Metro Group's Frans Muller joins Delhaize
Smile for the camera: Can Dutchman Frans Muller keep his grin in Brussels?
By any account the 52-year-old Dutchman is an impressive manager with an excellent reputation in the trade and a cosmopolitan outlook. Past interviews with our newspaper reveal his detailed knowledge of stores and assortments.
Muller, who left Metro's troubled C&C division in March, has long survived as a foreign executive at Germany's largest retail/wholesale group. Responsibility for up to 30 countries have given him tremendous insight into managing complex international portfolios
Yet his appointment as successor to Pierre-Olivier Beckers has been criticised by some. So perhaps it could all end in tears, but for none of the reasons given.
Gardener wantedAt any rate, Muller will have to do a lot of pruning in his new job. After its withdrawal from Germany, there are few obvious synergies within Delhaize’s international operations (USA, Indonesia, France, Serbia, Greece, Rumania), and a fresh mind will need to look at them dispassionately.
Muller will also have to follow through on the long-awaited turnaround of “Food Lion” in the US, where the group makes nearly two-thirds of its annual global revenues (€22.7bn). Sales at the company’s 1,500-plus US stores have been treading water for years.
In fact, revenues at Delhaize America were slightly less last year ($18.8bn) than in 2008 ($19bn).
At home Delhaize, traditionally catering for well-heeled Belgians, has never really delivered a convincing price proposition. Current management has allowed discounter Colruyt (a type of local Kaufland) to come from nowhere to dominant market leadership.
And even French intruder Carrefour has pushed the family-influenced Plc into third position. Meanwhile, the barbarians are at the gate with Lidl and Aldi North.
As these German discounters snap at its heels, Delhaize has struggled to make a go of subsidiary “Red Market” with an unwieldy and slightly bizarre assortment.
To date, Muller’s appointment at Delhaize has been criticised in the media principally on the basis that he is a C&C man coming to a supermarket retailer. His assumption of direct operational responsibility for the US is also regarded as problematic, some pundits preferring to have seen an American manager at the helm.
Welcome to Belgium, Frans
The real stumbling block, however, is likely to be the corporate culture at Delhaize that could be described as proud and aristocratic.
In general, Dutch managers have a pretty poor track record in Belgium. Many of those who have failed at Belgian companies complain about local colleagues who will only converse in French although they can speak Dutch.
And the resolutely middle-class character of the Dutch seems to experience its own particular nemesis when dealing with Belgian aristos.
Perhaps one should have listened to a feeling of foreboding at interview-time when one caught that faint whiff of ancestor worship.
At first, though, it is pleasant to listen to quietly spoken, well-modulated tones more reminiscent of the diplomatic corps than the hard-nosed world of retailing.
Then, however, the anaemic manner and lack of new ideas increasingly begin to grate on one’s nerves, and one finds oneself yearning, guiltily, for the brash and unrefined who at least are entertaining.
Although Delhaize has clearly broken with taboo by appointing Muller as CEO, it doesn’t necessarily bode well that family scion Pierre-Olivier Beckers will become a non-executive member of the Board of Directors at the end of the year. This will be like dating a girl with her father sitting at the next table.
A reluctant bride
Perhaps Muller’s best move would be to ring fellow Dutchman Dick Boer at Ahold and rekindle the long-standing merger rumours.
Although both companies’ store networks are broadly complimentary in the US and Ahold is awash with cash at the moment, most Belgian trade observers do not see a marriage in the offing.
Be this as it may, let us wish Frans Muller well at Delhaize and that he proves the cynical wrong. After all, anyone who can survive so long at the top of Metro is surely worth his salt. Doubtless now, however, he will be learning to ride and practising his French in country houses.
Related article in German: By Mike Dawson & Jan Mende in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 36, 06.09.2013; cf. also LZNet by Tanja Fries
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