Food & omnichannel. Thailand shows the way
In Thailand, Central Group is the largest retailer by sales. The food subsidiary with sales of €1.8 billion turnover in 2018 is run by the grocery expert Stephane Coum, (aged 48), a former Carrefour executive. In an interview with Regine Eveno, he explored his strategy to further exploit customer data, roll out home delivery and digital innovation via partnerships with JD.com and Grab, the Uber of Thailand.
Regine Eveno: Asia’s retail landscape is characterised by very diversified conglomerates. What is the Central Group, active in Thailand, Vietnam and Italy?
Stéphane Coum: Central Group is a huge and highly diversified family conglomerate. It is run by our C.E.O. Tos Chirathivat, the grandson of the founder. With 70,000 employees and a turnover of US$13 billion in 2018, Central Group is both Thailand’s biggest mall developer and a major food, non-food and department stores retailer. We run an array of restaurants and hotels and have a large footprint within the premium segment, with our shopping malls, Centara hotels, Central and Robinsons* department stores and high-end supermarkets Central Food Hall. This anchorage comes from one of Thailand’s main characteristics. With a population of 69 million, we have 40 million tourists every year. In addition, Central Group has a strong foothold in Europe, as it took over three historical players of department stores: La Rinascente in Italy, KaDeWe in Berlin and Illum in Copenhagen. But all this diversity forms a highly relevant model, which generates customer data coming from around 30 various retail companies. This results in a huge mine of information to exploit, helping us reinforce customer engagement and win additional loyalty within our multi-brand customers via cross-brand offers.
R.E.: What persuaded you to take the helm of Thailand’s biggest grocery retailer?
S.C.: Since the end of 2018, Central Group has been looking for a successor to Pascal Billaud to take the reins of their food branch called “Central Food Retail Group”, as Billaud had been appointed Human Resources Director of Central Group. For my part, I worked for 24 years within the Carrefour Group, including 20 years in Turkey and Italy, plus China, Malaysia and Singapore. I really wanted to reconnect with Asia. My whole career helped me acquire a multi-format vision. I started in the retail industry in 1996 working in supermarkets (Stoc stores), then I ran the Ankara hypermarket in Turkey from 2003 to 2005. I became Regional Manager
for the Carrefour hypermarkets in China, Malaysia and Singapore. Between 2013 and 2017, I successfully completed the turnaround of Carrefour-Italy supermarkets (500 stores including 250 fully owned units for an annual turnover of €2 billion). I developed a “cluster” strategy (premium stores, urban stores …) and implemented “round the clock” opening. Finally, I headed Carrefour-Italy for 12 months. In early 2019, the Central Group contacted me to start discussions.
R.E.: How big and strategic is the grocery business within Central Group?
S.C.: In 2018, the sales of Central Food Retail reached €1.8 billion via a large panel of banners. My business includes the “Tops” store network, which comes in three formats: 12 hypermarkets covering 3,500 to 4,000 sq.m GLA (Tops Superstores), 115 supermarkets (Tops stores) partly bought from Ahold in 2004 plus 80 mini-shops of about 230 sq.m GLA (Tops Daily). We also manage 11 high-end supermarkets (Central Food Hall), which are in our own shopping malls. We have a 51% stake in our joint venture with the Japanese retail company Family Mart, which manages 1,008 convenience stores in Thailand (Family Mart brand). Finally, we operate the Segafredo cafes and the beauty chain Matsumoto Kiyoshi (a joint venture with Japan’s biggest drugstore chain).
R.E.: What is your priority in this 69-million inhabitant market, against rivals such as Tesco Lotus, Makro and 7-Eleven?