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As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sébastien Breteau.
Sébastien Breteau is the founder and CEO of QIMA, a quality control and compliance service provider that partners with brands, retailers and importers to secure and manage their global supply chain in 85 countries. He has more than 20 years of entrepreneurial experience in supply chain management. In late 2020, the company launched QIMAone, a collaborative SaaS platform that digitizes quality and compliance management for global supply networks.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Early on as a young man born in Morocco, growing up and studying in France, I felt the need to write my own story and go on a global adventure. Right after business school, I moved to Hong Kong where I launched my first venture sourcing Tamagotchis, the handheld digital pets that were the craze in late nineties. In fact, I was the first to export them to France!
From that point on, I jumped on the opportunities offered by parallel disruptions of technology and global trade expansion. The intersectionality of these industries birthed my company, QIMA, in 2005. I founded QIMA to make product quality and supplier compliance management easy across global supply chains.
China, at the time, was exploding as the world’s top consumer goods manufacturer, and the vision for QIMA was that in a few clicks, you would be able to dispatch a qualified inspector within 48 hours, to any factory, to check and confirm a production’s quality before shipment — and receive a full report immediately after.
Fast forward to today, QIMA has been a disruptor in the quality and control industry for more than 15 years. We are a leading provider of supply chain compliance solutions, partnering with brands, retailers and importers to secure, manage and optimize their global supply network. Known for putting technology at the center of the supply chain, QIMA was the first provider to offer customers a completely digital quality compliance environment through online management, mobile client account and more — all built internally with a global tech team of international engineers, product managers, UX designers and data scientists. Now, QIMA has 35 offices globally, a staff of 3,500, 11,000 clients ranging from global consumer goods and food brands to small Amazon sellers, and we are confident in our continued growth.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
At QIMA, we believe in constant disruption to effectively grow. Our partners, which include brands, retailers and importers, have come to rely on us to secure and manage their global supply chain. They know that our success and trustworthiness as a supply chain compliance partner stem from never being satisfied with the status quo. The way we operate and stay ahead of the curve is to consistently challenge the way things are done. This includes continuously examining our business model and having the courage to even disrupt ourselves.
After building a digital platform to manage quality and compliance services performed by QIMA, we decided to open our platform to allow clients to manage inspections, audits, testing and collaborate with their suppliers — even if they don’t use our services on the ground! The platform, QIMAone, is built on the expertise we have on the factory floor to provide brands more visibility and control when it comes to quality management.
We’ve made this strategic decision knowing full well that QIMAone has the potential to disrupt our traditional service model, because it’s creating value for customers and the whole manufacturing ecosystem. We also inherently know that global supply chains need more open collaboration, more transparency and smoother processes. Closed systems relying on ‘command-and-control’ principles are not going to work in this new age and we knew if we did not make the disruption, someone else would. One of our guiding principles has always been that we must be ready for our business model to be disrupted. And this is not just true for supply chains. If I can offer advice, this is something to live by!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I often think back to 2011 when we were inspecting a production of mugs featuring Prince William and Kate Middleton commemorating their upcoming nuptials. Our Chinese inspector checked everything from the colors, solidity, cleanliness, packaging and printing. Unfortunately, what he didn’t catch was that the mugs featured a picture of the wrong prince! Our client later discovered that what should have been a picture of Prince William, was actually a picture of Prince Harry. While these mugs may have become collectors’ items, the error was caught too late — a sound mistake on our part.
I think there are a few lessons in this experience. The first is that when it comes to the supply chain, even if you’re in the final stretch, there should be triple checks in place to ensure end-to-end quality control. Doing so requires having customized checklists and workflow templates for inspections and audits that empower suppliers and ensure industry standards and best practices are followed across their entire footprint. This includes having a picture of Prince William’s face to ensure it was the right person on the mug. The second, and perhaps most critical lesson, is having the tools that enable real-time visibility and feedback loops. If this issue happened today, it would have been caught early enough to be remedied.
Relying on manual data processing is not only a repetitive and mundane effort that takes a lot of time, but it’s prone to human error and inconsistencies from factory inspectors to brands. It results in poor visibility.
I had to dig back to 2011 to find such a misstep, because we learned quickly how to have maximum quality control and invest in the development of the right tools to ensure those missteps do not happen again. That’s why our clients trust QIMA and they know that we are on their side, every step of the way.
On a positive note, today, those mugs may be items of interest given Prince Harry’s popularity and newfound home in America!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
You are right in that we all need to have help along the way. I would say that there are two people in my life who have made a profound impact and left me with lessons I carry with me each day. The first person is my business instructor at HEC Paris, Robert Papin, who I consider to be my first real mentor. He told me two things: 1) you don’t need to accumulate experience to launch your own business; you just need to have humility and be eager to learn along the way as it will be a long journey, and 2) you don’t succeed alone; your success depends on your ability to incite the desire in others to want to help you. I have kept these words of wisdom at the core of everything I do, from sourcing Tamagotchi’s to starting QIMA and now launching QIMAone, a collaborative platform that digitizes quality and compliance management for global brands, retailers and manufacturers.
Later in my career, I had the privilege to know Francois Tardan, the ex-CFO of BureauVeritas. I watched him grow his company from a €50 million to €5 billion business in 15 years. His strategic vision and sensible advice that is given, with simplicity and striking intelligence, have always amazed me. He is a remarkable figure and a tremendous example to live up to.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I think there is a huge difference between being disruptive on slide decks to raise venture capital funds and creating value by achieving ‘creative destruction,’ as Joseph Schumpeter would put it. In other words, as someone who has 25 years’ experience launching businesses and services, seeing tech trends come and go, along with crazy ideas that raised millions of dollars and then going bust, I can safely say that in those times, there’s a valid question being ignored: ‘Is this disruption bringing any value to the end user?’ The question that follows that one should then be, ‘Can this value be monetized?’
More often than not, if you’re being brutally honest, the answer to whether disruption is creating value for end users is actually ‘no.’ For example, we have been hearing about blockchain for years but, beyond cryptocurrencies, where has it really scaled? In my field — global supply chains — it has been in every startup deck for years but it has never gone past the proof-of-concept or PR stunt stage. Businesses, particularly in the supply chain must get real about what is needed now and what will provide the most value now. From a supply chain perspective, how can we talk about buzz concepts like Blockchain, IoT and drones when one of our biggest challenges is getting away from manual pen and paper entry? Once we have fully digitized our supply chains, we can focus on how to scale concepts like blockchain. At that point, we will have already addressed critical customer pain points and can then seek to provide even further value with more advanced technologies.
This is why, at QIMA, we are even disrupting our own business model with QIMAone, addressing the issues we know our customers are facing today while simultaneously planning and innovating toward the challenges of tomorrow.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
I have consistently tried to progress along during my career by keeping in mind a few principles, which are:
- Always build simple solutions for your clients. While simplicity is often the hardest to develop, it’s critical to success. Check out our system and you will see for yourself that it is easy-to-use and client friendly.
- Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who think or act differently than you or know better than you. Give them trust and autonomy to deliver. And, I guarantee they will give you back results. I consistently surround myself with smart people as I always have more to learn. That’s why in building QIMAone, we had a dedicated team of international engineers, product managers, UX designers and data scientists bring a range of perspectives and skills that enabled us to build the only platform developed off the expertise of a quality control industry leader, embedding the best practices learned from millions of inspections.
- Humility and honesty are imperative to reaching the hearts and minds of your staff. Fostering humility and transparency within a team creates a very special energy that naturally fosters a spirit of innovation and opportunities to evolve.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
You are right; we are far from done! There is still much to do as consumers demand greater traceability from their purchases. To help address these concerns head on, we’re going to continue to take our own disruptor (QIMAone) to the next level by bringing together the “best of both worlds”: QIMA’s on-the-ground expertise in supply chain compliance and state-of-the-art-technology to help brands evolve their supply chains, minimize disruptions when outside events have compromised visibility, resilience and flexibility — providing the transparency their consumers need and want.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I would have to say that “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene is a must read and has shifted my way of thinking in many instances. The premise of the 48 laws are synthesized from over three thousand years of history and knowledge from the world’s utmost power players on how to effectively ‘win.’ It challenges morality and humanity’s relationship with the desire for power. There are many lessons on self-awareness and doing what’s right that continue to help me make difficult decisions every day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am a big fan of former U.S. Senator Robert F Kennedy’s quote, which says: “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” While not every endeavor is a success, it is through failure that we find opportunity and through opportunity we find solutions. I could not think of a better testament for all of those who dare to make a dream come alive!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am a big believer in the power of education. So much of our world’s problems today — from global inequalities and poverty to terrorism and migrant flows — are rooted in the disparity of access to education for kids. That is why, in 2013, I launched the Breteau Foundation to improve academic engagement of disadvantaged children globally, using tech and training to empower local teachers sustainably.
If we are serious about making this world a better place, we should not focus on regulations or military interventions; instead, we should invest in our children to make sure they have the opportunity, regardless of geographic region or economic circumstance, to make better decisions than the generations before them.
How can our readers follow you online?
- LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/sebastienbreteau/?originalSubdomain=uk
- Twitter — @QIMAgroup
- QIMA — https://www.qima.com/
- QIMAone — https://www.qimaone.com/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!