Tailoring tools - from clothing to patents

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John Murphy profiles the chief executive officer of Questel Orbit

If you want to protect an invention or idea you must first get a patent. It is therefore no surprise that about 80 per cent of all scientific information appears first in a patent somewhere in the world. Anyone dealing in intellectual property needs to know what patents are being filed, how the patent laws are evolving through judgments, and what patent disputes are going on around the world. But reading patents can tell you more than what these ideas or inventions are. They can tell you what your competitors are doing, who is trying to steal an edge and which are the clever people inside a rival company that you might want to recruit.

Questel Orbit is in the business of bringing that information to people. The Paris-based company consolidates numerous databases with its own information to deliver a full intellectual property service. It is a big market but there are plenty of rivals. In 2000 Questel Orbit was struggling after losing money, so its then-CEO Jean Besson took the bold step of buying out 80 per cent of the company from its owner, France Telecom, and set about trying to save the business. He also brought in his son, Charles Besson, to head the US subsidiary and eventually to succeed him as CEO of the whole company in 2003.

Between them the Bessons turned the company around, despite the fact that Charles Besson had no experience in online information before joining the company. He had spent the previous 10 years in South America selling equipment to garment manufacturers and enjoying the Latin American culture.

Olivier Huc, chief financial officer of Questel's US subsidiary, is a close friend of Besson and worked with him in Colombia before moving with him into the online information business. He said: 'He is not an easy person to talk to in the first instance; you need to get to know him and be patient to understand him. I have known him for many years and I am still discovering new things about him. You may at first think he is cold and distant but when you take the time you find he is a very passionate person. He loves debating on many subjects like politics and philosophy. Sometimes this makes him seem tough because he provokes you to look for the most interesting side of your personality but he is simply trying to have an interesting discussion with you.'

Huc said that leaving Colombia was extremely hard for both of them as they had enjoyed the lifestyle. 'Besson is very sporting, he likes water sports and martial arts, particularly Brazilian Jujitsu. He is not a good dancer, which was a problem in South America, but he tried,' said Huc.

'When you spend a long time somewhere where the cultural life is so strong, and the people are so nice and open, you get to like the country and attached to that way of life. It was hard for him to move but it was an important change for his career,' Huc added. 'What he likes is a challenge. When he came to Questel a lot had to be done because the company was not doing very well. It was a new market, a new country and a new culture, so everything was very challenging, but he is attracted to a fight and liked dealing with a whole series of new problems. It was an opportunity for him to prove himself. The business in South America was doing well and was interesting. To leave South America and leave behind 10 years of your life you have to have something that weighs the balance, and I think that Questel did that.'

Huc added that the main contribution Besson had made to the company was providing leadership to the staff, who were disillusioned after years of uncertainty. 'The big thing he has achieved at Questel is profitability, but apart from that he had created a new motivation for the staff. Before he came everyone was very confused about the situation and did not really know whether the company was even going to survive. He has been able to give hope to everyone so that they are now very motivated and believe in the value of Questel.' A perfect example of this, according to Huc, is when the company made shares and stock options available to all the employees. More than 80 per cent of the employees bought shares, which Huc sees as proof that the employees believe in the company. 'Besson is a very demanding boss but you always know that he is going to reward you,' he concluded.

Charles Besson was born near Lyon, France and studied for a degree in business and administration from Audencia Management School in Nantes. He then went on to study for an MBA at the Sorbonne in Paris, as it had always been his ambition to get into business. But he was also interested in travelling and had decided to learn several languages. He studied English and German at school but quickly ditched German for Spanish, which he found easier. Then, at university, he studied Portuguese and he spent his holidays travelling, particularly in South America.

After his studies he got a job with a French company called Lectra, which made equipment for the clothing industry. He worked in the finance department of its Brazilian subsidiary, but after a couple of years transferred to the sales department, which allowed him to travel all around the region. He was eventually appointed to run the Colombian subsidiary of Lectra and moved to Medellin. He was not worried that this is widely regarded as the murder capital of the world.

'I did not regard it as dangerous. When you live somewhere you get to know the places to avoid,' he explained. 'I still have many friends there.' While he was there he had the opportunity to buy out the Colombian subsidiary and set up a distribution company under the name Sericom. He still owns part of that company and travels there often to help with the business.

In 2001 he got a call from his father, who asked him to join Questel as head of the US subsidiary following the buyout. This meant moving to Washington DC, which Besson admits he was not totally thrilled about.

'I guess my father wanted someone he could trust running the US side of the business. The company was losing money and we had to cut costs. The problem was that we were paying a lot of attention to things that really were not very important,' he commented. 'It is true that I did not know anything about the business until I arrived, but I had good people around me and I am very grateful to them for the help they gave me in those early days.'

Besson set about focussing the company on its core business of supplying intellectual property information to lawyers, researchers and executives. He believes that, although the needs of these clients has not changed at all, the way they want the information presented to them has changed radically in recent years.

'People have got used to using things like Google themselves,' said Besson. 'In the past we focussed on the professional database user, which meant that we dealt with librarians within companies. Now we deal directly with the legal department or the human resources department. Of course the librarian is still advising these departments, but we have concentrated on developing tools that people can use themselves rather than tools for librarians.'

The information that Questel deals with all starts life as a full text patent but there is a huge difference between what researchers, human resources 'head-hunters' or lawyers might want to do with that patent information.

Some just want the technical information contained in the patent, others might want to monitor what their competitors are doing by looking for patterns in the patents they are filing, or they might want to identify an up-and-coming expert in a particular field to recruit. Lawyers are managing their own IP portfolio and are looking for infringements as well as licensing opportunities and they also want to know what cases are going through the courts in various jurisdictions. Meanwhile, finance staff want to keep track of the value of IP assets, and business development people are looking for potential partnership opportunities with companies that have complementary technology.

Over the last few years Questel has started rolling out tools specifically for these different markets as well as drawing in more databases to ensure full coverage of the patent and trade mark scene.

Questel has now become profitable but Besson has not let that go to his head. He understands that the problems in the company's past had their roots in getting involved in distractions. For this reason, he does not talk about any future plans for acquisitions, preferring to stay concentrated on the company's core market. However, in 2004 the company did acquire a minority share in the French linguistic-based software company Lingway, which is its partner in producing the PatReader full text search tool.

Despite the focus that he maintains for the company, Besson he has plenty of distractions himself. He spends much of his time travelling between Questel's headquarters in Paris, its R&D facility near Nice, its US subsidiary near Washington and other offices around Europe, South America and Asia. He also makes regular trips back to Colombia.

His main hobby of Brazilian Jujitsu, which he describes as 'wrestling', takes him away from the dry world of intellectual property, but he admits that his sport has given him some lessons which carry through into his business life. He said: 'In wrestling you always have to have respect for your opponent, because if you don't then he will come around and attack you when you are not expecting it.'


Degree in business and administration from Audencia (Nantes)
MBA in international trade at La Sorbonne (Paris)

Financial manager for Brazilian subsidiary of Lectra Systèmes
General manager for the Colombian subsidary of Lectra Systèmes
Creation and management of Sericom (Colombian-based distributor of equipment for the apparel industry)
General manager for the US subsidiary of Questel Orbit
CEO of Questel Orbit