Lend me your skills

SMEs get help to grow through ‘loan’ of senior experts from big firms

After spending more than 30 of his 57 years working at Schneider Electric, global energy management specialist Robert Monteillier wanted to give his career "a little oomph".

He was starting to feel the "big corporation effect", having "a very corporate post" that was "very removed from operations".

Searching through his company's Intranet, he found an advertisment for an unusual opportunity - to be "lent" out to work for a smaller company for a year, while still under the auspices of Schneider. He applied and joined Sunpartner last October. His first day at the solar energy start-up, he said, was "like a kid starting middle school and discovering everything for the first time". "I'd never been in a start-up or a small business before," he recalls.

Sunpartner was just as happy. It got an experienced marketing director who had 20 years of experience working with China.

It was exactly what the programme, "Pass' Competences", meant to achieve.

Started in 2011 by Geris, a subsidiary of the Thales group, and the Regional Agency for Development in Paris Ile-de-France (or ARD), the programme is founded on a simple idea: A large corporation lends a senior-level expert to a small- or medium-sized enterprise (SME) to help it grow.

The "labour leasing" is made possible by the 2011 Cherpion Law on career development and security, which defines the framework for the temporary reassignment of personnel.

The system, managed by the Systematic Paris-Region Business Cluster, is currently in a trial phase and involves five other senior executives from large corporations. It helps SMEs and start-ups overcome the shortage of experienced workers, especially engineers, developers and business developers. Many start-ups lack commercial and management competencies, while SMEs lose out to big corporations when it comes to recruiting.

Filling a big gap

Celeste, another SME participating in the programme, confirms this.

"In the telecom and network sector, young people are either poorly trained, or snagged by the big companies," says Ms Frederique Dofing, general director of the small fibre optics and data centre services business based in a suburb of Paris.

Her company has benefited from the loan of Mr Francois Barre, 55, director of partnerships at French conglomerate Alcatel-Lucent. She quickly deployed the veteran to the data centre part of her business. "With Francois, I have an outside, experienced perspective for a year," she says. "Francois is like a 'super coach' for my sales staff. He raises the team's level of competence."

Celeste would never have been able to afford someone like Mr Barre.

Under the Pass' Competences programme, the start-up pays 60 per cent of his salary - some of which it gets back from Systematic - while Alcatel-Lucent pays the rest. Systematic subsidises the reassignment for a year, after which the executive is expected to return to the lending corporation.

"For 3,000 euros a month net, I have someone experienced for the price of a junior employee," says Ms Dofoing.

Mr Monteillier's "new" employer, too, has gained much from his 35 years of experience. "He brings his network and his marketing strategy management tools along with him," says Sunpartner CEO Ludovic Deblois. "That allows us to move forward faster."

And, he adds, 55- to 60-year-olds are easier to manage than young people.

Mr Barre was just as happy for the change of scenery and a chance to go back to working in a smaller company. The director of partnerships at Alcatel-Lucent was starting to feel not "very challenged", and found it "interesting to be close to the value creators" when he was lent to Celeste.

Mr Monteillier adds: "Here, we create a strategy as a team of four or five, based on uncertain information. It's both unsettling and very stimulating."

On the other hand, he adds, at Schneider, "it takes a year to cook up a vision".

As for the lending corporations - which include Air France, Thales and Sanofi - the temporary reassignment can be useful during slower periods or when an employee returns from an expatriate posting, as it gives the company time to find a place for the executive. It also helps with professional training: The experience of "SME culture" is good preparation for a future job directing a small subsidiary or division.

And while the loan lasts a year, Mr Monteillier is already thinking of asking for an extension. "Sunpartner," he says, "will need me more."