The valley of the entrepreneurs: the abundant rebirth of Romans-sur-Isère
Michel Berry, June 2018
École de Paris du management
Romans-sur-Isère was doomed after the closure of the last shoe factory, but Christophe Chevalier succeeded in doing the unthinkable: saving this industry and reviving the entire region.
The shoe disaster
In the 1980s, half of the 50,000 inhabitants of the Romans-sur-Isère area lived off the shoe industry, but it all disappeared in fifteen years. It is in this context that the Archer group was created. At first, it was a structure for economic integration, but its action only amounted to changing the order in the queue of the unemployed, so it was better to create activities: « For thirty years, » says Christophe Chevalier, « we have been saying that we are going to solve the problems through growth, but the GDP has increased by 70% and this has not prevented mass unemployment and poverty. Instead of waiting with arms folded, it is better to create one job, then two, then three. If every SME went from five to six jobs, the game would be profoundly changed.
The Archer group is transformed into a SAS, with today 112 shareholders, many of whom are inhabitants of the basin, each holding one vote and being satisfied with dividends at the rate of the livret A. It now has 500 employees, working in activities ranging from subcontracting for industry to horseback riding. To launch a new activity, the idea is to identify a local resource, a talent, and help it get started.
The Shoe Challenge
Reviving the shoe industry ? « It will never work ! » said Christophe Chevalier, « We’ve sunk millions into it ! » The conditions are no longer right to revive the shoe industry, even the experts said.
In fact, each time it was a question of applying an industrial model with workshops of hundreds of people. The option chosen by Christophe Chevalier is, on the contrary, to rely on tradition, quality and know-how, and to start with an artisanal model with workshops of five to twenty people.
A small production line was bought from Charles Jourdan, and three niche markets were targeted :
big brands needing to make part of the production in France to have the label made in France ;
fashion designers who need to have a few dozen pairs of shoes made to match their clothes for fashion shows ;
the creation of a brand, Made in Romans, to capitalize on the history and sell the shoes in factory stores to tourists visiting the workshops.
However, a surprise awaited the founders: no one knew how to make shoes from scratch anymore. The factories had come to rely on three or four operations out of a hundred. It was necessary to look for retired workers to reconstitute the know-how. One was 65 years old, the other 84…
Very quickly, the workshops were overwhelmed by the demand and sought help from the former « outcasts » who, in the land of luxury footwear, continued to make sandals, dancing shoes or climbing shoes. This is how a network was organized, similar to the Italian districts.
An approach that has become a model for others
Then, new craftsmen settled in, a professional association, Romans Cuir, federated the entrepreneurs for the purchase of leather, the sharing of orders, the participation in fairs, etc. The vocational school and the AFPA re-launched training courses in footwear, the local community put footwear back in its development axes, the Archer group just bought a former supermarket in the city center, huge premises to regroup the shoemakers and create a common factory store. The creation of an association, Entreprises Romans Bourg-de-Péage, with 110 members representing 5,000 employees, has enabled the creation of a central purchasing office, an inter-company crèche, and has encouraged numerous cooperative ventures. Archer creates a school of entrepreneurship in which local business leaders intervene.
New concepts were invented, such as territorial start-ups and economic cooperation clusters, which were included in the 2014 Hamon law on SSE. This patient approach is now inspiring other territories to take their destiny in hand.
This abundant renaissance illustrates the fruitfulness of an entrepreneurial spirit that is not restricted to a purely economic project. It was carried out while respecting and using the strengths present in the territory, in a global ecosystem approach. The revival of this industry cannot be isolated from the revitalization of the entire region.
Le Jardin des entreprenants, La vallée des entreprenants : la renaissance foisonnante de Romans-sur-Isère, 14 June 2018
Report written by Christophe CHEVALIER, from the seminar « Industrial Adventures ", available on the website of the École de Paris du management, Faire renaître la chaussure à Romans, 19 April 2016