A few kilometers south-west of Aix-en-Provence, the headquarters of the Hopps group has something to impress. With its semi-circular shape, olive trees and designer sculptures, this fully glazed building almost evokes the Californian headquarters of Apple. All things considered, of course. From the meeting room on the top floor, Frédéric Pons and Eric Paumier could dream of being Net billionaires. Weren’t they inspired by Amazon, which owns 25% of one of their subsidiaries, Colis Privé? Do they not lead a “crusade” to bring out “a French champion”, in their terms? Two years after the founding of their group, reality catches up with them.
Hopps, the conglomerate they forged, has been on the brink of bankruptcy since last summer. It has accumulated 130 million losses in three years, for 540 million euros in turnover last year. The subject would be trivial if 22,000 jobs were not at stake. Because behind this little empire hides Adrexo, the specialist in the distribution of hypermarket advertising flyers, which alone has 18,000 employees. These factors, paid part-time, sometimes retired, receive 600 euros gross of average salary. “Super yellow vests,” sums up an observer. However, last July, their salaries were paid in two installments, sending a disastrous signal.
The auditors exercised their right of alert, and the company asked for help from the Bercy firefighter, the Ciri (Interministerial Committee for Industrial Restructuring), which suspended Urssaf and VAT payments. According to an expert opinion of the accounting firm Boisseau made in November, which Capital consulted, the situation is alarming: “Society only survives because it does not pay its debts”, can we read there, before this conclusion: chances of survival (…) seem compromised. There is a big contrast between the empty boxes on the one hand and the thunderous promises of the shareholders on the other, who do not hide the fact that they are living a big train – Frédéric Pons drives in a Porsche Cayenne hybrid of function, rented by the company for 2,000 euros monthly, which has the gift of ulcerating unions.
How did we get here ? Frédéric Pons and Eric Paumier, along with Guillaume Salabert, who is now behind, control 95% of the Pons-Paumier-Salabert Holding, Hopps. They have made it their specialty to buy bankrupt companies for 1 euro symbolic. In January 2017, when Spir Communication, a lucrative entity of the Sipa-Ouest-France group, wanted to offload its sick subsidiary Adrexo, it bet on “PPS”.
The buyers were not unknown to the battalion: MM. Pons and Paumier have in the past managed Adrexo, and have created within it a parcel delivery activity, which has become independent: Private Parcel. Amazon has invested 5 million euros in it and is the main customer (52.3% of deliveries in 2019). Building on this significant collaboration, and their plan to merge the Adrexo warehouse network with Private Parcels, they won the bid. In Adrexo’s cash, a balance of 48 million euros in cash was left by the seller, to help the restart.
But the trio did not stop there. “Other companies have seen us as rescuers,” says Frédéric Pons. In 2018, the PPS bought two other flickering companies, specialized in logistics: Dispeo (from the Otto group), with 58 million euros in cash included, and ADS (from the Rakuten group), 7.8 million bucks.
In the summer of 2019, when Hopps finds itself dry, a question arises: where did the money go? “In total, out of a total of 123.8 million euros in balances, we are in negative 15.2 million today, calculates Eric Paumier. Our consumption was 137 million euros. You can see that we’re coming to the end. Shareholders have seen money pass by at high speed between charges, losses, and 18 million euros of investments in sorting machines or PDAs (smartphones) to equip distributors.
Eric Paumier categorically sweeps away the suspicions of enrichment, even of the Ponzi scheme, emanating from certain unions: “Since 2012, there has been no outflow of cash for the shareholders, and not a single euro of dividend”, he pleads. With expected losses of another “20 to 25 million” this year, to meet expenses, a loan of 20.9 million euros was contracted in the spring from the GDP Vendôme fund, on “financially ruinous conditions” , according to the Boisseau audit: a rate of 12% for the first tranche, and 14% for the second. A flight forward …
Adrexo’s recovery has been compromised, according to its shareholders, by a “yellow vests effect” affecting all trade. “The advertising print trade has dropped 10% this year. Our customers are cutting their budgets: mass distribution is also undergoing restructuring, ”notes Eric Paumier. Carrefour, Auchan, Ikea and Lidl, major Adrexo customers, pay 40 euros for 1,000 catalogs distributed in rural areas, 18 euros in urban areas – a technique that remains effective in generating store traffic.
But the 18,000 distributors, a third of whom are in cumulative retirement employment – they are 52 years old on average, and a hundred are over 85 years old, – have clearly noticed Hopps’ difficulties on the ground. Fabienne Terenzani, SUD delegate based in Clermont-Ferrand, lists them: “We no longer have jackets or carts for new arrivals, partner carriers are no longer paid… nor is occupational medicine, which refuses visits . “Eric Paumier refutes as a whole:” To say that our employees cannot go to see occupational medicine is a lie, “he thunders. Still at the end of November, in Saintes (17), a warehouse owner rented by Adrexo sent a bailiff to demand payment.
Internally, the management of the three managers is now disputed. Grievances are piling up. In addition to the company car episode, there is the opacity of the shareholders’ salary, which would be 50,000 euros monthly each, or 600,000 euros annually. “We don’t have to justify ourselves on our compensation,” says Frédéric Pons. We are paid half as much as we used to earn as leaders. “Philippe Viroulet, CAT union delegate protests:” It is not shocking that healthy business leaders make a good living, but here things go wrong. “
Another element: the vast Aix headquarters, valued at 20 million euros, became with the sale of Colis Privé to Hopps the property of Eric Paumier and Frédéric Pons, via Beleza 66, a company they control via their two personal holdings, according to the statements that Capital has consulted. A patrimony which escapes them for the moment: “The head office was put in trust (a temporary transfer of property, note) to guarantee two loans granted to Hopps, for a total amount of 12 million euros”, they say to be worth.
From the bulimic genre, entrepreneurs have also launched Hopps into astonishing diversifications. They bought the famous shoe brand Pataugas for 5.5 million euros – it lost 2 million euros last year, but will break even this year, says Eric Paumier. A brand of sports jackets, Watts, is also part of their shopping. In the meantime, they oversaw the creation of DLG, a home-based cosmetics business, which operates in France, Europe, Mexico and the United States. And to promote their brand image, they wanted to sponsor the Hopps Open de Provence, a golf tournament. Eric Paumier, himself a fan of greens, assumes: “This cost us 35,000 euros this year, and this allowed us to invite top prospects and customers. “
- 23 million euros of Urssaf and VAT debts
- 130 million losses in three years
- 540 million turnover in 2018
- 18,000 employees part-time at Adrexo
- 600 euros gross average salary
Behind these criticisms, the PPS see destabilization maneuvers aimed at preventing their recovery plan. Planned between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, a new loan of around 30 million euros should allow the activity to continue in extremis. Bercy is watching the matter like milk on fire. “They are actively monitoring this upcoming refinancing,” explains Philippe Viroulet, union representative who met with Ciri – Bercy, making no comments. Entrepreneurs still believe in the revival of Adrexo, and therefore Hopps. To do this, they want to use their network of distributors and diversify their activity by going to “addressed” mail: invoices, for example. “It is a market of 7.7 billion in France, 99.9% in the hands of La Poste,” assesses Eric Paumier, who offers banks or insurance rates 10% more competitive. They also want to convert more and more distributors to package delivery, and thus offer e-merchants a global offer, ranging from product management to delivery.
Will Hopps have the time, and above all the means, to make a place for itself? According to the latest information from unions at the end of January, two options are on the table. Or a plan to dismantle the group, accompanied by an absorption of Adrexo by its main competitor, La Poste. Either a backup of the Private Package nugget, and a liquidation in good standing of the remaining subsidiaries …