Interview with Marc Debussche, Senior VP company-operated retail and e-commerce at Delhaize Belgium
Marc Debussche may not have a university degree or an MBA but that doesn’t bother him, as this is a man who has developed his C.V. in the field by exploring all areas of retail over the years. Today, he’s in charge of the 136 Delhaize stores within Belgium, the City chain and the e-commerce sites, as well as being a member of the Delhaize Belgium executive committee.
A cursory glance at his LinkedIn profile indicates that Marc Debussche launched his career in Indonesia in 2000 with Super Indo, a supermarket chain in which the Delhaize Group has a 51% stake. That’s wrong...but at the same time right. It’s wrong because Marc Debussche began his career not in 2000 but 19 years earlier, when he was taken on by a Delhaize store of which he would eventually become the manager. But it’s also right, because his stint in Jakarta marked the “debut” of a career within the upper echelons of the Lion-brand group.
So isn’t what happened before 2000 of any importance to this “100% Delhaize product” who has clocked up 31 years with the firm? Far from it. He’s proud of his early career path and is refreshingly complex-free about it. It’s just that he’s rather low-key. Features and interviews involving Marc Debussche are few and far between in the press. His profile may be atypical (he has no university education) but he has many strings to his bow, despite emphasising that he’s “no example to follow” when it comes to education.
Have you found not having a university degree a handicap?
Marc Debussche: “Not at all. I forged my experience on the ground. It’s been a plus point compared to others who had only a theoretical approach to the profession. In fact, I’ve been undergoing education all my life, even if I don’t have a degree certificate to prove it. I’ve always read a lot and kept on learning. My family was full of university graduates and my education was profoundly intellectual, so I don’t have any hang-ups about it. In a sense, I believe I’ve ‘been to university’ a lot more than many people who graduate, as in order to perform well, you need to study throughout your life. Mind you, I’m not saying I’m an example to be followed!”
Would you say then that you’re the exception that confirms the rule regarding having to study in order to have a career?
“I believe it’s necessary to study and to do it seriously. That’s the advice I would give in all cases, as it’s important to be well equipped intellectually and to lay the foundations that will help you to learn to learn.”
So it’s do as I say, not as I have done?
“Let’s just say that when I was young, I suddenly found myself with a lot of regular outgoings – like a car and a girlfriend – and my sponsor, my father, no longer wished to finance me. I found a student job with Delhaize and ended up never leaving the company although my initial plan had been to eventually take over the family business.”
Do you regret that? It’s not too late to set up your own business...
“Not in the slightest. Becoming a store manager a few years after first joining Delhaize put an end to my thoughts about taking over the family business. As for setting up my own company, I wouldn’t want to do that anymore either. To be honest, not being self-employed is a fortunate thing, as it helps me avoid working myself to death like my father did. Although I put a lot of myself into Delhaize, I benefit from more flexibility than I would if I was self-employed. That’s a good thing, as I can at least relax on Sundays (laughs). But if I’d worked for myself and thrown myself into it like I have for Delhaize, would I be happier? I don’t know the answer to that and I never will.”
Haven’t you ever wanted to “experience something different”?
“Delhaize has offered me the opportunity to experience a new challenge every three years, an opportunity that I’ve made the most of. So I’ve been able to experience all areas of retail. I started off on the shop floor before becoming the manager. I then became a regional director in charge of up to 15 stores. I was also involved in the development of the new Roodebeek concept, before moving into the purchasing sector.”
Then you were offered the role in Indonesia...
“Denis Knoops, who was executive director of Delhaize Pacific at the time, was looking for someone to run the Super Indo chain. The desired profile combined sales, purchasing and logistics skills, and as I fitted the bill, Delhaize offered me the position.”
Was this overseas assignment a real springboard for your career?
“My time abroad equipped me with certain key skills which definitely opened doors for me. What’s more, becoming second-in-command in that region meant I was involved in both the action and reaction sides, which is not always possible within a big ship such as Delhaize Belgium. Subsequently spending three years in Thailand as Managing Director with responsibility for thousands of employees gave me even broader experience, which I might not have been able to gain as rapidly if I’d stayed in Belgium.”
Is there any difference between running a chain of stores in Belgium and in Indonesia or Thailand?
“In retail, regardless of the country, the recipe generally remains the same: good locations and a good range that is fresh and competitively priced. And if you’re honest with your staff, if you listen to them in order to help them develop and if you look out for their interests, you have the main ingredients for a successful dish.”
On that note, what would you say are the essential characteristics of a good leader?
“I would say that a good leader is someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously, works hard – there are no miracles –, takes good care of their staff, always keeps the customers in mind, has a development strategy, implements it and doesn’t change course every five minutes. It’s also someone who manages to find the right balance between their work and home lives.”
What’s your own secret for the harmonious coexistence of both aspects of your life?
“it’s essential to be thorough, to have an agenda and to stick to it. For instance, I’ve agreed to give you a 30-minute interview and that’s what you’re getting. So you’ve got four minutes left... (laughs)”