Expatriates: our ambassadors outside France

In 2020, 65% of the company’s turnover was generated outside France. This successful internationalisation is partly based on the commitment of its expatriate employees, who are the strongest links in the company.

Dive into the daily life and challenges of our expatriates with Sandrine Taillefer, HR Director at Matière, surrounded by Chawki Djouini, Export Manager in Algeria, Guillaume Dumont, Sales Manager in Panama and Claude Valdenaire, Export Engineer in the Philippines.

Was expatriation a choice or a chance?

Guillaume Dumont, sales manager, Panama: Definitely a choice! I have always been attracted to international business and have been an expatriate for most of my career. After my studies, I went to Hong Kong as part of a VIE (Volontariat International in Entreprise) and since then I have never stopped moving! The United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Colombia… Panama is the eighth country in my professional life.

Chawki Djouini, Export Manager, Algeria: A real choice, even if my case is special because I am an expatriate in my country of origin, Algeria! I am one of the longest-standing collaborators of Matière, with 31 years of collaboration. After 10 years in France, I wanted to return to my native country. I was first assigned as a consultant for Matière in Algiers, then the management offered me a position as a business manager.

Claude Valdenaire, export engineer in the Philippines: This is also a personal choice. My motivation? To change my professional and personal environment to gain in fulfilment. I started my career in Papeete as part of a VIE, then I was expatriated to Thailand, Tunisia, Portugal, Hong Kong, Israel and since 2014 to the Philippines for Matière.

Tell us about the expatriation situation at Matière.

Sandrine Taillefer, HR Director at Matière: Out of 500 employees, Matière has 25 expatriates, most of whom work in Africa, particularly in Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Indonesia is also a major expatriation country, as well as the Philippines, which was our first expatriation country in 2008. We distinguish between two types of expatriates: business managers and site staff. The business managers canvass new markets and study their potential, in order to decide whether or not to establish a local structure. This is the case in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, where our long-term contracts require the presence of Matière expatriates (business managers, engineers, administrative and financial staff) and the creation of a local structure that works closely with local players.

At the same time, we send expatriate site personnel for one-off operations in the countries: site managers or works supervisors who are responsible for the assembly of our products, which are manufactured in our factories in France.

What are your missions as expatriates?

Guillaume Dumont: I have been living in Panama for two years and have autonomy to explore development opportunities in Latin and Central America. Why Panama? Because it is a logistical and transport hub, ideally located for easy travel to the countries in the region. Today, I am the only Matière representative in this area. 

Chawki Djouini: Based in Algeria since 2010, I am in charge of business for the Maghreb and the Middle East, a strategic area with major infrastructure needs. I am responsible for projects from prospecting to the delivery of the structures to the construction sites and I also manage the commercial entity of Matière in Algeria.

Claude Valdenaire: When I arrived in the Philippines in 2014, Matière had already set up a structure, as the Philippine market had been identified as the most attractive in South East Asia. Today, we are two expatriates and 14 Filipino employees. Our mission is to develop Matière in the Philippines by exporting our know-how, ideas, engineering and our prefabricated mixed product Unibridge®.

What are your main challenges?

Guillaume Dumont: The priority is metal and our Unibridge® technology. We are faced with a strong reluctance to use anything new, as customers prefer technologies that they have mastered. Our main competitor is concrete, with a major player in Mexico.

Chawki Djouini: Indeed, convincing our clients to build metal bridges is a real challenge in the Maghreb and the Middle East because the concrete culture is very strong for engineering structures.

Claude Valdenaire: Our challenge is to provide our clients with the skills they do not have and to satisfy them at every stage of the project. We are responsible for meeting deadlines, quality, safety and cost control, all of which enable us to gain the trust of our clients.

How does Matière support its expatriates?

Sandrine Taillefer: We provide administrative, material and technical support. We provide them with an “Expat” package for social and pension coverage and an “Expat” contract including local allowance, housing assistance, vehicle, family air transport. Our objective is to enable our employees to maintain the same standard of living as in France and to maintain their pension rights when they return.

Chawki Djouini: We are autonomous in our daily work, but supported by Matière for all technical, legal and administrative aspects. Before the health crisis, Matière organised an annual meeting of all the business managers to discuss our issues and technical challenges. 

Claude Valdenaire: Matière supports us on a commercial level through its initial prospecting actions as well as the setting up and training of a local team. We can rely on a single contact person at the French headquarters. As the point of entry in France, he facilitates our relations with the factories, the purchasing department, the accounting department, etc.

In your opinion, what are the keys to a successful expatriation?

Guillaume Dumont : Expatriation is a family choice, which has consequences on the lives of other family members. It is therefore necessary to build this project with your spouse by anticipating the changes in lifestyle and the possible cultural shocks. You also have to be autonomous and understand the codes and customs of the host country.

Claude Valdenaire: Mastery of the local language is also essential, as is a good understanding of local habits and professional codes. In Asia, for example, you never say no to clients. You mustn’t be arrogant and you mustn’t make them lose face.

Chawki Djouini: I totally agree! The balance in one’s life as a couple, the blossoming of one’s family, integration and social, cultural and professional wealth are key. Just like understanding the Arabic-speaking culture and customs: here it is human relations that count, you have to go and meet the clients.

Would you recommend expatriation to a young person?

Chawki Djouini: Expatriation is a life-changing experience. You need to have a real capacity to adapt, to be open to the world and curious, and to integrate into the customs of the country. For me, being an expatriate means becoming a citizen of the world and an ambassador for your native country in your host country. A country’s economy is not limited to its borders and to succeed, a State and therefore its companies, must send their employees around the world.

Claude Valdenaire: It is an experience that I highly recommend, provided that you alternate periods in France and abroad that you give priority to your family situation. It is often easier to expatriate at the beginning or end of one’s career or with young children. Expatriation is easier for the spouse if he can also pursue his career.

Guillaume Dumont: It’s very personal. Not everyone is suited to expatriation, above all, you need a strong desire and a real curiosity for different cultures. In my opinion, the VIE is a very good way to test this expatriation experience. 

Sandrine Taillefer: I agree with everyone’s point of view: expatriation is a great experience as long as it is anticipated, matured and constructed. Our expatriates play a key role for Matière, as they represent the company in the host countries. They are our ambassadors. The health crisis has clearly shown the importance of having our staff on site: it is what allows us to continue our activity when it is no longer possible to travel.