The baroness with grande distribution in her blood


IT sounds like the novels Balzac wrote in the 19th century: Irish heiress moves to Paris and meets French aristocrat, marries him and becomes a baroness. But when I put the question to Gilliane Quinn de Schonen, she laughs and says, "I never thought of it like that - you just get on with it."

Mrs Quinn de Schonen is good-natured and practical rather than romantic. After getting a degree in economics and business studies at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1987, she became a management consultant with Bain and Co in Paris, where she met her future husband, Baron Nicolas de Schonen. He is the director of communications for a large French insurance company.

Idealism led the then Miss Quinn to Chile, where she spent a year helping 600 women from poor neighbourhoods market their handicrafts. "I thought, `here I am, 22 years old. I have a nice car, a good job, a wonderful boyfriend. I want to give something back.' If I didn't do it then, I knew I wouldn't get another chance." On returning to Paris in 1991, she married Nicolas de Schonen and had two children, Alexandra, 7, and Frederic, 5. Their third child is due at the end of the month.

Thanks to Christine Taylor, a 21-year-old woman from Clonmel who looks after her children four days a week, Mrs Quinn de Schonen says she is able to balance family life and business.

The daughter of the Irish supermarket chain owner and senator, Mr Feargal Quinn, Mrs Quinn de Schonen (32) says she left the Republic in 1987 "because there were no jobs". She and her four brothers and sisters "were all encouraged to go out and do our own thing. I didn't think it would be a good thing to join the family business straight away".

But supermarkets seem to be in her blood, and in 1997 Mrs Quinn de Schonen set up GQS Conseil to help Irish companies break into the French multiple retail market. Today, she represents Irish beef, snack and kitchen utensil exporters, and was recently hired by the French chain Monoprix to "study meal solutions" - develop ready-to-eat supermarket food so enticing that it will dissuade customers from eating in restaurants or buying take-out food.

Mrs Quinn de Schonen defines four phases in her consultancy work. "First I study the French market to see if there is potential for my clients' products," she says. "I only work with one company per industry, so there is no conflict of interest for me. In some cases, it's such a fight to get them on the shelves that it's not worth it. Then I work with the company to adapt their product to the French market. I negotiate with retail buyers like Auchan, Casino and Carrefour, and once the goods are in the stores I follow up, organising promotions."

She prefers not to comment on the "hello money" controversy in the Republic other than to say the issue has been "blown out of proportion". Charging referencing fees for distributing a new product is also a common practice in France, Mrs Quinn de Schonen says. French supermarket chains sometimes ask suppliers to share the costs of promotion campaigns, or to pay a year-end ristourne or rebate on profits.

Otherwise, "French grande distribution is different at every step of the way," Mrs Quinn de Schonen continues. "First of all, the products are different. Take a sauce with vegetables in it; the Irish want the vegetables crunchy, but the French like it all smooth and pureed. And the French don't like food too spicy. There are differences in packaging - for example, purple and blue are colours you find on British supermarket shelves. They don't sell here." In the Republic, the US and Britain "the most forceful word in marketing is `new"', Mrs Quinn de Schonen says. "If you put `new' on a label, it will sell. Not in France. They want to know that someone else has tried it."

French supermarket buyers are difficult to reach, Mrs Quinn de Schonen says. "The volumes are huge, but their offices are smaller than those of UK companies. Chances are the buyer doesn't have an international telephone line, and if he does, he doesn't want to use it, so you have to call him. The French work on much lower profit margins - usually about 1 per cent, compared to 5 per cent for the Marks & Spencers and Tescos. So you very quickly get into price discussions in France. You have to develop a final product, and then they say, `that's not bad, but it's a shame you didn't do it with this meat or that sauce'. They won't talk to you until you have the finished product."

Although French chains have central buying offices, the supplier must sometimes renegotiate with regional offices. Two particular chains are such a nightmare, Mrs Quinn de Schonen says, that she no longer deals with them. At least four other chains are more integrated, but there are still regional differences.

"They might have eight depots," she explains, "and you can negotiate to go into three of them. The hypermarkets are so huge - they often have 600 employees in one store - that they can negotiate individually." Even when Irish exporters negotiate with an integrated chain, they cannot be certain their product will be automatically distributed to every outlet. "It's very important to make sure your product is part of an obligatory line," Mrs Quinn de Schonen says. "You can't send someone around to every store to check - although that's what the big groups like BSN and Nestle do."

Geography is one of the biggest difficulties of working in France, Mrs Quinn de Schonen says. "It seems self-evident, but people forget that France is twice the size of the UK for the same population. It can take four days to get a product from an Irish plant to a supermarket shelf in the south of France."

For this reason, she says, she had to give up on a range of ultra-fresh products with a 10-day shelf life. "You can negotiate to sell only to certain depots in the Paris region," she says. "But if you don't go nationwide, you don't get into the advertising campaigns and promotions."

French chains are only now - years after British supermarkets - developing their own private label ranges. "They often have a cheap and nasty economic range, and then they bring in quality lines such as `Monoprix Gourmet'. This will help Irish manufacturers, because if you get in as an own label supplier, you are automatically distributed through the entire chain, and you don't need to invest in marketing."

The Republic enjoys a positive image in France. "You have products such as smoked salmon and butter where you want to play on that - put little green shamrocks on the label," she says. "With others, like Chinese ready-meals and pizzas, it's not worth putting an Irish label on it."

Because of the transport costs, Irish suppliers have difficulty competing with hard discount products from the continent. "You need a product with a plus; it could be taste, packaging, quality. For example one of my clients is going into French hypermarkets with special display units, instead of just dumping their merchandise in a corner. You want to get away from the price element and sell design."

Despite the language barrier, the cultural differences and the sheer red tape, Mrs Quinn de Schonen stresses, "if you do get your sales, the French market is very rewarding. The volumes are extremely high". She pulls out a pamphlet advertising her recent promotion of Irish filled jacket potatoes and spicy potato wedges.

"These went into 320 Monoprix stores," she says proudly. By comparison, dad's Superquinn chain has only 17 stores.