Jacques Guillemet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE In [19th-century] France, Catholicism was still deeply rooted in people's lives, but at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a split between religion and state [known as the laique movement]. Minds were opened towards a person trusting in his capacity to live, create and make his own choices. That was the beginning of free secular schools run by the government. My mother's family, from the southwest, near Toulouse, was very involved with this.

I was born in Paris in 1957, and grew up in this atmosphere. I was named after Jacques Lacan [a prominent psychiatrist and literary theorist], who my mother studied under.

Talking was so important at home - about many things, but especially about the human brain and psychology. It added to the way I understood people. During the 1968 riots in Paris, I was 11. I remember climbing up the steps of the Sorbonne, which was taken over by the [activists], with my father with first-aid kits to give to the students. My parents were not fighting for anything precise - it was more the idea of freedom, of breaking the rules and building a new way of life.

MINDING HIS OWN BUSINESS I was attracted to business at a young age. We had teachers, doctors and farmers in the family, but no businessmen. The first book I read from cover to cover [at 13 or 14] was the autobiography by Marcel Dassault, called The Talisman. It was a story of his life - starting from nothing and building up Avions Marcel Dassault, which was a huge company. It made a long-term emotional memory.

I was an only child, with no cousins, either. I was not good at school. I was so happy when I graduated [from secondary school]. My father wanted me to be a doctor; my mother wanted me to be a psychoanalyst. I did a few months in university, gave up and did my military service on a ship - La Joan D'Arc - and travelled around the world for a year.

THE WORLD AWAITS That trip opened my eyes to how small the world was. There I was with 850 sailors from all socioeconomic tracks. I had to find a position among those people. I was surprised to see how people were connected, how they shared the same values.

On a plane from Lima to Cusco [in Peru], I sat next to a Peruvian minister; we talked the whole flight. That same day, I spent the evening in the city talking to local people, sharing life stories. From the minister to the farmer, it was possible to communicate. It gave me a strong feeling that I have kept till now - a love of human beings.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT After returning to France, I worked for three years in the second-hand furniture restoration business - buying at auctions, cleaning up and putting pieces on consignment. I understood that the value of an item is not directly linked to the cost of materials or labour, but an intangible, emotional quality.

When I was a teenager looking for presents, it was so hard to find nice things. I dreamt of owning a store filled with 100 of the best gift items of the time.

In 1983 in Paris, there were maybe three nice gift stores. When I set up my company in 1984, we didn't make anything high end or [edgy]. It was, and still is, important that the items we created were affordable and understandable.

We put our first product - colourful mini rubber-animal bracelets produced in our garage - on consignment in a store in Paris. We went every evening to look at the window to see if we had sold anything. It became a big success. We broke into the German and United States markets.

It took 25 years - but we've just reached our 100th product design. In a way, it is fulfilling my teenage dream.

BE COOL I hate fighting because I don't know how. In any situation, I try to find a positive way to solve it. I never react to stress. I think this is an important trait in a manager - to take your time to react. If you react instantly, you may make mistakes. Also, I learned in the military that the captain of the boat always has to be a little bit apart from his crew.

We try to make things as nice as possible for our staff - best income, social advantages, profit-sharing. There is an open bar in the office so they can drink. When everyone started playing football in the afternoon instead of working, we knew we had gone a little too far, but now we have found the balance.

My wife and I have shared our duties from the beginning. She works more on image, store design and production and I'm involved with commercial, administration, financial and staff management. We are very lucky to have a family and a business together.

I regret to say that my mother and father died quite a long time ago - so they didn't get to see the success of this story. They were so anxious about my future when I was young. Now I am very happy and it's working well; I would have loved to show them what they did - because they are a part of me.