The underside of Cartamundi’s cards: “You have to avoid creating heroes in your family”
If Cartamundi’s card and board games are known around the world, the two families who own the Turnhout business have always been very discreet. But, for the first time in many years, Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne and Frédéric de Somer have agreed to reveal their cards to us.
We meet Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne (58 years old) and Frédéric de Somer (54 years old), the two family shareholders of Cartamundi, at the company’s headquarters, with the CEO, Stefaan Merckx by their side. Since their fathers, Philippe de Somer and Louis de Cartier, founded it in 1970, the company has been playing among the big names in the sector. Usually, our two interlocutors are reluctant to meet the press. But, winners of Family Business Award, a distinction awarded this week by EY, FBN Belgium and Guberna, they agree to play their cards on the table.
How do you explain the international success of Cartamundi?
by Cartier: Its unique governance. Since each family owns exactly half of the shares, we are still required to come to an agreement. Our two families know the market very well, there is therefore generally a better solution than if one of the two were to decide alone.
And then, a great principle guides our operation: no family member in the company, neither as CEO nor below. We can always recruit the best who then have the elbow room to develop the business without running into a member of the family. This company is therefore very well managed, combining stable shareholders and independent management.
from Somer: Another factor of success is the entrepreneurial spirit that prevails there. Everyone here is passionate about card games. We cultivate this spirit, of which Turnhout is the cradle, in all our branches around the world.
In 2019, you fulfilled your old dream of buying American playing card maker United States Playing Card Company (USPC). Why have you coveted him so strongly for 20 years?
by Somer: Three elements explain it. USPC owns with Bicycle the number one brand in the card game business, alongside a series of other brands. In just one operation, our consumer division grew as large as our production of cards and board games for the world’s biggest brands, including Hasbro and Disney. USPC also has advanced technology to produce (luxury) playing cards for the “cardistry” sector (a ballet of quick tricks with cards, a mixture of show and art, derived from illusionism, Editor’s note) . Finally, their financial results were very solid: 100 million euros were added to our turnover. Half of our profit now comes from our brands.
from Cartier: These two companies were made for a marriage as they are complementary geographically and technologically and in terms of products. The Americans have also courted us twice, with a big check to the key. But we always refused. And now we are the ones who buy them back 15 years later.
At the family level, how do you manage the differences in strategic vision with regard to Cartamundi?
from Somer: From time to time, of course, differences of opinion arise. If we do not solve the problem, even after Stefaan’s intervention, the project or investment is not continued. But this has only happened once or twice in recent years.
from Cartier: Sometimes, you have to know how to say: “You were right and I was wrong. “I have never had a problem with that. In fact, relationships are much smoother than if we were brothers.
Stefaan Merckx: I have always worked for a company whose shareholder is a family. Big decisions were always made behind the scenes. Management didn’t really have a say. At Cartamundi, it is a tripartite, where each party can formulate proposals which are discussed openly and rationally.
You never feel the pressure of the other shareholders of the two families?
from Cartier: I have the rudder in hand. So strongly that I can sometimes be brittle towards them. Board of directors (with five family members and two independents, including Merckx, editor’s note) must be able to decide independently. The reverse will also be true: the day when I will no longer be a director and become a simple shareholder, they will no longer have to ask me for my opinion.
Do you speak around the family table about the business of the company?
from Cartier: My father hardly spoke of it. Too little, no doubt. For my part, I sometimes openly express whether the day went well or not. You have to know how to talk about successes as well as failures.
“Failure doesn’t have to be a problem.”
from Somer: Showing vulnerability in front of your children is important. They thus learn not to be afraid of hard knocks. Failure shouldn’t be a problem.
from Cartier: Avoid creating heroes in your family. Don’t say, “Your grandfather was an amazing businessman.” You would make your kids feel like they will never get close to their ankles.
Have you ever been afraid of being considered “daddy’s boys” in the company?
from Cartier: We must not be afraid of it, we must go for it. And the rest will follow. When I joined Brepols at the age of 26 as a director, the company, which was somewhat the mother of the Belgian graphics industry, was on the verge of bankruptcy. I didn’t know anything about this area, but I never told myself that I had to take it easy. I said to everyone, “We’re going to solve this together. Who wants to participate?” My five children will never have a job in one of the family businesses. This already takes a lot of pressure off them. They are completely free to do whatever they want. This is how they could become, a few years later, good administrators of Cartamundi.
“My five children will never have a job in one of the family businesses.”
In 2017, Chris Van Doorslaer passed away after leading Cartamundi for 18 years. He had complained one day that he had never been able to become part owner of the company, not even with 1 symbolic share. External CEOs of family businesses often deplore this. Why is it so sensitive?
from Cartier: This is due to the specific 50-50 joint venture structure. By granting even one share to the CEO, she would become the determining voice in decisions. This is a downside of this structure: we cannot reward top management with actions. And we are not going to open the capital since we do not need money or go to the stock market. We want to grow sustainably and profitably. If we had been on the stock market, we would have taken less risk and we probably would not have bought USPC.
For decades, the Etex building materials group has been trying to turn the page on its asbestos past. Before his death, your father had just been sentenced in Italy to 16 years in prison in this case. To what extent does this case still sue the family?
from Cartier: It always weighs a lot, because we have a great sense of responsibility. The company has worked a lot on this issue. We have invested considerable amounts, both in medical research and in remediation and compensation.
How do you see your personal role in the future of the family business?
from Cartier: I am almost 60 years old and hope to be able to return soon to work on my farm. In any case, I will stop at 65 suddenly. I want a big party, a nice watch and that’s it. Part of the shares is already owned by the children. It is important to breathe new life into the company.
from Somer: I don’t have a farm, so I will continue to work (laughs). Then, I want to remain accessible to give advice to young people. I want to make sure the transition goes smoothly.
- Publisher of card games, including Bicycle, Copag and Fournier.
- Produced worldwide for Hasbro (Monopoly, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit, Risk), Mattel (Uno, Scrabble) Disney (Mickey Mouse, Frozen and Star Wars).
- 50% -50% owned by Brepols (Cartier family) and Van Genechten Packaging (Somer family among others).
- Turnover: more than 500 million euros in 2020 (+ 10% compared to 2019).
- 2,600 workers.
- Branches in 18 countries.