ALLIANCE IN HEALTH
Already a major healthcare brand, Alliance Boots wants the world to know it’s serious about becoming global champion of the sector in three years. The man telling its story? Director of group communication Yves Romestan. Neil Gibbons reports
Photographs by Sam Friedrich
I’ve never worked for a company like this one,” says Yves Romestan, the French-born director of group communications for pharmacy-led health and beauty group Alliance Boots. And as he expounds on the “entrepreneurial spirit” that still characterises the group, it’s hard not to be swept along by his boundless enthusiasm.
We’re sat in the Surrey offices of Alliance Boots (the group headquarters are in Switzerland) and Yves is enthusiastically sharing the qualities that make Alliance Boots unique.
“It’s truly international,” he says. “Our largest shareholders are American. Our headquarters are in Switzerland. Our most popular brand, Boots, is British. Our key markets are the UK, France, Germany, Turkey, Italy and China. In this building, we have 22 nationalities with seven in the comms team. On the board of directors, there are six nationalities.”
The group was formed in 2006 through a merger of the listed British high street pharmacist Boots Group and the pan-European wholesale and retail pharmacy group Alliance UniChem. Initially listed as a British plc on the London Stock Exchange, Alliance Boots was bought out in 1997 in a private equity transaction by executive chairman Stefano Pessina.
Yet despite its sprawling size and collective history – its roots date back to 19th century – the group is, says Yves, driven by entrepreneurialism. “Quality is the focus, not process. We often work on project basis and we’re keen, for example, to give opportunities to young talent. We put them in conditions of potential success and we back them. And our two CEOs to who I report - Ornella Barra and Alex Gourlay - are showing how we can make a difference with the Three Es: energy, enthusiasm, engagement.”
Because of its entrepreneurialism, Yves believes the group has an exciting story to tell from a comms perspective. Its agility of mindset has meant it can surprise its peers. Recently, the launch of its own skincare range, Boots Laboratories, in continental Europe startled other companies in the market, as did the fact that within weeks it had taken such a significant market share.
The same boldness applies internally. When it had to review its brand portfolio after the merger, “we took the industry by surprise” by aggressively rolling out the Alliance Healthcare brand in all our markets despite some countries being less than sure. For example, the Alliance Santé name in France and UniChem in the UK were familiar and respected brands. But it pushed ahead with the roll out. “Now our brand strategy is viewed as a model for others.”
But, for all his employer’s ambition, Yves is pleased it isn’t so fixated with the bottom line that it neglects corporate citizenship. “We are healthcare business,” he says. “That means ours isn’t a neutral attitude. We care about what’s happening in the world. It’s no coincidence our CSR is so well developed. It’s not been developed for the sake of corporate beauty or because we feel guilty.”
In the UK, its CSR stance is showcased most prominently in the partnership between Macmillan Cancer Support and Boots.
As director of group communications, Yves is clear about his priorities for the coming months and years. Firstly, he wants to build the corporate brand very quickly – easier in some territories than others. “In the UK, there’s a very positive overlap between Boots and Alliance Boots,” he says. “There’s a kind of mutual reinforcement between the retail brand and the corporate brand. In many other countries, such as France and Germany, there’s insufficient brand equity to do that. So we need to make sure there’s more recognition for the corporate brand to develop.”
The second priority is to launch what he calls “a new phase of internal communications”. With Alliance Boots effectively only five years old, there’s some way to go in establishing a strong shared culture. “We do have a culture but need to go further,” he says. “It’s not only about a feeling of belonging, it’s about being happy together – not for its own beauty, but because behaving like an engaged entity is what will help the group to become global in the coming years.”
That kind of employee engagement will be achieved through a number of different channels. The first is a three-day group convention to be held in Monte Carlo in June, the group’s first since 2008. It will bring together more than 1,000 delegates from 25 countries. “The theme is ‘Becoming a global healthcare champion’,” says Yves. “We want to use it to share what the roadmap is, but more importantly it will impact beyond the delegates who are there.”
This year will also see the launch of new internal publications, plus a new multimedia platform in September. “And we’re thinking of creating a internal radio and television network.”
Yves also plans to address external comms activities. “We’re developing our PR activity internationally,” he says. To that end, he and his team are planning ‘discovery trips’ customised for journalists from several different countries.
Finally, he and his team are working on a structured crisis plan – all part of drawing on the shared experiences of Alliance Boots’ international businesses to create a knowledge bank that benefits the whole group. The crisis plan should mean that local business in unfortunate circumstances aren’t thrown into panic but instead have a relatively structured plan to work to. In all these things, Yves is assisted by a small but dedicated central team while country and business unit communications teams throughout the group also report to him.
In all, the Alliance Boots comms function includes just over 100 people.
His department is comprised of five workstreams: PR, headed by Sanam Conway and supported by Finsbury; financial communications; events & brands, which organises around 30 significant events a year; internal communications; and multimedia and digital comms.
It all seems a long way from Paris and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, where Yves had graduated in political science and public law. So how did he come to find himself in such an exalted role in the comms profession? “Basically I was motivated by three professions: being a journalist, a lawyer or a civil servant.”
He says he’d always had a leaning towards journalism, producing his first publication on a stencil kit in boarding school. “I was interested in transparency, governance, rectifying things, and especially making the story interesting enough to make people care about the big picture.”
That said, he could see the appeal of law too. “Some people say not everybody always deserves to be defended. But not me. I worked for Total, the oil company, for 11 years. And it was considered a black sheep by public opinion.”
And he also liked the idea of being a civil servant, passionate as he is about the idea of collective successes, with people working together to achieve goals.
Making stories interesting, defending those under scrutiny, collective success – how did he choose between them? “I didn’t,” he says. “I realised that in communications, I could pursue all three in one.”
Which is how in 1979 he came to find himself in the press office for Total, in Paris - a demanding job. “It needed real commit – long hours and often no weekends. I’d start dealing with problems arising in Asia at 3am and I’d usually leave after the New York Stock Exchange closing bell.”
His work involved responding to a succession of issues: M&A activity, distribution problems, war with supermarket chains, refining problems in Europe, political instability in the Middle East and Africa, competition issues….
After 11 years, he left the firm to head up PR for the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique, France’s atomic energy commission. It was a change of scene but hardly a rest – by his reckoning, he handled 55 crises in the 18 months he was there.
In 1992, he took a new role, as head of external communications for Banques Popularaires Group. There, he designed an ad concept that is still running successfully to this day. “It was based on the idea that being popular means being chosen by everyone. The commercial featured a tribe of Indians who’d lost their compass and arrived in centre of Paris. It ended with them knocking at the door of a Banque Popularies branch.”
His next role, as director of external communications at Lafarge, presented him with an unfamiliar challenge: “I was faced with a wall of indifference. Who cares about cement and building materials?”
So he set about addressing that, unifying all the disparate components of the group, and developing international PR, all of which helped to boost the brand awareness of the growing firm, which became world number one a few years ago.
It means that Yves has seen his career take in reactive fire-fighting roles as well as more proactive, strategic comms. “I see them as complementary,” he says. “To be good at being reactive, you have to have been proactive and do the groundwork.
“You need to make sure you have strong pillars, a strong basis. And that needs work. When I was at Total, the job was mainly about managing the press and avoiding long lasting crisis. Same for the atomic energy commission. At Lafarge, Brandt and Bouygues Construction, it was about forging a new company. The beauty of Alliance Boots is that it’s about designing that unique healthcare group.”
He joined the household appliance group Brandt where he steered a new communications strategy and then Bouygues Construction, until 2003. “But I had really been looking for a change.”
He and a friend had been secretly working on project of their own: a new housing estate concept which was almost ready to bring to market. And so after three years at Bouygues, Yves was all but ready to give up work and launch the concept in Paris.
“In the UK, there’s overlap between Boots and Alliance Boots, a mutual reinforcement between the retail and corporate brands. In other markets, we need to make sure recognition of the corporate brand develops”
But that was until 2003 when he was headhunted by Alliance UniChem. He was asked to become its director of corporate communications – an offer he thought he couldn’t refuse. Initially, the position was due to be based in Paris. But after several rounds of interviews, he was told it based in London. Rather than losing interest in the role, Yves and his wife Angelina jumped at the opportunity to live and work in the UK.
The transition to the UK was effortless. “My British neighbours and friends have been really helpful. But you have to be bold. You have to remain genuine. You can’t hope to succeed if you don’t.”
It also helps that while his family share his interest in healthcare – wife Angelina is a GP, as his sister Lesley – he has plenty to occupy his downtime. He has two young children, Laetitia and Alex, as well as a grown-up daughter Vanina, an international lawyer. And he has taken to cycling – although days before our interview he had suffered a fall avoiding a passing dog.
Not that the accident seems to have dimmed his enthusiasm. He’s now planning a cycling challenge from London to Paris to raise money for five of his favourite charities, quite a test for a man who – how to put this? – doesn’t seem to be a natural athlete. But that’s precisely what is motivating Yves to take on the challenge.
“The concept is ‘Yves You Can’t’,” he says. “It’s like Obama’s slogan ‘Yes You Can’, but this is about all the reasons why I normally say I can’t – age, smoking, a health track record which isn’t what you’d wish fo
r, the fact I hate sports, as well as the fact I’m not very physically persistent. All the reasons why I shouldn’t be able to do it are the reasons I’m going to make it happen.” Yves hopes to make the trip in September this year or more likely July next year. But of course work must come first – especially with Alliance Boots set on a course of such ambitious growth. “The key thing is what the group aims to become in the next three to four years,” he says. “It’s that ambition which makes communications potentially instrumental.
“We currently operate in 25 countries. Stefano Pessina wants to make our group global which might mean that the company doubles in size and grows by 50% in the coming years. To fund expansion, we have to perform even better and at the same time reduce debt. Comms could be quite important to that.”
All of which means, that for Yves and the Alliance Boots executive team, it’s a 24/7 job.
“When you’re at home at 9 or 10 at night, you want to settle down with a glass of St Emilion and watch a good movie. But if someone calls from the other side of the world with a burning issue they need to discuss, I have to welcome the caller as if he’s the first of the day. But it’s also the beauty of the job and one of the reasons I’m so proud to be doing it.”
Curriculum Vitae: Yves Romestan
2003 – date Director of group communications, Alliance Boots
2000 – 2003 Director of communications, Bouygues Construction
1998 – 2000 Director of group communications, Brandt Group
1993 – 1998 Director of external communications, Lafarge Group
1992 – 1993 Head of external communications, Banques Populaires Group
1990 – 1992 Head of PR, CEA (French Atomic Energy Commission)
1979 – 1990 Head of press relations, Total Group
Education: Graduated from IEP (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris) in Public Law.
Interests: Family (married with three children), vintage cars and wines