small unit that focuses exclusively on products that will be needed a number of years from now.
I will soon be planning for our new factory of remote controlled monitors which we intend to start building this year. Additionally, we’ll need a quality officer, team leaders and professional mechanics for the mounting shop. We’ll need experts in electronics and automation to make the next generation of remote controlled monitors and offer sales assistance.
We need a full-time translator for technical documents in French, English, German, and Spanish. We have enough work for a full-time web designer. We need a junior statistician to prepare our marketing material. Several individuals will retire in a few years and we need to find their protégé’s now. So we must continually recruit.
What motivates you to move forward?
I am passionate about our business. My father managed to build a beautiful business that is working well. And I love our people. When I was young, I spent very little time with my father. Now I’m really getting to know him. Working with him is like an incredible adventure. He lives for the business and is gifted at sharing his passion.
I get personal satisfaction when users thank us for the quality of the products and fast delivery time. I want to help anyone using our products and I can do so by continuously improving our business and making sure it has a great future.
Seeing our staff’s devotion to our family business also motivates me. My job is to make things happen, to bring all of us the tools to do our tasks the best we can. We encourage anyone who shares our values to send a proposal and resume to POK.
What are these values?
Well, one thing you’ll rarely hear us say is, “That is not possible,” because we love challenges. Money is no excuse for delays.
If a client needs something in one day which usually takes a week, we spare little expense to meet that need. Our staff understands this well because it’s deeply rooted in our culture. If a client needs a new product in a month that other companies require six months to develop, we’ll make it as good we can within their deadline. We never give up.
This comparison may not be appropriate, but a fireman fighting a severe fire doesn’t give up if he knows there may be a living person trapped inside. He’ll go straight in, and let his intuition and expertise tell him what to do to come out alive. That probably sounds crazy to outsiders, but it’s simply courage and love for achievement–the feeling that you have a mission to fulfil. This is the core value that my father transmitted to everyone in the business.
Another value is to exceed a client’s expectation. My German experience helps me to enforce that. We need to be better than yesterday. It’s OK to make a mistake if you learn from it and you don’t let it happen again. But our goal is excellence. Some products may not be as technical as others, but we need the same standard of excellence for manufacturing all products. Every detail counts.
I have incredible energy to bring to POK and to share with anyone who wants to work with us. So if you’d like to meet me personally, stop by FDIC 2015 Booth 3377 and Intersec 2015 Hall 23, stand 43.