When French-born Ariane Daguin saw an opening in the market to bring gourmet meats and foie gras to the U.S., she seized the opportunity. That was in 1985, and since then Daguin’s company D’Artagnan has become the leading purveyor of heritage meats and a staple in top-tier restaurants across New York. Daguin, one of our Most Creative People of 2014, recently sat down with Fast Company to explain how she’s managed to grow her company to $82 million in revenue this year despite self-imposed restraints, how she’s staying true to the philosophy of her company’s namesake, and the danger of too much innovation.
It may stand to reason that if your company makes a name for itself, branching out with more products and services would be the next logical step. Not for Daguin.
Daguin has been unrelenting in limiting what D’Artagnan offers–select pantry items and an array of specialty meats (no fish). Even making the decision to sell mushrooms and truffles in 1999 was something Daguin “agonized” over.
“There’s a huge temptation to fill the truck with things chefs need: he needs desserts, eggs, milk. But if I want to stay excellent at what I do, I can’t go all over the place–nobody can,” she says. “Every time somebody would come to us with something else, we resisted because we wanted to be so good at what we do that we couldn’t expand to paper towels, dairy products, mineral waters. We really stayed the course.”
“From the very beginning to about 20 years ago, most of our clientele were restaurants and personal chefs,” Daguin says. “We started to develop and be successful because chefs were promoting our kinds of products and consumers wanted to find the same products and do the same thing at home.”
But as Daguin found out, not everything that’s offered in a restaurant will make the smoothest transition to the family dinner table.
“We launched duck rillettes 13 years ago and it was a bust. It was too expensive, too sophisticated for the time,” she says. “I relaunched it last year and we now have it in major retail outlets and there’s a pull from the customers–they understand what it is. There’s a right time and a wrong time. If you’re too innovative too soon you’re going to against the wall because you’re not going to have the demand.”
The phrase was made famous by Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and it’s a philosophy Daguin uses to lead her team at D’Artagnan, which shares its name with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis’s sidekick.
“I come from Gascony, where D’Artagnan is from. The musketeers were all for one, and one for all, and in Gascony we live by that,” Daguin says. “I always felt strongly to try to have that loyalty to the group, that ‘let’s go forward as team,’ that ‘let’s do it having fun and some panache,’ and let’s do it for the right reasons. I’ve been extremely lucky to be surrounded by my team who, although they’re not from Gascony, totally understand that.
“All of the managers have to be accountable and you don’t micromanage–you let people do their things. The weaker ones will become transparent and they will leave on their own, or something is going to happen. But the good ones are going to become excellent. As I see that happening every day I’m very proud because it’s the name of the company–and it happens to be a philosophy that works.”