Selling around five mil. products a day and with a turnover of 270 mil. Euros, BIC Graphic is one of the biggest promotional products suppliers in the world. The subsidiary of the French BIC Group makes the majority of its turnover with writing instruments. A visit to the production site BE 2000 in Marne la Vallée close to Paris, where BIC Graphic produces some of its bestsellers.
It has hardly changed in appearance in over 60 years, is one of the best-selling ballpoint pens of all time and a perfect example of a favourablypriced high quality writing instrument for the masses: the BIC® Cristal. In 1950, Marcel Bich launched his self-designed ballpoint pen with the characteristic transparent barrel and coloured cap onto the market and in doing so laid the foundation stone for his company BIC – the name is an internationally understandable and easier recognisable abbreviation of the inventor’s surname. Today, BIC is one of the 100 largest French companies and with an annual turnover of 1.8 bil. Euros is one of the world market leaders in the stationery, lighters and razors sectors. Especially after purchasing Atchison (2007), Antalis Promotional Products and Norwood (both in 2009) BIC or more precisely its promotional products division, BIC Graphic, is now also one of the top players on the promotional products market. “In terms of their annual turnover, BIC Graphic is second worldwide in the promotional products area,” stated Eric Pallard, Area Sales Manager West and South Europe at BIC Graphic. “In 2013, we made around 14% of the overall turnover of the BIC Group, i.e. 265 mil. Euros.”
In addition to a wide portfolio of import items, some of which are sold under the Norwood ® brand, BIC Graphic also sells the writing instrument program of BIC on the promotional product market of course, the majority of which is produced by the company itself. The BIC Group maintains twelve factories for writing instruments and office supplies worldwide in order to be able to serve the different markets fast and efficiently. “We produce close to where we sell,” summed up Denis Bonnet, European Business Account Director at BIC. “60% of all products we sell on the promotional products market are manufactured in our own factories. And in the consumer sector the share is even 88%.”
One of the four biggest BIC plants is in Marne la Vallée near Paris: BIC Ecriture 2000, BIC BE 2000 for short, spans 28,000 m² – which is the equivalent of four football pitches. This is where five of BIC’s best-selling writing instruments are made, including the BIC® Cristal, BIC® 4 Colours and BIC® Orange models. All of the work steps take place under one roof – from the production of all individual parts, to the assembly and quality controls, through to the packing. Around 220 employees produce seven million balls and tips, 2.5 tonnes of ink, 3.5 million refills and two million finished writing instruments daily.
High level of perfection
“We develop many of the machines ourselves,” explained Stephan Voepel, Area Sales Manager Northern & Eastern Europe at BIC Graphic. “The capacity, accuracy and efficiency of the machines are permanently supervised and optimised – also regarding sustainable aspects: The plant has been ISO 14001-certified since 2010.“
Over 70 individual controls are carried before a writing instrument leaves the factory – starting with the production of the balls. The elaborate process, which takes nine days in total, comprises of six work steps including forming the blanks and multiple firing, grinding and polishing stages. After each work step each individual ball is examined and all defective items are discarded. The production of the tips is also precision work: Five separate channels are milled into the just 1 mm thick brass tips, which guarantees a precise flow of ink.
However, all of this is nothing compared to the time-consuming ink production process: “It takes at least five years to develop a new mixture of ink,” said Bonnet. “Because many of the chemical components can still react after years, the properties of an ink can change even after a long time. So, one has to experiment and wait and see until the mixture between the optimum colour and flow characteristics has been determined. Of course, the contents additionally have to conform with the current legislations, e.g. Reach.“ The filling of the refills, which are also produced in-house, with ink, the subsequent centrifugation, attaching the tips and mounting the refill into the plastic barrel are all fully-automated processes. 38 injection-moulding machines are available in Marne la Vallée, BIC completely produces the corresponding moulds itself. The finished pens undergo a final quality control, which is also partly automated. “When one considers the intricate production process including the numerous controls, particularly our low-budget products are extremely good value for money,” said Pallard. “This is only possible because we design the products as simply as possible and the processes as efficiently as possible.“
Finally, the finished pens are packed automatically before being shipped – in the retail area all over Europe. As for the promotional products, every year 50 mil. cartridges are sent to Spain, where BIC Graphic produces and personalises its writing instruments and sticky notes families for the European, Middle Eastern and African markets: Since 2009, BIC disposes of a high-bay warehouse spanning 19,000 m² in La Granada, Catalonia that has a capacity of around 25,800 Euro pallets and that is used to stock Norwood® product ranges. Those products are then embellished in the company’s own production and printing shop in nearby Tarragona: Around 1,000 Product Writing Instruments and Import Products Headcount (in Marne la Vallée) 220 Turnover 265 mil. Euros Products sold per day 5 mil. orders are customised here daily, all of the conventional technologies are available. “We have bundled the entire logistics for the promotional products sector in La Granada and Tarragona,” explained Voepel. “This is where all of the products land initially – both the items we produce ourselves and the imported goods.“
After taking over Norwood, the latter account for a large share of the portfolio – approx. 3,500 containers leave the harbours in the Far East each year with orders for BIC Graphic. “After purchasing Norwood, we were faced with the challenge of bringing the import business into harmony with the company’s values,“ reported Pallard. “We carried out audits in our supplier factories, more than 500 at that time, we also installed several offices in China, where in the meantime over 60 staff members are employed. The whole process took two years. Today, all of the manufacturers which now represent around 350 factories conform with our Code of Conduct. This Code is based on the ILO (International Labour Organization) standards and completely in line with the guidelines of Sedex, which we are a member of.“
Despite all globalisation, BIC is still a familyrun business: The Bich family holds 43.87% of the shares and 59.59% of the decision-making powers. Marcel Bich’s son, Bruno, Chairman of the Board, runs the group with CEO Mario Guevara, in line with his father’s philosophy – flat hierarchies and a lot of autonomy: “Autonomy is an important part of the corporate culture, because it also contributes towards simplification,” explained Bonnet. “If we were to be too complicated, we wouldn’t be able to survive. That is why our motto is: Make high quality products at a fair price and keep it simple.“ A credo, which started over 60 years ago with the BIC® Cristal, which symbolises this maxim perfectly
An interview with two French service providers can be found here: “Good opportunities for foreign suppliers”