Interview with Mr. Olivier Dekokere, livestock specialist: dairy and poultry production.
By Stéphane Alaux, Reputation expert, founder of E Reputation Net Wash
Olivier Dekokere talks about his passion for the agricultural world and the evolution of the dairy industry.
Can you tell us about your background and experience?
Olivier Dekokère: I have always been passionate about the world of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock farming, even though I was not born into a farming family. After a general baccalaureate education, I switched to a course dedicated to learning animal husbandry techniques, starting a BTS in Animal Production at the Genech Institute in the north of France, my home region. After 10 months of military service, I started by accepting a position as a Dairy Technician in Sodiaal in Picardy. This was my first professional experience and it was very enriching to be in daily contact with dairy farmers who needed my help to improve their breeding techniques, the purchase of products for their herds and all the administrative formalities that we know are important in our beautiful country. After having evolved within this structure and without any technical training, I took a Higher Diploma in Management at the CNAM in Picardy, in evening classes, to obtain a Master’s degree in 2 years. These courses, which enabled me to understand the management of a company, from management, HR to corporate finance and legal matters, also allowed me to discover professional worlds with different problems.
After 8 years at Sodiaal, I had the opportunity to join Lactalis to discover expatriation in the CIS area, in Kazakhstan, in the position of Upstream Director. In this company, I learned about operational excellence and monitoring through effective management control. In addition to discovering a different culture with a telescope between Asia and Soviet methods, our working and living language was Russian. My wife and I were able to build a much broader vision thanks to the contribution of this Kazakh life. But it is also good to be able to return to France to exploit our new knowledge. Thanks to this new knowledge, I was able to take over the general management of a group of breeders, the Volailles de Challans. In managing this company, I took on a much more global mission, ranging from brand communication and relations with press agencies to exchanges with large-scale distributors to promote and sell our products, which were red-labelled poultry under the “Volaille de Challans” brand. After this experience in the poultry sector, I returned to the dairy industry in Réunion, managing Sicalait. In addition to a rather pleasant living environment, I had the opportunity to meet men and women who wanted to develop their group, their farm and their results.
What is your most interesting work experience?
Olivier Dekokère: I have no better professional experience than the others. Everyone had their own interests. For example, at Volailles de Challans, it was my first general management position. In addition to learning about cross-functional and broad-based management, I also had to get used to being on my own when I had to make important strategic decisions. This was despite the fact that I formed a great duo with my president, he on the political side and I on the operational side. We both had the same vision for this beautiful company. Or at Lactalis, I discovered women and men open to others and with a strong attraction for our culture. Their vision of life and professional tasks still allows me to bring things to my daily operational actions for my current employers. And on the island of Reunion, I learned the vicissitudes of local politics and the weight it had on the management of people.
I will conclude by saying that they have all brought me pleasures, joys and difficulties that do not allow me to rank them in order of importance during my 20 years of professional experience.
Tell us about your involvement in the cooperative sector.
Olivier Dekokère: Ohhhh my commitment to the cooperative sector is strong and well established. It is true that my CV shows me, I have almost exclusively carried out my professional activities within it. I only left it to have an experience abroad. I believe that cooperation allows and will allow farmers to project themselves into the distant future by thinking about passing on their work tools to their children. In addition to having to be managed like a Landa company, i.e. to generate results in order to survive, the cooperative is managed politically by the directors elected by the farmers’ parents. They hold its destiny in their hands. Finally, in a cooperative, it is “one man, one vote” in general assemblies. The political weight of the “small” farmers is as strong as that of the “big” farmers. The time for action is always present, but the strategy can also be seen with long time steps. This can be seen as a weakness by some in view of the complexity and ever faster movements of trade, consumers and customer demands, but I also find it interesting to be able to “sit back” and think calmly about the important options for the future. It is a legal form that still has a lot of future and is a guarantee of stability and success if we do not forget to act dynamically.
How do you see the evolution of the agricultural and agri-food sector?
Olivier Dekokere: A very broad topic. The agricultural and agri-food sector is changing more and more rapidly. We have moved from a system regulated by common European and national rules (import taxes, volume storage if there is excess production, etc.) to an exacerbated liberalism towards greater globalisation. Moreover, the weight of French household spending has halved to 12-13% of the budget. The attraction of low prices proposed as a strategy by certain large distribution groups following their strong concentration (3-4 purchasing groups) and the import of food products from other countries has completely disrupted the financial ratios of both farms and agri-food groups.
It is therefore necessary to evolve our ways of thinking and working to make our actions more agile in order to recover the added value of our industrial tools and farmers. In addition to having to revise our paradigms specific to our sector of activity, we will need the State to enable our companies to compete in this globalised context. We are fortunate that the world’s population will continue to grow in the coming years. And the main objective of our business is to feed the population in quantity and quality. Therefore, we will have a continuous evolution of consumer demands. There are two major areas of development to take into account: mature countries that increasingly demand better products, even if they consume less but better, and countries that need to develop the volumes supplied to their population to feed it. For many years, French agriculture has been geared towards exports, in addition to offering its produce to the French. We must promote the good products that farmers grow and raise, without forgetting our necessary export trade arm.
I believe that our sector, even if it is going through difficult times at present, has a bright future ahead of it if we meet the expectations of society and customers, both in France and internationally.
The General States of Food, an interesting governmental initiative?
Olivier Dekokère: The EGA had the merit of bringing all the actors of our agri-food sector around the same table. Since globalisation has hit our sector hard, our farmers have been subjected to huge fluctuations in the purchase prices of their products. Cereal and pork producers have been experiencing this management difficulty for more than ten years, while milk producers have been experiencing it for two or three years. Even if our farmers are entrepreneurs with all the risks that this entails, it seems to me difficult for the purchase prices of their products to remain at this level at the risk of seeing them disappear. This is why the GSAs have highlighted the need for products distributed on French soil to be better valued and for margins to be spread more widely. The large-scale retail trade, which is the main sales channel for our agri-food products, made announcements and commitments during the conference. These must be kept. But we must not forget that the French agricultural sector does not focus exclusively on the French market, but also on the international market. It does not seem to me that these EGAs have mentioned our differences with our European neighbours, let alone with the rest of the world. We must quickly review our fiscal and social models in order to be at least at the same level of competitiveness at European level. Efforts have already been made on these points in recent years, but there is still a long way to go.
What impact do social demands for food have on the mode of agricultural production?
Olivier Dekokère: We have moved from a volume demand to a quality/price demand. We got French farmers to produce for self-sufficiency and this goal was achieved quickly and with great success. Today, most French consumers are looking for transparency, authenticity, truth and goodness. Some of them opt for the organic production system and most of the others demand better, healthier and more remunerative products for farmers. On the other hand, during the purchasing process, not all of them are still at the stage of their initial demands. The impact of price and commercial offers (promotions, gifts ….) are changing what they put in their shopping carts. The trend is quite positive, but not yet fully confirmed in the purchasing acts. For example, in the poultry sector, most consumer purchases are of red-labelled or organic poultry, while in the “out-of-home” channel, conventional and non-alternative products are still used. In addition, 90% of their purchases are made with imported products. Other productions are in the process of change, such as the dairy sector.
Dairy sector? What is this?
Olivier Dekokère: In recent years, many farmers have been taking the risk of processing their production themselves in an attempt to get more value from their milk. These direct sales channels have come to the fore thanks to the media and social networks. Faire France or En direct des éleveurs, to name but two, offer consumers full transparency on their production systems and also on the prices paid to the different parties involved, in particular the price of milk paid to producers. The consumer initiative “C’est qui le patron” was launched for the first time on the half-litre carton of skimmed milk. It also highlighted the approach of paying “a fair price” for the work of milk producers to calculate the resale price in supermarkets. On the other hand, if we add up all these “small” and much publicised approaches, most of the volumes marketed in supermarkets are sold by the usual brands. The legal form of a cooperative must be able to respond to this need for transparency and to value the work of French milk producers, as this is the very essence of these structures.
But even if all sales in France would allow producers to get a better value for their milk, it is important to bear in mind that we are also active on the international market.
Milk on the international scene
Olivier Dekokère: When we talk about the dairy crisis with dairy farmers, we have been talking for many years about Chinese consumers who want to have peace of mind in their purchases by buying milk from abroad instead of from their own country. This is an opportunity for us in France. Indeed, we are recognised for our ability to guarantee a high level of traceability and quality of our milk powder. This is why many milk drying towers have been installed to supply this huge market, China. The volumes exported by this vector are strong, but it does not prevent us from being dependent on world volumes (over or under production) and their impact on prices.
Dairy fat has for some time been vilified as unhealthy. In the last two to three years, numerous publications by nutritionists have challenged the above claims, which has had a positive effect on demand and thus on prices. On the other hand, milk protein (milk powder) has suffered from the pendulum effect of falling prices due to low demand and high powder production in the world. Despite our quality outputs, farmers are suffering from a purchase price below their cost price. It is up to us, breeders and industrialists, to work together to be able to offer them a more serene future.
Like all senior managers, you probably have long and stressful working days. How do you relax when you close the office door?
Olivier Dekokère: On a road bike! I am a cycling enthusiast. During the sporting season, I take part in cyclosportive events to set myself goals and to give meaning to all the kilometres of training. I train with the “Jegou Sport” group in the Nantes region. This has allowed me to improve my performance and also to meet people who are different from my professional world.
Cycling allows me to make physical and intellectual efforts (strategic choices) different from those of my working week. This sport is still very time-consuming. I cycle between 12 and 15,000 km per year between training, courses and races. I also organise my schedule so that I can do at least two training sessions during the week. They allow me to get away from my work for those 4 to 5 hours.
The web is evolving at great speed. Web 2.0 has become ubiquitous and dangerous if not mastered. How do you deal with the evolution of this medium in your professional life?
Olivier Dekokère: Indeed, the immediacy of the information shared by these networks can have many dangers and limitations. Nevertheless, I am sure that there are many networks for my professional but also personal activity.
As for my professional activity, I am quite active on LinkedIn, Video and Twitter. I have the Twitter network so I can follow the news and environment of the agricultural and agri-food world quite quickly. It allows me to push information that I consider important, but also to exchange with other stakeholders in the agricultural sector to broaden my spectrum of opinions.
For my leisure activities, I am necessarily on Strava, where I share my bike rides and exchange with fellow cyclists. I also follow Pinterest and Instagram networks to follow gastronomy, clothing trends or cycling on Instagram.
Thank you Oliver.