The man with a child in his eyes

PROFILE : Dominique Duvauchelle. David Bowen meets the Parisian who has turned ailing Meccano into a nuts-and-bolts business
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Dominique Duvauchelle is very French. The way he looks, the way he thinks, the angle at which he smokes his cigarette - they could hardly be more Gallic. Yet the people who owe Mr Duvauchelle the greatest debt are British. For he is owner and therefore guardian of the hallowed institution of Meccano. He runs Meccano SA from an office near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and at his factory in Calais 350 people churn out trunnions, contrate wheels and swivel bearings that recall a gentler age of short trousers and school caps.

He does not make trunnions just to please middle-aged Englishmen, of course. Mr Duvauchelle, who is still only 44 despite his grey-white hair, is a seriously successful businessman who is working hard to rebuild a battered brand. His over-riding interest is not in pleasing the confirmed hobbyist, but in recapturing the customer that almost escaped: the child.

At a market researcher's office in western Paris we are staring intently through a two-way mirror. A bespectacled eight-year-old is discussing a Meccano television advertisement he has just watched. "J'ai l'impression que c'est cool, c'est splendide, c'est extraordinaire," he says. Mr Duvauchelle looks chuffed.

He considers that, as president of the company, his main job is to get inside the minds of kids. "I buy their music, their papers, their books," he says. In the process he has developed a theory to explain why Meccano can flourish in a world of instant gratification. It will never again be a mass toy, but he believes there is a kind of child - the patient kind - who will take to Meccano. It is more challenging than Lego and more satisfying than video games and he is convinced that children need a tangible balance to virtual play.

There is a key, he says, to a successful construction toy: it must be difficult enough to challenge a child, but not so hard that he cannot complete it. This balance is difficult to judge, especially as the standards vary from country to country. In Germany, for example, children can be challenged hard, whereas in the US they give up with hardly a struggle. Japan, a market that Meccano is investigating, is the strangest because the children believe they have to build all the models as quickly as possible.

His close attention to the juvenile psyche seems to be paying off. When he bought Meccano in 1989 it was turning over pounds 6m and employing 60 people. He will not give away current figures (the toy business is notoriously secretive), but hints that sales are up by around 15 times - so pounds 100m is a good guess.

Mr Duvauchelle came from a modest Parisian family. He was bright but at 17 dropped out of school - risky in a country where formal qualifications count for so much. But "university seemed too easy", he says, and he was by nature an entrepreneur. He set up a window-cleaning business, hiring other people to do the work and keeping half the takings. When he was 21, he bought a job lot of furniture from the family of a man who had died, drove it to the Netherlands and sold it at a profit. That was the basis of a successful business selling antiques to the USA and the Netherlands.

But he had his cerebral side too. In the early 1970s he was sharing a house with a bunch of professionals, including people from the advertising industry. Mr Duvauchelle found himself joining in their brainstorming sessions, and after a while agencies started to employ him just to think. He was soon earning so much that he could spend two weeks every month on holiday.

This was the protest era and Mr Duvauchelle protested, but in a singularly intellectual (French) way. "I was involved in an anti-psychiatric group," he says, explaining that his interest had been aroused when he read Freud at 15, and that he had spent five months working in a mental hospital "to find out how crazy people are treated".

He got married at 24 and "became conventional for 15 years". He did well, rising rapidly through Citroen, where he learned about factories, before being headhunted to organise diversification at the private construction giant Bouygues. In six years he acquired so many companies that turnover went from Fr10bn (pounds 1.2bn) to Fr55bn. He was a protege of Francis Bouygues "who gave a chance to young people - he trusted me". He also learned the secret of good management. "You need to know which technology to use, and also how to get people to work together. In any company there must be something magic to link people together: probably I have this talent."

When Mr Bouygues fell ill Mr Duvauchelle bailed out. At 38 he was one of the top 15 people in the company, he had made a lot of money, and he decided it was time to start off on his own. He had plenty of merchant banking contacts, and after three months he heard Meccano was for sale. The bankers were worried it would be too small for him. "I said Meccano, Meccano - for me it was big. I could not believe it would be small."

That Meccano was still alive at all was something of a miracle. From its peak in the 1950s the British group had slippeddownwards, unable to keep up with changing children's tastes. After several ownership changes it collapsed in 1980. That was not the end of the brand though. In the 1920s Meccano had set up a factory in France - many French children, including the young Duvauchelle, grew up assuming it was a domestic product. In 1971, during one of the ownership shifts, the French operation was bought by the US group General Mills.

Not that this involvement was happy: Meccano was in a sorry state when it was sold to a French accountant, Marc Rebibo, in 1985. He brought the company under control but did not invest; when he put it on the market in 1989 it was very much a tiny operation.

Mr Duvauchelle leapt at the opportunity because he was looking for an industrial consumer products company; that it was also a famous brand was a bonus. His financiers told him to close the factory and import the parts from Asia. He would not. "I like factories, it's a very personal thing," he says. He also reckoned the 15 per cent cost-saving from importing would be more than balanced by the extra flexibility of manufacturing close to the market.

He set about rebuilding the brand with gusto. Hiring bright young managers (70 per cent of his staff are female - "I like women," he says) he marketed aggressively, first in France, then in Britain and the USA. At first the traditional hobbyists were suspicious of his concentration on the children's market. "We said you can help us by helping kids' perceptions. It took us five years to convince them that children were more important than adults. Now they set up play areas at their exhibitions."

The toy industry is dominated by a handful of giants, mostly American, who are always on the lookout for companies to gobble. Last year one of the biggest, Mattel, laid siege to Meccano, and for nine months he fought frantically to rally his shareholders. He succeeded by the skin of his teeth. Mattel ended up with 45 per cent of the shares pledged. But there is a silver lining for Mr Duvauchelle. He purged the disloyal shareholders, and now owns 55 per cent of the company.

He does have his exit planned. In two or three years' time, he says, he will hand over to the managers he has trained, and look for other things to do. These will include sculpture, writing essays and having dinner with girls (he divorced four years ago). In other words, he will continue being very French.