Decathlon has spent the last 40 years innovating with the aim of making sport accessible to all. The company’s founders, Benoît, Didier, Hervé, Nicolas, Stanislas and Stéphane, are passionate, bursting with energy and common sense, and driven by Michel Leclercq’s vision. They talk about how our company first started and subsequently expanded worldwide, growing from 7 to 70,000 employees.
In 1976, the AS Saint-Etienne football team turned France green with their epic European tale, Guy Drut hoisted the Tricolor at the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and a certain Bernard Hinault amassed an impressive stash of amateur titles. Sport has always been high on the agenda in France, and it’s becoming more popular all the time. It was during this boom in sporting federations and clubs, which boasted seven million members, that the Decathlon adventure began, in the car park of the Auchan shopping centre in Englos, about thirteen miles from Lille.
9,999 Francs and a pair of socks
The very first Decathlon opened its doors on 27 July 1976. It soon had everyone talking: a store dedicated exclusively to sport was something of a revolution! For the very first time, people who enjoyed playing sport could find a wide range of equipment and clothing all under one roof and at extremely competitive prices. On the company’s first day of trading, 27 July 1976, word was quick to spread. “When we closed for the day, we quickly counted our takings: 9,999 Francs!” remembers Benoît Poizat. “We bought a pair of socks to make it 10,000!” Decathlon found its style and its customer base, and soon took off.
Tens of thousands of employees have since jumped on board. This pioneering team of “friendly nutters”, as Benoît Poizat likes to refer to them, saw that the passion for sport remained undimmed. There were setbacks, of course, but each obstacle was viewed as an opportunity. There is no shortage of examples where Decathlon has bounced back. “In the months leading up to the opening, when we were holding initial meetings with our suppliers, the store hadn’t even been built. We met them in a dilapidated house, and had to sound convincing. If they arrived when it had been raining, they had to come in through the window, as the door had swollen! At that time, our first store was still just a blueprint, but the unique Decathlon spirit was already a reality,” says Benoît, with a knowing smile.
Its name will be Decathlon
At the beginning of 1976, Stanislas Ernoult returned from a round-the-world trip. He had heard from his sporty friends about Michel Leclercq’s project and decided to apply. “I had done three years of business studies, but meeting Michel was when it all clicked into place. From the outset he gave us an enormous amount of autonomy and required us to be pragmatic, both constantly and in the future.” The challenges started to pile up: selecting products, managing supplier relations, drawing up budgets, and – not a simple task – choosing a company name. Michel Leclercq consulted with his employees. “We had lots of brainstorming sessions,” remembers Stanislas Ernoult. Pentathlon, Triathlon, Décathlon, Marathon, Sportland and Sportmarché were all thrown into the ring. There was a veritable string of names! “I think there must have been several dozen. We took our time. In the end, Decathlon encapsulated the ten main sports we wanted to feature in our store.” Decathlon it was. “But, to prevent a future competitor from pinching one of the other suggestions at a later date, we also registered exclusive rights to those too!” continues Stan. A decade on and the group was building small city-centre stores under the name Marathon, before these same stores became Decat’ stores that we see now.
From the very beginning, the company decided to locate wherever there was customer demand, in stores of varying sizes and on different land types, but always under the same name. Decathlon became synonymous with “All sports under one roof”.
A desire to learn and to do
Once the foundations were in place, it was time to get stuck in: Stanislas took charge of the fishing department, Benoît hunting, Stéphane cycling… The philosophy was clear from the outset: in order to serve and support customers in store, you had to get involved with them outside the work arena. And this rule applied to all of Decathlon’s partners. “Michel said to me: ‘Go and fish with your suppliers!’” laughs Stan. Benoît convinced Manufrance to take him on for a fortnight’s placement so he could gain his stripes!
“Appealing ranges and affordable prices. Already it was about making sport universally accessible. With each new day, we learned to adapt. Nowadays, we’d call it a young start-up. A proper adventure.” A desire to learn and to do: that’s the company DNA. This was Michel Leclercq’s mantra that he reiterated in the training sessions that he still conducts at Campus, Decathlon’s head office, for both French and international employees. It’s a message that Benoît Poizat also strives to deliver. “Look at what I’ve told you and look at what you’re doing now; look at the similarities,” explains Benoît. “I always ask the younger members of our teams, ‘Do you play with other keen sports people, regardless of their level? Are you still on the customer’s side? Thinking about what their purchasing power is?’ That’s been the secret behind Decathlon’s success since 1976, and there’s no question of abandoning this approach. Our customers know that we’re completely behind them in this respect, and in many others, such as delivering practical and accessible innovation. That’s what they love us for, and we’ll never let them down!”
In July 1976, customer contact was already being done directly. Managers had their office in the store. “There was a table on a podium at the end of a row,” remembers Stanislas Ernoult. “Customers came and asked their questions face to face.” On the badges worn by the sales assistants were the words: “Sportifs satisfaits, c’est mon métier” [keeping sportspeople happy is my job]. This slogan would live on, evolving seamlessly into today’s “satisfied or satisfied” tagline.
The hard work was still to come
Customers are the crucial foundations. But everything else was still to be created, such as management, advertising and supervision. Initiative and confidence are the key virtues in fledgling businesses. The Leclercq method. “There was a great atmosphere between us all,” remembers Didier Decramer. “We loved coming to work, and creating every day. And we also did lots of sport together.” The physical exercise and group sharing sessions took place in the morning, as the Englos store only opened in the afternoon, except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when it was families and children day. “But because of how successful the store was, our morning sport sessions only lasted six months. We were soon opening all day long, six days a week,” said Benoît, who retains a certain fondness for his “founding pioneer”. “Michel led us, trained us and debriefed us. He said to us: ‘As soon as you’ve drawn up your mission, go for it; I have faith in you.’”
Aged 24 in 1976, Benoît had never built a store before. He listened, discussed and got stuck in. Gérard Allenet, who had joined the business a few months prior to the Englos store opening, was the final piece in the jigsaw. “I was mad about sport, and I saw a job advert looking for a store department supervisor, so I tried my luck.” Michel Leclercq was in fact looking to recruit a general services manager. “Michel was clear about it and told me his vision for general services: accounting, toilet cleaning, shopping bag distribution at the store entrance, etc. I said, ‘Let’s do it!’” Gérard got down to work. “Michel got us all extremely animated. He’d say, ‘We have to do what they’re doing in the US: when a customer comes in, you say “Good morning” and give them a bag. One – it’s a word of welcome and shows respect, and two – it’s better if they can fill their bag.’ On my first day, I did just that.” Learning on the job was the pioneers’ chosen motto, and tens, hundreds and thousands of other employees would soon be getting the bug!
Down-to-earth, common sense
After supervising the building of the first store, the young Poizat was put in charge of prospecting in order to open a second a year later. “I had two options in mind in Roncq (a town near Lille), both of which were at the entrance to the big Auchan car park. Michel advised me to carry out a slightly different type of survey; some empirical market research: we counted every car that entered! It was down-to-earth, common sense: about as realistic as you could get.“
Decathlon was rewriting the rule book, winning over customers and raising a few eyebrows in the sports manufacturing industry. Benoît Poizat recalls, “When our suppliers saw our unbeatable price policy, some of them boycotted us. We opened in July, and by August the shelves were virtually empty. We displayed some posters explaining that suppliers didn’t want to deliver our goods because we were selling them too cheaply. Already we were sending out a message that we had the customer’s best interests at heart. Michel Leclercq asked his employees to take the suppliers to court for refusing to sell. Many successful court proceedings ensued.“
Here’s what happened with the skis range. At the beginning of the winter season, the Mountain sports manager was desperately awaiting his order placed with a well-known and highly regarded manufacturer. The skis made by this brand were already being stocked by sports stores in Lille city centre. “We then found out from another retailer that this brand had confirmed it didn’t want to supply Decathlon,” says Benoît Poizat. “So, we hired a van, drove to Paris and bought up virtually all the stock from a specialist store, wangling a discount into the bargain for passing ourselves off as being a club. We stocked up our shelves in our Englos store and called the brand, saying: ‘We found out you weren’t going to supply us… there’s just one problem: our store is already full of your skis.’ We added: ‘If you fail to honour this order, next week we will put an advert in the paper selling off all your skis at purchase price!’ Three days later, we received a delivery.”
This headstrong bunch of Northerners has stood firm and become known for communication and advertising methods and techniques that were slightly unorthodox but extremely effective.
The first Decathlon products
It was officially in 1986 that the business created, designed and manufactured the first ever Decathlon products. This marked the beginning of the Passion Brands story. When it first opened in 1976, Decathlon was in fact already selling an own-brand product: the Decathlon bicycle, that you can still sometimes see out and about! “To start with, manufacturers weren’t keen to sell us their products,” remembers Benoît Poizat. We took them to court and, one by one, they agreed.” Given the initial refusal by major manufacturers to supply Decathlon, taken aback as they were by our small margins, Stéphane Delesalle, cycle department manager in our first store, had the idea to go and see Leleu, a bicycle manufacturer in Lomme, near Lille. “Would it bother you if we stuck our name on it?” Not at all. And Leleu was happy to produce the first cycles ever to go on sale at Decathlon. At that time, they came in just one colour: grey. “But they were available in all sizes,” remembers Benoît Poizat. This was something that other cycle manufacturers simple weren’t doing. Marketing – without knowing it. Metallic grey Decathlon bikes were instantly recognisable from afar.” It was success guaranteed, and the start of steady growth.
These pioneering years have already illustrated Decathlon’s entire philosophy. “We did it in ’76 and we’re still doing it in 2016: taking our customers’ side by building on our core values – that’s the secret,” explains Benoît Poizat. “In our line of business, we’re pretty sure that in the week following a purchase, our customer is in a changing room or stadium somewhere. If they’re impressed by our services and products, they’ll tell those around them that Decathlon is great! DIY doesn’t have a changing room, and neither does food and drink, but sport does! It’s a valuable growth market, but we’ve been both demanding and disciplined in our approach. From novices to top level sportspeople, and from children to seniors, sport for all is not wishful thinking but a reality.” Decathlon: the home of specially designed products that are both user-friendly and safe, fulfil a specific sporting need and represent unbeatable value.
Growing with the business
In the summer of 1976, Didier Decramer was tasked with organising his horse riding department. “Nobody ever told me what I should be offering people. It was up to me to choose the range. Every week I analysed the sales to check whether my range was suitable. We had a framework explaining how to work with a supplier, but I was free to conduct negotiations as I chose.” And I always went to great lengths to get the best deal for the customer. “I drove my Renault 12 estate to Walsall, near Birmingham, England, home to the best leather tanneries. I studied the directory and jotted down the addresses of saddle makers. I then went to visit them, one by one. They were extremely nice until the point where I asked for a discount. Then my English was no longer much use, but I knew that I was doing the right thing for my customers!” He filled his estate car with equipment and returned to the north of France, via Calais and customs. “We brought it all back on the Friday evening, labelled it all during the night and, by Saturday morning, it was all on display in store. And I had calculated my own sales prices. It is only through action that we make progress.“
Ten years after the Englos store opened, Decathlon had already long been Michel Leclercq’s visionary chain of stores, by developing the same concept and retaining the same values. Setting up Decathlon Production enabled them to finally develop products designed and made by the company, ten years after Decathlon first displayed its stickers on Leleu’s cycles.
“The people of Decathlon have always remained at the heart of this project,” insists Didier Decramer who, like the others, has steadily flourished within the business, going from one role to another and from one area to another, buoyed by his ambitions and facilitated by the training opportunities on offer. “We have all grown with the business,” continues Gérard Allenet. “This recipe for success is equally valid now that there are over 15,000 of us in France.” Forty years ago there were just seven people heading in the right direction. “Our start-up is 40 years old,” chorus Michel and Gérard with a forthright laugh, before finishing – by way of farewell – “We’ll see you again in another 40, to blow out 80 candles!”