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Interview : Thierry Ballenghien in the French program Paroles d’Experts

Mr. Thierry Ballenghien, president and founder of ICAPE Group, was the guest of the program Paroles d'Expert, hosted by Justine Cosemans. Mr Ballenghien talks about the exceptional growth of ICAPE Group and gives an instructive testimony on the situation of the electronic industry.
Thierry Ballenghien, Founder of ICAPE Group

Interview of Mr Thierry Ballenghien, founder of ICAPE group, on the set of Paroles d'experts.

Justine Cosemans: Good morning and welcome to the latest edition of Paroles d'Experts (Expert Insights). If I say PCB, electronic boards or printed circuit boards, those terms may ring a bell. This is precisely today's topic that we will discuss with Thierry Ballenghien, chairman and founder of the company, ICAPE Group. A service-based company in the field of printed circuit boards. Hello Thierry, thank you for being here today.

Thierry Ballenghien: Good morning, thank you for having me!

Before we start talking about ICAPE Group, what are printed circuit boards and assembled boards? What are they used for?

Assembled electronic boards are printed circuit boards on which components have been mounted. When the board, which is usually green, is bare, we call it a printed circuit board. When this board has components on, it is called an assembled electronic board or PCBA. An interconnection function between all components and a mechanical support function. Each PCB is specific. For each application, there is a different printed circuit board. There are around thirty (30) different technologies for PCBs: single-sided, double-sided, multilayer, plexi, rigid-flex, etc. I won't bore you with the full list of PCB technologies.

PCBs are found everywhere. For example, I think you have about 30 circuit boards in your vehicle. 50 in your apartment. In your house you probably have a hundred circuit boards. In China, there are indeed a lot of circuit board manufacturers because there are not many left in our countries. It is a product that is very technical. Very complicated. With a lot of different technologies. It is imperative to build strong networks, to have an organization that allows you to buy in the right place, at the right price. Customers need competitive prices since they themselves face international competition for their finished product. We are part of the supply chain optimization. Obviously, this chain has to be extremely competitive.

This is the role of ICAPE Group. Circuit boards are products that can be found everywhere but which are quite complex. An organization to help make the right choice of PCB manufacturers according to each technology is therefore essential!

You founded ICAPE Group in 1999. Can you briefly tell me about the company?

ICAPE Group is a French group that is today world number two in this business of printed circuit board services. We have networks of manufacturers mainly in Asia: 90% are located in China. The group is staffed with 500 employees and has 20 subsidiaries. We should achieve 170 million euros in sales revenue this year. This is a brief description of ICAPE Group. We have two state-of-the-art service offices located in southern China near Shenzhen.

Great. What services do you offer at ICAPE Group?

We have two organizations. One in China which deals with manufacturers. And an organization with units in each country, with sales engineers who provide technical support to customers. The first thing we do is provide technical support to all of our customers in terms of circuit boards. Then, we source the best manufacturers for the technologies they need. We have an Engineering department, an Audit department, a Quality department. We optimize logistics for customers. These are all the services we provide to our clients.

Thierry Ballenghien, Founder of ICAPE Group

Mr Thierry Ballenghien, founder of ICAPE group.

For the production of their printed circuit boards?

I would like to explain something. Today in China, there are between 5,000 and 6,000 major PCB manufacturers. In France, there are only about twenty small manufacturers left, who work mainly in aeronautics and the military. Therefore a customer in France, Europe, or America needs support to buy halfway around the world. Linguistic support. Support from real people. This is what we do.

What is the competition in this sector? You mentioned 20 manufacturers in France, but in the world, how is it going?

Our competition is of three types. The French manufacturers are rather in aeronautics and military, because the strategic products must remain manufactured in their countries. Then we have the big Chinese manufacturers for large volumes and trying to establish direct contact with customers. Finally, companies that do the same job as us. A whole mosaic of small, medium and large trading companies. I estimate that there are about 300 trading companies in the world doing the same business.

What exactly do you specialize in? You were talking about military aeronautics. You are not in this field?

No, we are not.

What type of product do you market?

We do not work with very extremely large volumes because often these products are entirely made in China. We do not work in the fields of military aeronautics and aeronautics. But we work in all other fields. For small and medium-sized clients, ICAPE Group is an absolutely ideal structure for buying abroad. This type of company does not have sufficient volume to afford a structure dedicated to this type of sourcing in Asia. Worldwide, we have around 3,000 customers. We serve approximately 70 countries. Among our clients, we have very large companies. But also small, medium, we have a diverse clientele. When a customer has very large volumes of printed circuit boards, they often arrange the purchases themself. This type of customer only represents 5% of customers. Others need us.

It is better for your business!

Indeed, it's better for us.

You mentioned it just before, you are an international company with offices in China, the United States, all over Europe.

We have a fairly large size that allows us to have significant purchasing leverage on manufacturers. This allows us to access attractive price levels for our customers. This also allows us to have modern offices with large and highly specialized teams in China. Rather than each client trying to create their own small office, they can use our organization with professional service offices, in-house labs and warehouses. Our size also allows us to optimize logistics. We optimize the entire supply chain, which allows us to have lower prices than if the customer were buying on their own.

Thierry Ballenghien, Founder of ICAPE Group

Justine Cosemans & Mr Thierry Ballenghien on the set of Paroles d'experts.

I was about to say that: having on-site offices makes it easier to communicate, to ship, this kind of things.

Of course, our offshore teams in China speak fluent English. We have 250 people on site. We have 6 legal structures in China.

The pandemic has had an international impact on travel, imports, exports. Are you suffering from this crisis?

From April of 2020, we put in place 5 strategic plans in different areas. To prepare the company for the world of tomorrow. We have completely revamped our business methods. With tools like Microsoft Teams. We have reworked our logistics. We have increased our rail freight offer. We have also implemented a strategic development plan in e-business. Our online store sites are now accessible in all languages.

Which wasn't the case before?

We already had a number of languages available. We have increased the number of products available on our online store sites. We have expanded our offer in a number of countries by translating into the language of the country but also by making it possible to pay in the currency of the country. This is an important point. There has been a strong strategic plan put in place. Then, we implemented a lot of things in marketing. Since everything is done virtually, our teams have worked hard to allow clients to visit our offices virtually and in high quality. But also virtual tours of our partner manufacturers.

How does it work? When you do these virtual tours, do you send someone to film?

Yes, we do. We have teams of camera operators, video specialists who go around the factory from A to Z in a virtual way. What we are doing now are virtual audits. This is part of our supplier monitoring strategic development plan. Now our quality engineers are equipped with video cameras. When we have a specific problem in a factory, one of our quality engineers goes to the factory with their video camera system. The customer's quality specialist is also present virtually. This equipment allows customers to move around the plant without having to travel. So it's like the customer is in the factory. This is what we have set up recently.

Today, ICAPE Group uses a lot of virtual and video tools. Will you continue to use them?

We have invested heavily in IT. We had already invested a lot before but we have invested even more in mobility. Today anyone can work from anywhere, it doesn't matter. The machine never stops.

Thierry Ballenghien, Founder of ICAPE Group

Mr Thierry Ballenghien, founder of ICAPE group.

In addition to all these services, ICAPE GROUP is a special company since you have employee-shareholders.

17 years ago, I started offering parts of ICAPE Group capital to some employees. Afterward, I gave stock options to certain employees, we did a lot of things. Today, 90 employees hold 40% of the company's capital. I still own 60%. But ICAPE Group is their company. It's not mine.

What does it change?

Do they feel more part of a group, do they feel more invested? Did anything change when these employees became shareholders? They became both employees and shareholders. They understand that many of us have the same goal and that part of the business is theirs. And they work with their part of the business in mind. With this community vision of the company, our goal now is to try to go public. This will ensure the good liquidity of everyone's shares. Some shareholders are already retired and will benefit from a nice nest egg for their retirement. We create motivation. The secret of the success of ICAPE Group: delegating and trust. But also the fact of having employee-shareholders. Massive investments. And a clear strategy. "That creates an incredible dynamic. They are all enthusiastic. Today, they are the ones who build the ICAPE Group. It is not me. I am the conductor, I was behind the company's creation. But today they are the ones that make the success of the company.

And 22 years after the creation of this company, how is the future of ICAPE Group shaping up?

This year, we will achieve 40% growth. Customers can no longer travel, and neither can Chinese manufacturers. ICAPE Group appears, for many companies, as the only way to secure their supplies of printed circuit boards in China. Our point of view is that in the years to come, the situation will not return to the way it was before.
Many customers will continue to want a true partner already present in Asia in the event that a variant or other issues arise. Our strength, with 250 people in China and 6 different legal structures, means that many customers will continue to consider us as the strategic partner for securing their logistics supplies, printed circuit boards and other technical parts for the electronics sector. We see the future with the growth of around 30% per year for the next 4 or 5 years. We anticipate many acquisitions of competitors, many small competitors who are not doing well in the current environment. We are going to make a lot of acquisitions. We are going to make a call market, on the stock exchange, to raise funds and help us carry out these external growth operations. We also plan to create new complementary service activities for our customers. We will continue to fight to maintain the best possible competitiveness for our supplies of printed circuit boards and technical parts.

A bright future for ICAPE Group.

This is our vision for the future. Everyone is very optimistic, very dynamic and we have a lot of great projects going on at the moment.

Thierry Ballenghien, Founder of ICAPE Group

Justine Cosemans, presenter of Paroles d'experts.

Thank you very much Mr. Ballenghien for responding to all my questions. If you want to know more about ICAPE Group, go to the website www.icape-group.com. Or visit ICAPE Group social networks, LinkedIn or their YouTube channel.

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