BETTER ANTICIPATING GOVERNANCE CHANGES IN FAMILY BUSINESSES: INTERVIEW WITH JEAN-THOMAS SCHMITT, CHAIRMAN AND CEO OF HEPPNER

Written on 31 March 2022.


Jean-Thomas Schmitt, Chairman and CEO of Heppner and alumnus of EDHEC, mentors the first cohort of the Family Shift programme, developed jointly by KPMG and the EDHEC Family Business Centre. As a member of the fourth generation of a family business, Jean-Thomas discusses the stages that have led to him taking the helm of the group founded by his great-grandfather and draws on his personal experience to list the keys (and the obstacles) related to the particular task of successfully transmitting management of a family business from one generation to another.

Can you tell us about your career with Heppner and some brief details about the company today?   

Heppner is a family-owned transport and logistics group founded in 1925. We’re present internationally and employ some 3,700 people. We posted €832 million in turnover for 2021.

For my part, after my Master in Finance at EDHEC, I joined Heppner as a department manager, before becoming regional manager, then national manager. I became CEO in 2015 and Chairman in 2021. I was lucky to have followed a gradual career path which allowed me to gain confidence and earn credibility.

Have you faced any particular difficulties related to the company’s status as a family business?

From a personal standpoint, I felt a degree of pressure when joining the company, particularly due to the weight of family history. I also had to position myself vis à vis my father, who was getting older and looking for a member of the family eager to take over management of the business. 

And in terms of skills, there are fields like finance that demand a certain expertise (for example, capital movements, acquisitions or borrowing) for which I would have really liked to have had more support. The issue was to become operational in a short space of time.

What did you lack or what would you have needed to make the transition more fluid?

It would have been valuable to benefit from a programme like Family Shift. It’s vital to receive assistance and support throughout the process of transmitting power from one generation to another. And it’s a real plus to have contact with experts who can provide a fresh and neutral view of things.

I would also have liked the chance to discuss good practices with someone other than my father and to have shared experiences with them. Having an outside contact is fundamental for someone aged 28, 30 or 32 who’s going to take over a business. In hindsight, I believe it’s extremely important to have a third party situated between the proprietor and the son or daughter due to take over.    

What is your advice/mantra for the new generations originating from family businesses and wanting to take over the running of them?

Go and see a bit what’s happening outside your organisation. It’s important to acquire your own experience and to talk with other bosses. And at the least, it’s rewarding to take an interest in different company cultures.

What does your role as mentor for the Family Shift programme mean to you?

I’m convinced that family businesses and their essentially long-term visions play a key role for our economy, particularly at a time when the talk is about re-industrialisation. I’m also glad that the programme gives me the chance to recount and share my experiences, in order to reassure future family business leaders and especially to prepare them for the difficulties to come and thus to better condition their success.

To go further

The EDHEX-KPMG "Family Shift" program 

Ask further information to a KPMG Family Business Advisor

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