Florian Grill, candidate to be president of the French Rugby Federation, conducted an energetic grassroots campaign. Portrait of a force of nature: the head of a company, an HEC alum, and a former second-row player. A man cut out to defy expectations.

As a greeting in this time of covid, he doesn’t shake hands but instead holds out a clenched fist, like a boxer. It’s easy to see, on this Monday morning in September, that Florian Grill (H.88) is a fighter. Square shoulders, beefy chiropractor’s hands, and the steady gaze of someone who’s always sure of himself, even in the middle of a rugby scrum. At age 54, he threw himself into another combat, and not the easiest kind: the race to become the next president of the French Rugby Federation, running against the high-profile incumbent, Bernard Laporte. For over a year, this former second-row player for the Paris University Club (PUC) has been tirelessly drumming up support for his Ovale Ensemble collective’s program while also running his company and serving as the president of the Ile-de-France Regional Rugby League.  “I have a very full schedule, but when you get a chance to defend your ideas, you have to commit yourself to the game completely,” he explains, before targeting his adversary with the first tackle of the day. “L’Ovalie just isn’t working anymore. We have to change the model. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

8:30 AM, under the palm tree

Palmier CoSpirit Media Track

The morning sun shines through the glass roof. A solitary palm tree takes center stage in a huge atrium. Some team members of CoSpirit Media Track, the marketing and media consultancy that Florian Grill founded soon after he graduated from HEC, work in this industrial structure, a former porcelain factory in Paris’s 10th district. “We planted the palm tree when we came here. It has grown a lot, and so have we,” he explains as he pours coffee in a mug marked with his name. Today, the company achieves 17 million euros in turnover and employs 150 people in Paris, Lyon and Tours. Florian knows each person’s first name. In fact, everyone in the company is on familiar terms. As for the boss’s office, it looks like everyone else’s: a plain white table in the shared open space,no different from what the lowliest intern has. The general wants to work among his troops. He explains, “We’ve had high points, with the Internet bubble of the 2000s, but we have also had low points, when that bubble burst. I’ve learned a lot from these ups and downs. For one thing, when things are tough, you have to be even more transparent with your teams and tell them exactly what’s going on.”

As for the palm tree, it has stood strong, an exotic island untouched by tempests. Florian Grill meets his colleague, Olivier Delavoye, under this palm tree every Monday morning at 8:30 to discuss their current projects. Long after they founded the company together, the pair is still a great team. They joke around, obviously trusting each other. A duo straight out of a buddy movie. Florian, the rugby player, and Olivier, the sailing enthusiast. A 30-year friendship that doing business together has not spoiled. “Yes, it’s rare,” they both say at the same time.

9AM, today’s priorities

One of them, built like a tank, is methodical, precise, and charismatic, with a deep voice that marks him a leader. The other, the sailor with a mischievous expression, is playful, interested in everything, his creativity clearly on display. “Florian is a workaholic who gets up really early, while I like to work really late. We complement each other,” says Olivier. Éric Boyer joined them in 2011.  This fan of martial arts is the company’s administrative and financial director. On this particular morning, he’s getting a deluge of questions.  The priorities today are to discuss where the company stands post-lockdown, the costs of partial layoffs, their teams’ return to offices after weeks working from home, and especially the Paris office’s upcoming move to “even more beautiful and convivial surroundings”. This issue sounds just as complicated as rugby’s convoluted offside rules. In fact, the big move, set for the end of October, will only mean crossing the Grands Boulevards district to reach Rue Feydeau in the nearby Bourse district (Paris 2). We ask a frivolousquestion: will the emblematic palm tree have a home in the new office space? For the moment, no one knows. There are more urgent things to deal with. Florian and Olivier have decided that the teams should check out the new offices today at noon. “We need to serve them a great buffet lunch.” Olivier is in charge, because Florian is supposed to meet with journalists.

10 AM, the interviews

Interview shooting photo de Florian Grill

Rugby doesn’t usually get much media coverage in France, so when the national press asks for interviews, we can tell that this out-of-the-ordinary campaign is attracting notice.The boss of an SME who sets himself up against a former Minister of Sports? As an outsider, Grill is intriguing. This morning, a reporter from the Parisian paper Aujourd’hui en France (Today in France) opens the game, followed by a journalist from Le Figaro, and then one from the weekly Le Point. Cameras flash everywhere: under the iconic palm tree, in the offices, and even in the street. With his hands in his pockets and a slightly tense smile on his face, Florian does his best. “Posing is never going to be my thing,” he admits, adjusting his white shirt. But it’s possible that he’s really enjoying this media moment. A few months ago, Laporte said of him, “No one knows who he is except his mother, so who cares?”A nasty comment that every journalist begins an interview with, as a way of seeing just what this new guy is made of. No need to kick into touch: Florian has his answer ready. “With that insult, Laporte actually launched my campaign,” he calmly says every time. “And, by insulting me, he has also insulted all the volunteers in 1,930 clubs all over France, all those people in the background who give their time to keep this sport alive.” One more tackle.

Since 2017 when he was chosen to head the regional Ile de France rugby league, this CEO has been forging a reputation in the oval-ball world. His candidacy and his program have been put together with the help of a whole array of legendary French rugby union figures: Jean-Claude Skrela, Serge Blanco, Jean-Marc Lhermet, Abdelatif Benazzi, Fabien Pelous, Julien Pierre… Along with their support, he can count on 450 volunteers all over France. And of course, as a dedicated player in the second row, the engine room of the scrum, he has met the challenge head-on. He has been campaigning all over France for the past year and a half, with a meeting every week except during the lockdown: 250 meetings in all. He adds, “All summer long, I went all over the country to get to know clubs. It was a tour of France by barbecues, which, you have to admit, seemed appropriate for someone whose last name is Grill.” From Burgundy to Aquitaine by way of the Ain, the Isère, the Drôme and the Ardèche, the tireless opponent that no one had predicted spent seven weeks going from one barbecue to another, driving his own car, with his wife, Françoise, at his side. The whole trip stuffed with copious banquets. An incredible voyage throughout the French rugby universe, with more than 65,000 kilometers of sausages consumed by 2,500 participants, players, club presidents, trainers, volunteers, mayors of little towns, supporters, friends or just the curious. No one had ever seen a sports-federation campaign like this before.  

1 PM, in a rush

Florian is in a hurry to get to his company’s future headquarters. He’s eager to show the new offices to his teams. We take advantage of this short hike to bombard him with questions. Why did he throw himself into a difficult election battle? “To do my civic duty,” he responds immediately. “My adversary’s model is destructive. It prioritizes funneling financial support to professional rugby and neglects the base. In contrast, I want to restore rugby’s image and promote its social and educational value.” How does he manage to keep up the pace? “It’s the way I am. When I’m on vacation, for example, I can’t stand to be on a beach for even two minutes without anything to do. When I was taking preparatory classes to enter HEC, I played for PUC and had three training sessions a week plus matches on weekends. I believe that we can’t be truly fulfilled unless we use all our capacities to the maximum.”

His family’s protestant culture, along with an early introduction to rugby, gave him this sense of engagement. “My parents instilled in me the importance of always committing myself completely to anything I did. That’s why I organized a barbecue tour of France.” Speaking of which, how much weight did he gain from eating all those grilled sausages? “I’ll tell you a secret. During the lockdown, I spent a lot of time at the gym to get ready for this challenge.” End of the chat. We’re here. The team members are already exploring the new space, which includes conference rooms, work areas, and odd-looking compartments for making phone calls without disturbing others. No one will have an assigned desk. Each person will use the space as needed. Times change, and the telecommuting trend seems to have already altered our ideas about how offices should be organized.

2 PM, the team buffet

The top floor is a lovely loft with views over nearby rooftops. A living area with a kitchen and a small salon, where everyone can congregate.  The lunch buffet, spread out over two tables designed by Starck, is informal: cold meats, excellent regional cheeses, and lots of joking around, all in the venerable rugby third-half tradition. Florian grabs the corkscrew to open a few bottles of “his” wine. That’s right. Along with managing a company, being a father to two children, and the French rugby world’s latest troublemaker, our guy in a hurry is also the co-owner of the Château de l’Engarran, a famous wine estate near Montpellier. “It’s something my family has been passionate about for six generations,” he says, almost apologetically. “I live in Paris, but there, surrounded by the vines, is where I really feel at home.”

Head of a company and president of a regional league: the double life of Florian Grill

2:30 PM, a quick survey

It’s time to head back. But before we leave, Florian, the marketing expert, can’t resist the opportunity to conduct a little survey: employees must each share one word to describe their reaction to the new offices they have just visited. Their terms are positive: innovative, comfortable, functional… The boss is relieved: they seem to like it. The afternoon continues in a marathon of conference calls with salespeople in Lyon and Tours, meetings about burning issues, conversations in the staircase. As soon as he has a free moment, Florian retreats to his computer screen. For him, not a minute can be wasted. There’s no time for daydreaming. There are only a few personal things on his worktable. A few grubby oval rugby balls in a box. A bronze statue of a rugby hooker scoring a try (it once adorned the desk of his father, a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique). In the background, an enormous cow bell “which we use to call people over when we decide it’s time for a drink!” In a corner, a frame around something that looks like a piece of packaging yellowed by the years. It’s actually a treasured family relic. The parchment is marked “Quincaillerie Grill, Nîmes”.  It was his grandfather George’s hardware store, whose slogan was “An ancient house that lives up to its name.” Florian has never forgotten this mantra.

7 PM, meeting

Backstage, we catch him putting on a new and freshly ironed shirt that his wife, Françoise, has brought him. What color? Black, like an All Blacks jersey. The perfect color for someone willing to get his hands dirty. He becomes a different man on the podium. A formidable speaker, precise, with no need for notes, who knows just when to stir things up by attacking his opponent’s “negative Grand Slam”, the decline in licensees, the pitiful record of the national rugby team. This former second-row player is clearly not afraid of a brawl. Microphone in hand, he answers lots of questions and explains the key features of his program, which include multiplying by ten the budget for rugby in schools and promoting company sponsorships of rugby clubs for people with disabilities or in disadvantaged neighborhoods

9 PM, last passes under the floodlights

The audience seems impressed. Even the mayor of Suresnes, Guillaume Boudy (H.86), who attended as a courtesy, shares his own positive take on the speaker. As another HEC alum, he remembers Florian’s boundless energy, particularly as a pillar of the BDE student association. It’s dark now. Beyond the podium, the stadium’s grass pitch has just been lit up. The vivid green under the floodlights looks almost unreal, like something in a film. The training session for the first team, in black and green jerseys, has just begun, as the discussion continues. In the background, players practice lateral passes, tackles, sprints and scrums. Their fluid moves are a kind of dance. The Suresnes XV giants in their spiked shoes suddenly look almost like ballerinas. There’s no doubt that this rugby, beautiful and rewarding, is a sport of brutes played by gentlemen.

Sébastien Desurmont

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