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Anchoring Growth: Maxime Holder, Chairman and CEO, PAUL International Maxime Holder, Chairman and CEO of PAUL International, on how five generations of his family built the globally renowned French chain of bakery-café restaurants.

By Tamara Pupic

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

PAUL International Chairman and CEO Maxime Holder. Source: Paul International

For those in the Middle East who still haven't yet had a chance to acquaint themselves with the famous French chain of bakery-café restaurants, PAUL, it would be a good idea to visit one of its venues this year- after all, the brand is celebrating its 20th anniversary of its debut in the GCC in 2003, under the banner of the UAE-headquartered lifestyle retail company, AZADEA Group.

Looking back at the brand's 134-year-long history globally, Maxime Holder, Chairman and CEO of PAUL International, says that one particular trait that connects all the family members who have led the brand over the years. "I think, looking at the story and knowing the backgrounds of each of my family members, one of the common features that run through us all is probably our willingness to adapt," he says. "Whether it was my grandfather taking over the first PAUL, but deciding to retain the name, or my father opening subsidiaries in the first mall in France, or expanding into Japan in the late 80s, they all appreciated growth opportunities. And, in that regard, I am no different."

The story of PAUL has its origins in a bakery that was started by Holder's great-great grandfather, Charlemagne Mayot, in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower opened to the public. This enterprise was, at the time, just a small bakery located in Rue de la Mackellerie in Croix, a town in northern France. Then, Holder's great-grandfather, Edmond-Charlemagne Mayot, took over the business in 1908, and he did so alongside his wife, Victorine, who later gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne- Holder's grandmother. It was then Suzanne and her husband, Julien Holder, who set up a bakery in Rue des Sarrazins in Lillie, a town just next to Croix, in 1935, and went on to take over a patisserie called PAUL, which was operating in the same locality. "They decided to keep the PAUL name," Holder recalls. "And when their son Francis Holder -my dad- took control in 1958, he modernized the whole operations." Holder credits his father for playing an important role in develop- ing the brand as we know it today- besides introducing innovations like installing a wood-fired oven that operated in full view of the customers, he was also insistent on relaunching traditional bread recipes that relied on long fermentation at a time when the quicker-to-make white bread variety was the popular choice. "This return to tradition immediately appealed to customers, and it was a key part in our success," Holder adds.

A PAUL storefront. Source: PAUL International

And it's been a triumph all right- since the launch of its first bakery 134 years ago, PAUL now has 797 of its storefronts spread across 52 countries around the world, with Holder now sitting at the helm of it all. While one could say that he has been involved in this business practically since birth, Holder cut his teeth in the enterprise by opening the first PAUL in London in 2000, and he went on to be appointed the CEO of PAUL International in 2007.

When asked about how he goes about managing this mammoth enterprise, Holder replies, "I have a team of 10 people, and each member plays an important role to ensure the smooth operations of the business as a whole. As you can imagine, my schedule is busy, as I'm regularly in meetings to determine growth strategy, and where we can take the brand next. I think as a CEO, it's really important to understand each facet of the company, and it's something I really pride myself in– the fact that I'm aware of what's going on in each division of the business. One of the most challenging parts of my role I think is keeping up to date with the ever-changing consumer landscape. Trends are consistently changing, and markets are developing rapidly, so keeping at the forefront of these changes is imperative. But again, that familial ability and willingness to adapt keeps me in good stead."

Holder also pays significant attention to the unique challenges that PAUL might encounter owing to it being a family-run business. "Family businesses serve as the backbone of the hospitality industry, and to ensure their success, there's several factors at play," Holder says. "Obviously, family dynamics are a key feature in the day-to-day operations of running the business, and that can be a blessing, but it can also raise issues. As a way of combating such potential problems, it's vital to be able to separate relationships between work and family. Also, communication- it's a significant facet of any working environment; however, in a family-run business, it's even more so."

Related: For Family Businesses In The Middle East, Formalized Governance Can Help Create Lasting Legacies

A dish at PAUL. Source: PAUL International

Another potentially risky area, Holder adds, is navigating the brand's exponential growth. "Expansion is, of course, exciting, but it can be difficult to steer at certain times, due to the complexity of development," he says. "Then, when you throw the idea of a family business into the mix, I'd say the pressure of succeeding is heightened. A personal challenge of mine is also to ensure the next generation is powered to succeed by continuing to elevate the brand to new heights."

Having overseen the launch of the latest of PAUL's outlets in Italy in July 2023, Holder is now getting set for the opening of new venues in 10 more countries. As for the Middle East, Holder notes that besides celebrating its 20th anniversary in the region this year, PAUL will also be concentrating on expanding its stores across the region, which, by the way, has been one of the brand's key markets. "PAUL's success in the region is predominantly down to knowing the environment inside and out," Holder says. "When we first launched in the region 20 years ago, our existing business model was reviewed entirely, and adjusted to meet the region's customer requirements. That expansion was dependent on establishing the brand based on a reputation we had gained internationally– PAUL is a renowned brand not only for its inclusive menu offerings, but also because of the warm hospitality provided."

And according to Holder, it's this adherence to the brand's history and heritage that will stand PAUL in good stead as it looks to pursue further growth in the long term. "You often see some multi-national chains losing that traditional, family feel once expansion takes place, but at PAUL, I think that's one of the things we truly pride ourselves in- our ability to retain that," Holder concludes.

PAUL International Chairman and CEO Maxime Holder. Image courtesy PAUL.

THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: PAUL International Chairman and CEO Maxime Holder on what it takes for a brand to become a global success story

Communication "Communication needs to be the focal point at any company, in particular those that are expanding. Great communication is a vital asset between all parties, both internally and externally to continue the development of a brand."

Building a strong team "With many moving parts of a global business, including different time zones, it's critical that the depth of the team is strong and staff are able to confidently delegate, manage others effectively, and are efficient in getting things done.

Knowing your customer and market "Without doing strategic research and building your company around this, it really will prove near impossible to succeed in a global market."

Related: Transformative Adaptation: Extending Psychosocial Safety From The Board Room To The Family Room

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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