Past EuropeanPWN President
Biography of Margaret Milan
Founder Eveil & Jeux
Margaret Milan focused her Scottish pragmatism on the issue of starting a company in France. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Margaret went to work for Procter & Gamble where she stayed 7 years. When her first child was two, she decided “that her daughter was a lot more fun than managing detergent for P&G” and resigned “to find more balance. When you have a responsible job (and are a bit of a perfectionist), it’s hard to work part-time. I took time off, bought a house, fixed it up, and had another child. Then it was time to get back to work.”
When thinking about what to do next, Margaret decided that “in France, all my salary would go to taxes anyway, so we decided that I would go for building a business and my husband would bring in the salary.” Margaret came up with the idea of starting a mail-order business selling educational children’s toys. All her friends told her she was crazy, “that there was no market for that in France. That kids were in maternelle from age two, that they only wanted Barbie and Nintendo, that the French were resistant to
catalogue shopping”. But in 1989, with the head office the kitchen table and the stock room in her garage, Margaret created Eveil & Jeux .
The First Phase (1989- 1994): The Garage Start-up
The original idea was to staff the company with “only mothers working 60% of their time.” And sales, with a product list printed up on a black and white sheet of paper, began to take off. At the time, there was no competition and Margaret had the luxury (rare today) of starting the company slowly, over a period of several years, without looking over her shoulder at the competition. Her first direct competitor , Bien Joué, only appeared on the scene in 1993. “In terms of balancing, the first phase worked well. I worked from 9 to 4 and then again a few hours after dinner. And the 99% female staff also found a great deal of balance was possible.”
But it gets more difficult as the company grows and Eveil & Jeux had to give up on its flexible working arrangements, which Margaret regrets “just didn’t work.” Her staff, mostly women aged 25 to 35, are “always having babies” which requires a lot of juggling. “Everyone in our company is directly responsible for what they do, and when they leave for three to six months of maternity leave, we can’t hire someone else, so most of their work falls on the others – which creates tensions in a fast-paced environment. I haven’t found a solution.”
The Second Phase (1995-2000): Expansion and Investment
In 1995, Margaret’s husband Gilbert decided to leave Boston Consulting Group and join his wife’s successful venture. In December of that year, the couple raised their first round of VC financing of FF 5 million. Two weeks later, all of France was on strike and the mail system on which the company depended for the Christmas sales that epresent 50% of its business, shut down. But their investors stuck with them and sales revenues soon began an exponential climb. “We were in a big hurry to establish our catalogue as the reference in our niche market of educational toys. At the time, we were studying the US market where ten catalogues were fighting it out with little differentiation. We were a tiny niche, a mosquito, in a French toy market estimated to be worth $16 to 20 billion. So we had to establish a clear leadership position, which we did.”
On Being Bought
Eveil & Jeux was partially acquired (70%) by the Pinault Printemps Group in 1998. “When we had reached FF 120 million in sales, we had to decide how to finance future growth. The alternatives were going to the stock market or finding an industrial partner with whom we could find synergies. We chose the latter and have benefited greatly from their support. Three months after joining PPR, for example, we were using their Relais Colis system which allows us to deliver products anywhere in France in 24 hours (and circumvent the postal system in case of strikes).”
In 2001, PPR acquired the remaining 30% of the company. At that point, Margaret & Gilbert decided it was time to hand over management of the company to the team they had hired and trained. “It’s a bit like raising kids: there comes a time when Mum & Dad have to step back and let them spread their wings.” Margaret continues to run the Eveil & Jeux Foundation which supports educational projects in underpriviledged neighbourhoods. “Play is a great way to develop strong relationships between children and parents, to build language skills and to learn how to “play by the rules”. All of which are fundamental to a sound education.”
Margaret is also involved in coaching other budding entrepreneurs, both through Paris PWN’s entrepreneurship club and through the “Innover & Entreprendre” Master programme at one of France’s leading business schools, ESCP-EAP. “Entrepreneurship is a lonely road to travel, so I believe it’s vital that those who have taken it already help to show the way”.
On the Superwoman Myth
“The superwoman myth is bullshit. There are super nannies, super grannies and super husbands, but you have to be realistic and know that something has to give. I’m lucky that I have a husband with a financial position that allowed us to afford good help at home even when the company was too small to pay me much of a salary. And who was hugely supportive of my venture as it started out. But in a couple where both have busy professional lives, the reality is that there is work and family – everything else falls by the wayside. Those “diners mondains” and art exhibits just have to wait. I don’t know anyone who can do it all.”
“My recipe for survival is not to believe the myth. Women’s magazines are responsible for lots of frustrations and guilty feelings for portraying the superwoman myth ! And I find working with my husband, building a successful company as we build a marriage and a family is hugely satisfying and rewarding: sharing the same objectives, battling together through tough times, and celebrating every step ahead. Maybe few can “do it all”, but two can achieve a heck of a lot !”
Women@Work Volume 1
Women, Careers and Competitive Advantage in the New Millennium
by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Margaret Milan
An overview of the key issues facing women and companies today in Europe. Buy your copy from Amazon or contact us to purchase multiple copies for distribution within your organisation.
Women@Work No 3
Femmes et carrières: une nouvelle opportunité stratégique ?
par Avivah Wittenberg-Cox et Margaret Milan – French, 96 pages
Website of epwn: www.europeanpwn.com
All articles of Margaret Milan
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