The three most powerful French business women

Further confirmation of women ascending to the top positions at the world’s most successful family businesses was confirmed this week with the appointment of Sophie Bellon to the chairmanship of the French food services and facilities management group, Sodexo.

Sodexo is huge. Last year, it had revenues of €19.8 billion and employed more than 400,000 people - making it the 19th biggest employer in the world. Founded in 1966, by Sophie’s father, Pierre Bellon, Sodexo has been one of France’s most successful companies.

But Sophie is by no means a rarity at the top of hugely successful family businesses in France. Indeed, the country is increasingly becoming an exemplar when it comes to women in senior posts at family businesses. Recently, FamilyCapital wrote about Carol Duval-Leroy, the head of one of the great champagne houses, Duval-Leroy. Here’s profiles of three others...

Sophie Bellon, 54, chairwoman of Sodexo

Pierre’s eldest daughter, Sophie was educated at EDHEC Business School in Lille. She spent ten years working outside of the family business before joining, including as an investment banker for Crédit Lyonnais in New York, and then as a fashion buyer. She joined Sodexo in 1994. Sophie’s father made it clear that progression within the business wasn’t guaranteed because of her fortune of birth. As she recalled in an interview with the French media a while back: “When I joined my father told me: ‘If you’re good you will progress, but if you’re not, you will not stay'.” It didn’t take long for her to prove herself, rising through the ranks and taking on various positions in finance and client relations, before becoming vice chairwoman of Sodexo, and then taking over from her father in January 2016.

The family own 38% of the economic shares of Sodexo and the majority of the voting shares. Recently, family members signed an agreement stopping current family owners and future generations to sell their shares outside of the family for at least fifty years. Sodexo looks to be safe in family hands for years to come, giving Sophie plenty of time to make her mark on the business.

Marie-Christine Coisne-Roquette, 65, chairwoman of Sonepar

A lawyer by training, Marie-Christine is chairwoman of a family business few people have heard of - Sonepar. The world’s biggest distributor of electrical products, Sonepar had revenues of more than €17 billion in 2015. Like Sophie, Marie-Christine spent time in the US before joining the family business, which traces its history back more than 150 years when it was started by her great, great grandfather as a partnership between the Coisne and Lambert families. After joining Sonepar full-time in 1988, Marie-Christine led the expansion into many new markets, and driving up revenues at the same time. She became chairwoman in 1998 and chief executive in 2002, the latter position she has since handed over to a non-family member, but remains executive chairman. Her achievements of managing the governance difficulties associated with a fifth generation family business with more than 50 shareholders have also been acclaimed.

Dominique Heriard Dubreuil, 69, former chairwoman, still sits on the board

Dominique might have stepped down as chairwoman of the the family business Rémy Cointreau a few years ago, but not before leaving a lasting legacy. Under her leadership, Dominique turned the heavily indebted drinks business into a highly successful multinational company. She still sits on the board of the family business, which traces its history back to the early 18th century, but in more recent years is a result of a merger in 1990 of two family businesses - E. Rémy Martin and Cointreau.