Updated: Thursday, September 7, 2017, 3:01 AM
At Orchestra Prémaman’s headquarters in France, Agathe Boidin, 46, rose through the ranks, piling up such titles as chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and chief executive officer, with responsibility for 600 stores, hundreds of millions in revenues, and thousands of employees.
Here, as the leader of the company’s infant U.S. operation, she overseas 10 employees, one store and a lot of ambition: She plans to add 10 to 20 stores a year. But life in the executive suite isn’t the same.
“Nobody to bring me my coffee or to plug the computer in and the printer. I had to do it myself. I had to find offices, find the people, find the real estate. So I was really alone,” she said, speaking with a French accent over coffee outside the Orchestra Prémaman’s sole U.S. store, at the King of Prussia Mall. Worldwide, Orchestra Prémaman sells maternity, infant, and children’s clothing. Here, it’s just clothing for babies and kids.
“I think it’s fine, especially when you have 10 percent of the company,” she said. “It’s like you work for your own company.”
Going solo? That’s a big change.
When you have 2,500 people, when I was the chief operating officer, I would start at 8 in the morning and finish at 8 at night and had meetings all day, even during lunch. Sometimes, I had to say, “Stop, I need to go to the bathroom.”
You first came to the U.S. as an au pair/nanny at age 18.
I remember when I first landed in San Francisco and I saw all these buildings, and all these people. I thought, “It’s moving. It’s booming.” I tried to come back and study in the United States, but it was too expensive, and too difficult with the visa. When [Orchestra Premaman] said, “We want to invest in the United States,” I said, “It’s me. I want to go there.”
What do you notice about the U.S.?
I like really the energy, the positive attitude you can feel in the United States. Compared with French — the French sometimes, they always see what doesn’t work. When I arrived, and [as] I expand my project and the company, everybody is really helpful, especially in Philadelphia.
Your company had planned to merge with Destination Maternity. The deal fell apart in July, with both sides blaming regulatory hassles and expense. Now what?
The Destination Maternity merger would have helped us go faster in terms of brand awareness and development, but we are still on the same strategy: Open two stores in the Philly area and the website, be sure the product, concept, and offer is fitting the U.S. market, try to get distributed in department stores and develop 10 to 20 stores year by year in the coming years.
What are the challenges of opening a business here?
It’s a challenging market with a lot of brands. Nobody is waiting for us. But if we can find the right position, the right product, the right concept, then after, you have a huge market, with the same language. Because in Europe you have to do the market for France. In Spain, you have a different language. In Belgium, you have three languages, and Switzerland four. It’s a small market and you have to translate all the marketing materials.
To enter the market, you need to be strong, because it will cost you. You have to have a warehouse. You have [regulatory] tests for the product and it’s a different test from the European community. So, we do all the tests, which is really costly, especially when you have only one store and one website. To open one store, it’s really costly, so you need to be a strong company, and to have the money to invest in the future. But then if we manage to succeed, it’s a huge market.
So the early costs are high, but scaling is not?
Exactly. The idea is to open another store in Cherry Hill and to have the website, to listen to our customers, to see what’s working, what’s not working, what we need to adjust. We have a large collection and create more than 3,500 styles per season. It’s a large collection. We still need to learn about the market [so we don’t] buy something that never will work in the United States.
Home: Villanova, from Montpellier, France.
Family: Husband, Jean Christophe; daughter, Lea, 12th grade; sons, Baptiste, 10th grade; Maxime, 7th grade.
Career: Graduated from ESLSCA Business School in Paris, joined PwC as a finance auditor, then became an executive at a hosiery company.
What: Apparel store chain for babies, children, and, in Europe, for pregnant women, based in Saint-Aunès, near Montpellier, France.
Here: Orchestra Prémaman USA Inc., in Bala Cynwyd.
Stores: 600 in 40 countries, one in the U.S. at the King of Prussia Mall.
Employs: More than 3,000 worldwide, 10 locally.
Financials: For year ending Feb. 28, 2017, 33.4 million euros in net losses on 608.3 million euros in revenues (or $39.7 million in losses on $724.8 million in revenues, based on Sept. 6, 2017 currency rates).
Read full story: Agathe Boidin: French kids' clothing retailer takes baby steps here