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Disposable Economics: Why France's Bic Is Hotter Than Louis Vuitton

Ignite those profits
Ignite those profits
Denis Cosnard

PARIS – The future of the “Made in France” label doesn’t just hinge on Champagne, Airbus or luxury handbags.

The Bic company’s annual report, released on Feb. 13, proves it – it’s possible to make a good living in the West with an alternative economic model based on mass-produced cheap products.

The company still makes its disposable lighters in Redon (western France), its ballpoint pens in Montevrain (east of Paris) and shaving razors in Longueil-Sainte-Marie (north of Paris). In total, 21 of its 23 main factories are located in developed countries. This choice not to outsource hasn’t hindered profits.

Despite a difficult fourth quarter, the group made a 263 million euro net profit in 2012 – an 11% increase and an unprecedented profit. The turnover progressed by 4% to 1.9 billion euros.

What’s most striking is that the operating margin reached a whopping 19.5% of sales – 38% just for the lighters. “This is comparable to Vuitton,” says Cédric Rossi, an analyst at Bryan Garnier & Co investment bank. The lighters alone account for 56% of the company’s profit.

The only things that don’t sell very well are the mugs, ashtrays and other promotional materials. This branch, on which the company concentrated its efforts these last few years, remains weak.

Progression on the stock market has been impressive: share value increased by 75% in three years. At the beginning of this month, it reached 100 euros for the first time.

“Obsessed with quality”

Bruno Bich, son of Bic founder and chairman of the board of the group for the past 20 years, isn’t expecting to be challenged at the next general assembly, in May. The 66-year-old’s mandate should be renewed yet again. Mexican Mario Guevara should also stay on as CEO. The result of the vote is no mystery since the Bich family owns 43% of the capital and 57% of the voting rights.

“We provide excellent-quality products at low prices,” says Bruno Bich. “In the context of an economic crisis, this is what people want.”

Bic’s shaving razors, for instance, are 40% cheaper than Gillette and Schick razors, which are more upscale. In the last three years, the French company has been gaining ground on its rivals. “The only risk now is that these rivals hit back more aggressively,” say analysts from Baden Hill.

According to Bic, the challenge is to keep the same low prices while maintaining innovation, without sacrificing profit margins. “The secret is: do the opposite of what the majority of your competitors are doing. While many rely on subcontractors, Bic essentially operates in house,” explains Cédric Rossi. Keeping the whole production in house enables savings on plastics orders, for instance.

“We design our machines and molds ourselves. We are obsessed with quality,” says Bich. “The result is that Chinese lighters can be used 800 times while ours can be used 3000 times,” he adds. So much so that the company believes it will keep its share of the European market, despite the recent cancellation of antidumping duties on Chinese lighters.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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