New generations of leaders in a family enterprise can make or break the business. The job of balancing legacy products and services with the needs of a fickle market can be challenging. Even more so when a new CEO is younger than some of the workers and a woman on top of it. Swiss Style’s Matt Hamilton found a case study.
As I pulled into the Jacquet nursery in Satigny, the sun shone brightly between the clouds daubed onto blue skies. Passing what looked like a chicken coop, I am greeted by the crowing of roosters. I rounded a small house, parking just behind a freshly unearthed tree. Had it not been for passing Geneva International Airport just moments ago, I would have sworn I was on the back roads of Texas.
In a city that tends to spare no cost on lavishness, the Jacquet nursery is something of an oddity, an almost proverbial diamond in the rough. Just a short drive from the centre of Geneva, it is the showcase of Jacquet SA, one of Switzerland’s most comprehensive landscaping businesses. At over 30 hectares, the nursery is an impressive melange of flora and fauna. It’s more than just the density of beautiful plants that makes it special. Jacquet is a solid family business where a century of expertise has been collected from techniques handed down through several generations.
Aude Jacquet Patry, blond, smiling, is draped in a deep fuchsia scarf and sporting floral-patterned footwear. She makes no attempt to mask her bubbly femininity. Her style is friendly, inviting and business-like all at once: “Would you like a coffee?” she offers, while ushering me into the nursery’s office, a very functional space for the head of such a solid company. As the fourth-generation manager of her family’s enterprise, she is the first woman to hold the position. This is not as common in Switzerland as one might imagine: Women currently make up only four percent of executive management in the country. Nevertheless, Aude Jacquet Patry is upbeat about the situation of women here: “It’s moving a lot now. It’s good to have all of these international people. It’s bringing some new blood to the country.” Her estimation is supported by the WEF Gender Gap Study 2010, which saw Switzerland climb three rungs to the 10th rank. The country is also one of the few to be officially led by a female majority (like Cape Verde, Finland, Norway and Spain), which accounts for the good results. The private sector still needs some tweaking, and equal pay is still a bit of a dream. At Jacquet SA, of around 170 employees, there are ten women working for the company, including herself. In a business that requires heavy lifting and literally getting dirty, a less than equitable female-to-male ratio might not come as a surprise. But Jacquet suggests that these associations are perhaps misguided at best, harmful at worst.
“It’s interesting to be a woman in my field,” she notes. “In a way, having a female boss is sometimes easier for men. They can relate more to me emotionally,” she adds. At this point, as if on cue, the espresso machine gets stuck while she is trying to liberate a capsule. After a few desperate tugs, she rolls her eyes and says: “This is a man’s job!” With the flash of a smile, she gets a nearby colleague to help, not so much for gender-related reasons but more because someone else apparently is better at this particular job.
Aude Jacquet Patry knows her own job. When she took over, this industry was largely dominated by men, so like many women in her position, she faced two choices: play like the boys or stay herself and change the game. Perhaps crucial, too, for anyone in her position, was acquiring the proper background and expertise. All too often, family enterprises are taken over by rote rather than merit, and it was a mistake she wanted to avoid. Aude Jacquet Patry earned her spurs by simply being at the company since birth. Still, working in a family business where fellow co-workers – and now subordinates – have known her since she was a little girl hasn’t always been easy, she admits. Her father, who at 65 is still active in the company, has been giving her more and more responsibility. As her profile evolves, she must work hard to assert her new place at the head of the company. As time went by, she has learned how to be persuasive and lead with respect for the staff and yet driving change.
Her approach to her task was to know as much as possible and have hands-on experience. She realised early on that in addition to learning business skills, experience abroad was crucial if she were too keep her family’s company surfing the waves of innovation that wash through every sector of the economy. She set off to complete her studies in the UK, earning a degree in landscape design in London. Likewise, she gained working experience at a nursery in Canada, in addition to extensive stays in France and Belgium. With fresh ideas and new air under her wings, she returned to Geneva to discover the ins and outs of the Jacquet nursery at her father’s side.
Full-service and more
Jacquet SA is not just a purveyor of nice little seedlings. Much of its revenue comes from large projects, including several in collaboration with governments and the local and canton level, such as the recent renovations of the huge “plain” of Plainpalais in the middle of Geneva, a diamond-shaped space mostly tarred with a few shaded lanes where the flee market is held twice a week. Sports complexes, including pools, tennis courts, football pitches, the middle of roundabouts, fences… Nothing is “safe” from the broad portfolio of Jacquet SA’s green fingers.
Horticulture is always changing, and to stay competitive, a company like Jacquet SA must look for trends and be willing to change tracks. For the past twelve years, Aude Jacquet has overseen a number of changes at the nursery, most notably in terms of eco-friendly services. Concern for the environment actually stretches back 30 years at the company, giving it a reputation as one of the most respected landscaping firms in Geneva. They are also a partner with La Charte des Jardins, an initiative to encourage better home gardening practices, like making parcels or full-blown gardens more amenable to local wildlife – hedgehogs, for example, who feast on slugs –, switching off the lights at night, and using indigenous plants.
With over a century in business, a company like Jacquet SA has undoubtedly seen many changes over the years. The role Aude Jacquet Patry will play in its new direction represents an important part in the story of her family’s business. The statistical issue of gender balance may appear to be in the foreground. But it is more complex, more detailed than just a matter of chromosomes. Gender differences are social and political in nature, and if Aude Jacquet Patry is able to carry the company into the future, it is not because she is not a man, but rather because she professionally will have to go the extra mile to achieve recognition and authority. Perhaps that is what gives her the inspiration to find new positions to occupy in the horticultural segment.
The nursery where Jacquet’s plants are grown is opened to the public. The space has been listed as a Parc Naturel by the Fondation Nature & Economie since 2006 (managed ecologically since 1985). The company’s commitment to ecological principals means that the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers is to be kept at an absolute minimum, while irrigation is sourced from a rainwater collection system on site. As Daniel Dobbs, the company’s manager of natural landscaping, explained, local flora has the benefit of being naturally adapted to both pests and climates. As such, they require less maintenance, both in terms of water and the need for pesticides. The result of including such plants in any design is more environmentally friendly than conventional ones.
Jacquet SA is a green enterprise in other ways as well, not just in the colour of their plants. Since 1992, the company has been building natural swimming pools for a variety of clients across Switzerland, in addition to traditional ones. Unlike conventional designs, natural pools do not require chemicals, but rather depend on an intricate orchestra of plants for filtration. Having built the first private pool in Geneva back in 1947, the company is well positioned to be at the forefront of new trends in aquatic entertainment. Other eco-friendly services and designs include internationally certified bio-composting, heat-reducing roof gardens, and natural paving and surfacing to name a few. While the company stands by its environmental ideals, both Aude Jacquet Patry and Daniel Dobbs acknowledge that going 100 percent is not really practicable. Clients are encouraged to “go green” when possible, but it is not always easy to convince them.
For more information, visit their website at www.jacquet.ch
Article by Matt Hamilton