An impromptu dinner in Paris five years ago was enough to persuade Ulric Jérome that online electricals business Pixmania was the break he had been looking for. And the 29-year-old Frenchman, now managing director of the DSGi-owned company, is just the man to spot a money-making opportunity, having been a successful entrepreneur since he was a teenager.
While most 19-year-old students are busy propping up the bar and missing lectures, Jérome was creating an investment fund in Montreal to manage his fellow students’ cash on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Then, in his early 20s, he set up a web site and magazine for MBA students. His aim was to bring together business leaders and talented students and he secured interviews with major figures, including the heads of ABN Amro and Citigroup. His hopes of securing funding for his venture were dashed a week later by 9/11, however, and he returned to France disappointed, though not disheartened.
Back in Paris, he caught up with his long-standing friend, Pixmania founder and chief executive Jean-Emile Rosenblum, who over dinner mentioned his grand plans to turn the fledgling business into an online, European-wide retailer based in France. Jérome was sold on the idea. “I knew it could work,” he recalls. “The internet was our generation and would be our way of communicating and I was confident that it would grow. Most of the competition was pure players on a local basis.”
Retail hasn’t always been Jérome’s area of interest, but he believes this is an advantage within the Pixmania operation. It is his and Rosenblum’s youth that he believes has been central to the business’s success. At the beginning of the decade, e-commerce was in its infancy. While some experienced retailers sat back debating the long-term feasibility of online retail, zealous early 20-somethings had faith in their convictions. “Even though we didn’t have a huge amount of retail experience at that time, we think now that it was, and is, an asset because we were completely web-focused. The bigger brands were questioning online retail and they took longer than us to go online, so we gained market share,” he says.
Jérome’s character might also have had a hand in the group’s success. It takes a persuasive and bright student to convince the head of a major firm such as ABN Amro that a one-to-one interview would be worth his time. His understanding of the people that shop in cyberspace also marks him out.
“Did you know,” he says, “that when it comes to shopping habits, Italians are a world away from the British? The Italians are essentially show-offs who place huge emphasis on what a product looks like and whose average basket size is significantly higher than any other nation,” he explains. “Online shoppers in the UK are more savvy, opting for a combination of best quality and best price.” The Nordics, however, are “early adapters”, he says – always seeking out the latest technology.
“Everyone has a very different buying behaviour and the only way to succeed was to customise our offer in each market,” he says. “We knew we had to get that right from the beginning. In Italy, most payments are made in cash. Only about a quarter are made with a credit card, so we established a cash-on-delivery service. If you didn’t know that you would never be a leader in that country.”
Youthful enthusiasm aside, any managing director also needs to be shrewd. Some may say that Pixmania, despite now being majority-owned by DSGi, has a limited profile in the UK, but Jérome does not agree. “We’re careful about the way we advertise our products. The aim is to really target closely. If you’re looking for electrical products, you will find us,” he says.
Pixmania has always concentrated its brand awareness on targeted marketing rather than outdoor advertising and Jérome says this was a wise move, even though that may now change as the company finds ways to work with manufacturers to expand the Pixmania brand.
“If you look back to 2002, you have to remember that back then people were spending money stupidly when it came to online. We decided to make sure that when we were spending we would see a return on our investment, so we chose marketing that would enable us to track that investment and it’s worked,” he says.
The DSGi deal last year has been the icing on the cake for the directors at Pixmania. “We wanted to grow fast and achieve our future goals and it will be easier to do that with industrial synergies,” says Jérome.
True entrepreneurs don’t come along all that often within retail. He could be one to watch.
A model career
Interests: Any sport, especially skiing, mountain climbing, tennis and jogging
2005-present: Managing director, Pixmania.com and Pixmania-Pro.com, UK, France and Scandinavia
2002-05: Managing director, Pixmania.com, UK and Scandinavia
2000-02: Founder and chief executive ConnexionsNet.com and ConnexionsNet Magazine, Canada
2000: Bachelor of Business Administration in Economics, Concordia University, Canada