Located in the town of Louhans in the east of France, Dominique Prudent’s refrigerated transport and warehousing company is not your average mid-sized company. At a first glance, Prudent is just as computerised as any modern cold chain business and at least equally efficient, but at its heart, it is still very much a family enterprise.
While many expanding mid-tier businesses tend to lose that family feel somewhere along the way, Prudent has managed to weave in a certain warmth into the corporate agenda – some long-term employees call it a “soul”.
At first sight, however, the Prudent head office doesn’t give away too much of that unconventional approach to big business. Outside the modern building, a row of neatly aligned trucks is waiting to be dispatched – each of them bearing the crisp blue and white Prudent livery everyone in the Burgundy region would be able to spot from a mile away. The company slogan ‘Fresh is our Daily Challenge’ is ubiquitous on the parking lot, reminding everyone that performance is key to making it in the highly contested marketplace that is commercial road transport.
But then there is Dominique Prudent himself. The 54-year-old entrepreneur can look back at a typical career in trucking – starting off with only one truck and himself as the sole employee, he virtually built Prudent from scratch through hard work and personal commitment. Until today, he is out in the yard every day to have a chat with drivers and warehouse staff and get a first-hand impression of how the business is faring.
“I grew up here in the area and started working as a staff driver for Gervais Danone in 1981,” he says. Then 21-year-old, Danone encouraged him to purchase a truck and work as a sub-contractor instead, promising a full load every day and no late invoicing. He said yes.
Prudent’s work attitude soon impressed the Danone management and word of it spread in the region – so much so that he was able to hire additional staff and quickly pick up more work. Today, Prudent is a highly recognised cold chain specialist covering the entire east of France, from Strasbourg in the north to Nice in the south and everything in between.
The company’s main warehouse in the Louhans suburb of Barges measures some 10,000m2 in size and is operating around the clock, six days a week. The vast company fleet – including some 23 rigid trucks as well as 86 truck and semi-trailer combinations – services the region’s most prestigious food producers, most of which are medium-sized and have a close friendship with Mr Prudent himself. The region is known for producing high quality chicken, cheese and meat, and many businesses only trust local partners to handle the precious freight.
Personal contact is of utmost importance to Dominique Prudent – be it with customers, business partners or his own team back in Louhans, who all call him by his first name or even his nickname, Dro-Dro. In fact, creating a positive work environment is so important to him that he recently opened a company-owned day care centre for more than 40 children.
“In our area you get up early and go to bed late,” he explains. “That’s why our day care centre is open from 6am to 8pm and can be used by both company employees and other families from around here.
“I don’t want to earn money from it, instead I want to help families and especially women to combine children and career. We just about cover our costs with the project, but in terms of social contribution, it is hugely profitable.”
Unsurprisingly, Dominique Prudent is hugely popular amongst his staff, who admire him for his energy and commitment, but also the ability to make quick decisions and his amazing memory. An ‘urban myth’ in the warehouse is that the boss doesn’t even need a computer to run the show.
Next to the day care centre, Prudent has also established a company owned workshop that is used by many transport businesses in the area. “Logistics is an easy job for me”, says Prudent, ignoring the immense workload behind it all. “I guess I have just been lucky in that I always managed to stay ahead of my time.”
To remain at the forefront of refrigerated transport, Prudent recently developed an interest in environmental friendliness and sustainability, hoping that new technology will help the company reduce its carbon footprint notably over the next decade.
Despite that faith in technology, however, Dominique Prudent still is a ‘horses for courses’ kind of businessman. “Our customers put us under pressure to control our cost base. That’s why I call upon the manufacturers to not come up with Ferraris. We want trucks and trailers that are reliable and function smoothly, because that’s all our customers are prepared to pay for.”
Naturally, Prudent’s long haul drivers get access to more comfortable vehicles than those in local delivery, but on the trailer front, there is only one option for him. “If you want to survive and keep costs under control, you need to continuously search for the right balance between quality and price. That’s why I say ‘make reasonably priced trailers and leave out what you can’.”
For both trucks and trailers, Prudent prefers a variety of brands. More recently, German OEM Krone had a good run – mostly because they met Prudent’s brief of providing the right balance of functionality and price. “It’s reliable German technology, just like my car. They are robust and reliable.”
While trucks are usually replaced every four years at Transports Prudent, trailers have to last eight years or more, depending on the application. “We use the trailers for as long as possible, in the end often only as a back up,” he says, revealing that legislation could soon impact his replacement regime as noise reduction and emissions control are becoming more important in the EU. “Large-scale companies often find it easier to react to this kind of pressure. But we have good employees, quality workers, and among them many young people, so I’m positive.”
Despite that strong foundation, the future does bother Dominique Prudent from time to time. At 54 years of age, he still is a bachelor and doesn’t have any children to inherit the business. “I still have so many ideas, but will I have the time to put them into practice? I don’t know. At some point it may become unavoidable to join forces with a larger group just secure the existence of the company.”
Until then, he is working 24/7 and trying to live life to the fullest. From spring through to autumn, the business has his full attention, and so does the farm he has built two kilometres down the road in reminiscence of his childhood and youth. From December to April, however, he is now working as a ski instructor in the French ski resort of Courchevel.
After discovering skiing in his mid-thirties, Prudent got the ski bug and decided to become part of the Courchevel 1850 ski school elite – the resort’s highest, and highest-priced, village. In 2002, he finally joined the exclusive club.
“I like setting high goals and doing everything to achieve them. But all that is nothing compared to setting up the day care centre,” he says. “That’s what I’m really proud of.”