Over the decades, French services giant Sodexo has been transforming itself. Known to many as a catering firm, which may have provided you with meals at school, Sodexo nowadays is about much more than feeding the world's employees and students.
The corporation’s chairwoman, Sophie Bellon, told students during a recent visit to Ecole Hôteliere de Lausanne that although catering still represents 70 percent of the business, it is only one part – albeit a major one – of the “on-site services” it provides to clients in public and private corporations, hospitals, schools and universities, stadiums, museums, army bases, mines and oil rigs and yes, even prisons.
Its other two business lines are ‘benefits and rewards’, offering employee incentivization solutions, and ‘personal and home services’, which includes childcare and homecare for seniors.
In fact, the group is seeing faster growth in non-food services than in its traditional catering services, insists Bellon.
We know them, understand them, and we are close to them, so we are in a very good position to understand what they need and propose other services: concierge services, cleaning services, technical services, gardening, reception....
Overall, Sodexo operates across 33,000 sites in 80 countries, serving a staggering 100 million consumers.
In sum, she says, it’s “a people business, with people taking care of other people through the entirety of their lives.”
A people business which, despite becoming the number one French private employer worldwide and a leading global service provider with consolidated revenues of 20.7 billion euros, has focused on ‘quality of life’, a term which though almost overused today, was absolutely 'visionary' half a century ago when Bellon’s father founded the company. “He wanted to be a service business and he also wanted to be a business that was going to improve the quality of life of his employees, his clients, and the people that they were going to serve.”
Employees are “the key to our success”, explains Bellon. There are currently some 450,000 worldwide. “Engagement within our teams is key because we’re convinced that if our teams are happy then they are going to make the consumer happy. And it's also going to drive their performance. So we absolutely want to make sure that our employees are engaged.”
Employee engagement – comprising of employee recognition, diversity, and development – is a key performance indicator at Sodexo, measured every two years in an internal survey.
With a 20 percent improvement over the past 20 years, employee engagement stands at 69 percent and the company's 2025 goal is 80 percent. (In contrast, a Gallup Poll study in 2013 of 142 countries found that only 13 percent of employees worldwide felt they were engaged at work).
Diversity is another CSR initiative that Sodexo takes very seriously. “We don't just do it to be nice or to be a good company. We do it because we are going to perform better and be more innovative,” Bellon says. With a gender-balanced board and a global taskforce called SWIFt (Sodexo Women’s International Forum for talent), Sodexo aims to achieve gender balance across management (currently around 35 percent) by 2025. It’s proving to be an “ongoing challenge”, admits Bellon, “but by doing those different things ... you create a culture where it's going to become obvious that that's the way we have to do business.'
Values are “part of our DNA,” Bellon told EHL students: namely team spirit, service spirit and spirit of progress.
Although that may seem like corporate-speak to many, Bellon passionately argues that “organisations like us have a role to play to make the world better. And I think it's through those values that we are going to do it.”
Ensuring that the founding vision of her father is here to stay is 'not easy' with more than 400,000 employees in 80 countries but Bellon has made it her personal mission: “I think if I have one role and that's my principal role, it is to make sure that [his vision] stays.”
Putting values before profits is possible thanks to the legacy of the Bellon family, which still holds 40 percent of Sodexo’s stock and more than 50 percent of the voting rights. Moreover, the Bellon children have made a commitment to be the main shareholders of the organisation for the next 50 years: “because we want to keep the vision, the mission, the values, and we want to keep the very long-term engagement.'
But to keep growing for another 50 years, Sodexo will need to continue to adapt and learn. Bellon is conscious of the need to be closer to today's consumers, in a B2B2C environment where “the client doesn't protect us anymore.” The group has recently adopted a more client-centric organisation, with teams organised by business line as opposed to geography, “because a mom having a baby in a hospital in France, the UK or India, has the same needs.”
As the next generation of business leaders emerges – whether from EHL or elsewhere – companies such as Sodexo will need to change and engage differently with younger workforces comprising of ‘global citizens’. She concludes: “There’s always room for improvement.”
Ms Bellon spoke to EHL students during a visit to the school in December.