The Real Story Behind Sodexo’s Acquisition of Inspirus

Behind every press conference and public announcement is the real story. When Paris-based Sodexo (one of the largest companies in the world) announced it had acquired Inspirus, an employee engagement software company with a more-than-100-year history in rewards and recognition, there were a lot of questions in the human capital management (HCM) market segment.

Press releases from France and Texas tell one story — a story of the world’s largest quality of life company teaming up with an innovative recognition software company to build the leading global employee engagement solution. But the executives from each company tell quite another story — a story about people, joy and century-old legacies.

To get the real story, we sat down with Mia Mends (the incoming CEO of Inspirus from Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, USA) and Pete Chambers (the outgoing CEO of Inspirus). We asked them tough questions about the past, present and future. Here is what they had to say.

Interview by Charlla Davis, Sept. 6, 2016

Why did Sodexo choose Inspirus?

Mia: We knew we wanted to acquire a recognition software company with a big head start on building out a comprehensive employee engagement platform. We set a very high bar. We wanted incentives, rewards and recognition, learning, safety and measurement in a single platform. Believe me when I say we conducted painstaking research and evaluated every major company in the segment. In the end, Inspirus was the clear choice. Inspirus met all of our criteria (and our list was extensive!). But the one element that became the most important as we started this journey together was culture fit. Inspirus and Sodexo are simply cut from the same cloth. We are both mission driven organizations working hard each and every day to improve the human experience. And the people in both companies just got it immediately. We all knew immediately that we belong together.

Pete: I think it’s important for everyone to know that Inspirus wasn’t for sale. I used to get calls every week from companies or investors who wanted to talk about buying Inspirus or giving us money to grow. I never seriously entertained the notion of selling Inspirus until Mia called me. It was clear from that first phone call that Mia was trying to achieve something big and knew exactly how she was going to do it. I also recognized immediately that Mia and Sodexo could bolster Inspirus instead of change us. I think Mia feels the same way — it was just so obvious that this was a once-in-a-lifetime match

Mia: I’m glad you took the call!

Pete: I think if I hadn’t, you would have showed up knocking on my door at home!

Mia: Oh, I would have. You know it.

Let’s address the elephant in the room... How much did Sodexo pay for Inspirus?

Mia: [Laughs] You know … That is definitely the first question that everyone asks. I think whenever there is an acquisition of this magnitude, everyone really fixates on the price because they want to know what it means for the state of the industry and also who got rich! We really want to keep the focus on why we made this acquisition. Our vision for how we can improve quality of life for millions of people around the world because of this acquisition is so ambitious, so important, and so possible that honestly the price is irrelevant.

Pete: I totally agree. If this were about the money, I would have called in for this interview from some beach in Bermuda or something like that! I’m sticking around as an advisor because I want to finish the work that was started by Inspirus more than a century ago. Our mission at Inspirus is to bring joy to work. Being acquired by Sodexo accelerates that mission by immediately expanding our global reach and our global capabilities. I didn’t sell Inspirus to Sodexo because of a dollar figure. I sold Inspirus to Sodexo because they enable us to operate at the scale and sophistication of the largest global companies in the world. I am honored that Inspirus has become part of the Sodexo family.

Has the leadership team changed?

Pete: This is one of the most beautiful parts of the story. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mia over the past several months in a way that only two people who are talking to each other about buying and selling a company can get to know one another. Mia is one of the finest people and leaders I’ve ever met. She is going to be taking the helm as CEO and I will stay on as an advisor. And I couldn’t be happier about it. I care so much about the people at Inspirus and I’m so happy they are going to have such a gifted, dynamic CEO steering the company to the next level.

Mia: Thank you, Pete. At the same time, I want the world to know how Sodexo does business. We are keeping the entire executive management team in place. In fact, we are keeping the entire Inspirus team. We will also be adding new people to the team from Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, USA. We bought the company because we believed in the people as much as the technology. And that’s a real testament to Pete’s humble leadership style. That’s why I’m not letting him go anywhere! Or anyone else for that matter [laughs].

What does this mean for Inspirus customers?

Pete: I’ve talked personally with many of our customers about this acquisition and I’ve learned it doesn’t take them long to see why this is such a great next step for all of us. We now operate in 36 countries and deliver incentives and rewards to practically the entire world. So we are immediately the most global employee engagement platform in the industry. We also benefit from key solutions and innovation spearheaded by Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services. For example, Inspirus will now have the ability to leverage Sodexo’s merchant-based rewards and meal networks in the U.S. and abroad. In short, we just got a whole lot better and our customers can expect to benefit immediately from our expansion.

Mia: I have been so energized by my conversations with Inspirus customers. It really feels great to know that everything they love about Inspirus is still going to be there for them and at the same time, we’re going to add a lot of great new benefits that will surely delight them. And let’s not forget about what Sodexo customers are getting out of this! Sodexo customers now have access to the only employee engagement platform in the world that will become increasingly aligned with other Quality of Life services they are already using. This acquisition is a real game changer for Inspirus clients, Sodexo clients and the industry.

Why employee engagement?

Mia: I think that, for a very long time, companies have worked very hard to create solutions meant to help attract, develop and retain employees. Unfortunately, a lot of these solutions ended up looking like impersonal systems that create negative space between companies and everyday people. Have you ever been through a performance review? That’s not any fun for the manager or the employee! But more importantly, we don’t think that’s the way to build loyal bonds. Employee engagement is a way of looking at the world and, specifically, the relationship between people and the companies they work for. We believe that when companies focus on the actual experience that employees are having, from the front line to the corner office, the way to build mutual trust and loyalty becomes obvious — focus on improving quality of life for everyone at every moment in their day-to-day life. It can’t be a quid pro quo arrangement … “We’re going to be nice to you at work so that you’ll stay here longer and work harder.” It has to be from the heart. And it has to touch people’s lives in every context … Not just when they are behind the desk or the cash register or the assembly line. Employee engagement is about getting back to the basics of human nature while at the same time utilizing today’s technology to make warm experiences and relationships scalable across large groups of people.

Pete: We didn’t set out to be an employee engagement company. We simply set out to bring joy to work, by helping companies catch people doing things right. What we found in the process is that our deceptively simple approach to relationships was having a more significant impact on company and individual performance than the big enterprise HR systems. Employee engagement ended up being our home because that’s where companies that are trying to do the same things we are trying to do are gravitating and what they’re calling themselves. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. It’s working.