Interview Of The Week: Philippe Dewost

Philippe Dewost is the Chief of Leonard, VINCI Group’s Open Lab. Leonard’s ambition is to mix its workforce of 185,000 people with startups in the construction tech sector to invent and design services, equipment and frameworks for smart infrastructures and cities.

Dewost has experience working for large tech companies, startups, as well as for the public sector. As a co-founder of Wanadoo in 1995, he helped build Europe’s first Internet service provider, he also held senior marketing and business positions in European startups, re-launched Orange’s home devices business and ran as CEO a Cambridge, UK-based imaging startup that was acquired by Apple in 2010. Dewost previously led Caisse Des Dépots’ €4.25 billion digital mandate in the Investments For the Future Program, inspired La French Tech and initiated LaBChain, a joint blockchain R&D effort that gathers 27 partners around Caisse Des Dépôts.

Dewost recently spoke to the Innovator about Leonard and why, unlike many other big groups, his team has chosen to start by fostering intrapreneurship before deciding how it wants to work with and invest in outside startups.

Q: You joined VINCI on Sept. 1 as head of Leonard. Where are you on the rollout of the program?

PD: Leonard is building bridges between the short time spans of our contracting businesses where focus on execution makes all the difference and the 30 years average maturity of our concessions businesses portfolio ; similarly, we are building bridges across our various business lines as VINCI is an extremely decentralized group. With full executive committee support Leonard focuses on cross business opportunities in terms of prospecting and acceleration .

One of our key goals is to help new businesses emerge from within the VINCI Group : to that end we have created an 8-month long intrapreneurship program. As candidates do not need to talk to management before applying we initially got something north of 80 applications from all across the group and selected 10 of them.

We are right now in the middle of the first stage which consists of a four-month incubation period. Intrapreneurs dedicate 20% of their time to the program. They learn to refine and pitch their product or service idea as well as to frame their potential market. They will present again in front of a group-wide selection committee and, depending on the outcome, some will enter the second stage. We have decided there should be no ex-ante threshold as we don’t have a clue yet what will work and will not work. In late January we will choose which ones should go to a second full-fledged acceleration phase. The selected intrapreneurs will get to spend 100% of their time on their projects for four additional months.

For both stages Leonard is providing each intrapreneur with methodology, coaching and mentoring, both from the inside as well as the outside. We are extremely satisfied to see how well our intrapreneurship program is perceived from the outside: we have attracted top guns for coaching like Patrick Hofstetter, the former Chief Digital Officer at Renault and Yves Caseau, Group CIO at Michelin and former CIO at Bouygues Telecom.

It really seems like this intrapreneurship program is quite ahead of the pack in how it has been designed, and there is a growing interest from other corporates who want to come and see what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Q: What’s the goal of the Leonard program and how will you measure success?

PD: First we want to see how we can spur new businesses to emerge from within the VINCI Group, with a strong focus on those that span across our divisions. VINCI is a highly decentralized group: decisions are made at the business level, at the deal level, in every city where we operate. As a result divisions, that are both autonomous and extremely vertical or market focused, do innovate and develop new markets by themselves. Yet there are gaps in the system so things, people, projects that can work across various business lines are becoming more and more instrumental to our future success. We hope to help turn the best projects into new business lines with real potential.

The second goal is cultural, and it revolves around trying, daring, and permission. Our intrapreneurs are outstanding — especially the class of 2017 — and they deserve praise for daring to raise their hand and say ‘ I have a dream and I want to have a business plan by the end of the next eight months.’

As we are just at the start of this program, we are experimenting while running it. For the class of 2017 it is sort of like asking them to jump into the water of a swimming pool that is still under construction and the water temperature is neither displayed nor stabilized.

Those that have projects we decide do not have the necessary potential will need to be reintegrated into their business units of origin with all the credit they deserve. I will personally supervise the process and ensure that when they return to their unit, their experience shall be valued and shared; they shall not be considered as traitors who left for four months and are coming back because they have failed ! These are great people who took the risk — for the sake of VINCI — to explore business ideas that can serve our group ; besides, in the process they will have learned a lot about themselves, the business area they wanted us to invest in, and about design thinking. They will have also learned a lot from their peers. All of this knowhow must be reinstated and deployed into the units where they came from.

In a way intrapreneurs are like soldiers returning from the field, be they victorious or under siege ; in this latter case (eg a project failure), they will need to properly extracted and brought back in their units and their wounds healed. You don’t leave anybody behind on the battlefield ; at the end of the war everybody is respected for having fought, even if some may be more decorated than others because of their individual achievements.

This is our next critical step, because if the company fails in dealing with such ‘Private Ryans’ you can be almost sure that the level of courage and engagement of those who enter the next four month acceleration stage will be significantly lower than it could have been; plus I expect the next class of entrepreneurs will be much more reluctant to form and stand up.

That is the very reason why Leonard is generous with intrapreneurs and demanding with their bosses at their units of origin.

Q: How will you handle the business ideas of the intrapreneurs you choose in the second phase? Do they have to quit the company and start new outside businesses? Will VINCI take stakes in them? How will this work?

PD: All options are open at this stage: remember we have not even reached the half way point of the process and this is our first class ever ! We can’t have a clear view yet of what shall be coming out. It could be a new business unit within the group, it could also be a startup if the addressable market goes way beyond the VINCI footprint. In such cases we might help them set up outside companies and take stakes. If we realize at the end of the four month acceleration stage that they are not completely ready to launch their business — despite a proven potential — we will host them at Leonard:Paris, our first Open Lab.

Q: Are you planning to work with or invest in startups founded by entrepreneurs outside the group?

PD: Sure. However our own corporate investment policy is still being refined, both from a scope and a process perspective. For instance, we may become a limited partner in one or several investment funds, like what we already do with Supernova 2, managed by CEA, that invests in early stage deep-tech projects dealing with things that resonate with our core businesses, like materials or energy. Such an approach could be extended to a few other funds, yet it could keep us at bay from mentoring startups or direct co-investment, so we definitely need to balance the pros and cons while continuing to talk with VC firms, as we have been doing for the past few months.Again, investment is clearly quite part of our scope — especially in those startups with solutions that cover various businesses in the group. It could therefore be a sizeable part of Leonard’s commitments, although we might be interested in giving startups business before taking equity.

Since I joined in September, I and a colleague — who joined one week before me — have been exposed to more than 200 startups that we each have quickly analyzed, without any active scouting : I am impressed with the inbound deal flow that we have been capable of attracting with just VINCI and Leonard’s brand names combined with my teammates reputation in the market.

This is even more impressive when you realize that the concept behind Leonard was decided by the executive committee only a year ago. Executive committee members are personally overlooking and shaping our prospecting activity made of four streams every year, while a group wide committee counsels the team about the future actions we will set up.

Our goal is to inspire initiatives from the ground up instead of directing people to do this and that. At the end of the day Leonard will be deployed worldwide and span the 100+ countries where the group operates, yet it will be achieved in the very decentralized way that makes up VINCI’s fabric, meaning Leonard will be as much a network as a program per se.

There is another reason why we are deploying Leonard. We are not a typical consumer facing company. Though we see digital transformation impacting our businesses we don’t have a gun pointed at our heads, nor startups stealing our business, so it is not a critical emergency situation. We are not trying to accelerate for the mere sake of accelerating, it is about preparing the future and anticipating it rather than reacting to the present.

Last but not least there is the very particular balance I described initially between our contracting businesses which include buildings, bridges, tunnels, roads, energy systems, etc. and our concessions business. Did you know that we are operating 35 airports as well as highways and railways in France and abroad? Time horizons and operating models are extremely different not to mention the fact that lots of contracts we win are quite local, hence our focus on projects that span across several business lines.So this is just the beginning, and while it may be too early to measure Leonard’s impact, the first feedback is overwhelmingly encouraging.We are open for business, worldwide, and will open Leonard:Paris — our first Open Lab — in a few months from now. There we will host up to 300 people -from VINCI and outside- as well as conferences (160 seats) in a beautiful spot close to Gare de Lyon.