Article first published in Forbes Monaco July/August 2021 issue.
How a family-run fl oral distillery near the village of Bar-sur-Loup has become a leader in the $35 billion Flavor and Fragrance global market and why the CEO believes social commitment is the future.
There are times when going against the grain ultimately pays off. A century and a half ago, Victor Mane, a flower farmer who cultivated orange blossoms in the village of Bar-sur Loup, near Grasse, made a forward thinking decision: he would learn how to distill his own crops, rather than selling to the brokers, who in turn, sold his handpicked precious mounds of petals to Coty, Chanel or Guerlain. Little did Victor imagine that five generations later, MANE would become the leading French group of the Fragrance and Flavor multi-billion-dollar industry, with over 6,500 employees and sites in 39 countries. In 2019, the company hit $1.5 billion in sales with a group turnover of $1.552 million and an average yearly growth of 15.4%.
“When you distil flowers, they have to be fresh,” explains Jean Mane, current CEO of the family run company. (Mane and his family ranked No. 43 in Challenge’s 500 Greatest Fortunes in France 2020 at €2.3 billion.) Their factory and central headquarters have remained in the small village of Bar-sur-Loup, near the jasmine and rose fields. “We are rooted in our terroir,” he says proudly. “Which explains why in most places in the world where essential oils are produced, they’re produced on the spot, sometimes with mobile alembics.”
As a supplier of raw material to the likes of LVMH, Chanel and Hermès, he continues, much has changed since the traditional steam distillation techniques to extract fragrances from a variety of vegetals, which include not only flowers but wood, seeds, resins, bark, lichen and leaves. Or, take for example, the now-antiquated time-consuming practice of enfleurage for oils that do not easily distil, which required capturing the headspace of living flowers by absorbing them on fat. “It used to be animal fat in the old days,” Mane describes. “Basically, we were reproducing what happens in your refrigerator—if you have a sliced onion and butter, even if they are not in contact, the atmosphere around the onion that produces the essential oils is captured by the fat.”
Today, Mane explains, the extraction modes have enormously evolved with the use of eco-friendly cutting-edge technology using methods like the supercritical freeze extraction and liquid gas to recuperate the fragrance oil. This goes hand in hand with their corporate commitment to protecting biodiversity and finding sustainable methods of farming.
This pledge is shared by sixth generation family members, five of whom are working in different areas of the company. Mane’s eldest daughter directs the entire Europe Middle Eastern and African Region, and is based next to his office; the eldest son of his brother has a mission in China and is based in Shanghai, and his brother is in production in Bar-sur Loup. His sister’s youngest son is working on his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry and already works in the exporters research group. And his second daughter is a perfumer in the U.S. and works in their Fragrance Development Center in Parsippany, New Jersey. “I never used to talk about business with my children when they were growing up,” says Mane. “There’s a time for private life. But with my eldest daughter, because she directs a very complex region, we may talk about business but it's mainly in the office.”
Jean Mane, who has diplomas both in synthetic organic chemistry and chemical engineering, may not attract the same media attention as some of his celebrated clients—the blotter-whiffing master perfumers of fragrance houses who consult the firm regularly for new raw material— but that does not mean that Mane and his colleagues shut themselves away in a lab. To stay on top of the industry, the firm’s behind-the-scenes activity involves continuous exploration and research of everything that springs from the earth.
“Once, when traveling in Madagascar, I discovered a fragrant bush called gnidia daphnifolia that grew wild there and had never been used in perfume before,” recalls Mane, admitting that he was elated by the discovery but immediately set to work. MANE Kancor, the company’s affiliate, a pioneer in the field of global spice extraction, contacted a cooperative of woman and organized the cropping and distillation of these orange flowers, whose unique absolute had notes of narcissus, violet, cucumber, tea and tuberose. “We always give back revenue to the local community,” Mane affirms. “We do the same thing in Nepal in the mountainous Saylan district where we cultivate Timur berries—a rare very small citrus with a woody aroma—and develop a sustainable supply chain.” For example, MANE Kancor built water reservoirs for the farmers and funds an educational program for the Nepalese women.
In recent years—whether resurrecting rare geraniums that only grow on Bourbon Island (an island southwest of Mauritius now known as Reunion, where the company established a rugby academy for the neighboring isolated community) or extracting pure lavandin close to home—MANE has chosen to diversify their wide range of floral and vegetal extractions with a line of hair care products, soaps, detergents and aromatic diffusers. “It started with a flurry of different technology that turned into capsules, powders, emulsions,” says Mane, who wears Stronger With You Freeze by Armani, which has notes of marrons glacés.
By the same token, MANE’s production of food flavors was a natural step in the diversification of the fragrance eco-system. “Take, for instance, India, where everything grows—we try to use resources to the fullest and waste nothing when we distil mint oil,” says Mane. Here the social commitment translated into practices from teaching farming techniques to using far less water. “Mint is, in fact, an interstitial crop,” Mane explains. “It can also be a dilemma to use the soil for anything but providing food for the children of that country. In India, you have staple oods—usually wheat, rice, or sugar cane—however, there are several months during the year where you have a choice to produce something else and mint was the obvious choice.”
And although these widespread environmental and social concerns may seem distant from the glamorous romance-inducing allure of perfume, they inevitably intertwine. “Fragrance formulation is basically an association of raw materials,” Mane muses. High-tech methods aside, he says, the message in the bottle is still pure artistry. “You need to be creative and ingenious to drive your nostrils berserk—what we call the olfactive receptors that influence your brain,” he adds with a smile. “Our métier has always demanded both passion and exactitude, but in the end, there’s no fragrance without emotion.”