Leroy Merlin, a French chain still in Russia, angers its Ukrainian workers

PARIS — Shortly after a Russian rocket destroyed one of the largest shopping malls In kyiv on Monday, Ukrainian employees of Leroy Merlin, a home improvement store that was destroyed in the blast, took over the company’s Instagram page in Ukraine.

“Stop sales in Russia,” they wrote, posting an image of the shattered remains of the site, where a company security guard was killed, one of eight killed in the predawn attack.

Leroy Merlin closed its six stores in Ukraine after the war began and paid employees the equivalent of three months’ salary. It has even helped workers and their families cross the border to Poland and Romania for safety.

But in Russia, the company operates 112 stores and has given no public signs that it plans to leave. Quite the contrary: It is working to expand its Russian inventory to adjust to sanctions and the departure of rival Western chains, according to an internal message provided by employees.

The Instagram post was not the first time Ukrainian workers had spoken out against Leroy Merlin’s insistence on doing business in Russia. Around 350 of them signed a petition last month asking the French parent company, so much groupone of Europe’s largest retail conglomerates, to retire.

After employees sent executives the plea and posted messages on social media, Leroy Merlin shut down the Ukrainian unit’s internal Gmail accounts, blocking their ability to communicate with head office and each other, according to interviews with two employees and posts from other Leroy Merlin employees. on social media. Managers also asked Ukrainian staff to remain politically neutral about the company’s business, they said.

“Adeo told us that his greatest quality is his humanism,” said Anatoliy Zelinskyy, brand manager for Leroy Merlin in Ukraine and author of the post on the Instagram page. “But I never expected such a reaction from a business that claims humanitarian values.”

The list of global brands announcing his departure from Russia it is growing by the day, adding pressure on the Russian economy and prompting threats from President Vladimir V. Putin to nationalize Western companies that pull out.

But the Adeo Group is among several companies that make the decision to stay.

Adeo is controlled by the Association Familiale Mulliez, a holding company and business empire run by the French Mulliez family with an estimated fortune of 24 billion euros. It also owns the Auchan chain of giant supermarkets and Decathlon, a sporting goods retailer. For Leroy Merlin and Auchan, Russia is the second largest market behind France. In total, they have more than 400 stores in Russia, where they employ 75,000 workers and generated combined sales of more than 8 billion euros last year.

The destruction of the Leroy Merlin at the Retroville shopping center in kyiv opens a window on the conflicting interests and thorny corporate and humanitarian calculations facing companies that have spent decades betting on Russia.

It has also focused attention on France, where a large number of top-tier companies with large companies in Russia have come under fire for being slow to pull out. The companies may have been partly heeding the advice: In closed-door meetings early in the conflict, French government officials urged top executives to avoid making hasty decisions to leave.

On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron said during a press conference that French companies should be “free to decide for themselves” whether to stay in Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine took aim at those ties Wednesday during a video address to the French Senate, calling on Leroy Merlin, Auchan and French automaker Renault to stop doing business and “stop being responsible for the war machine.” From Russia”. And he added: “Everyone must remember that values ​​are worth more than profits.”

Hours later, Renault announced that immediately suspend activities from its Moscow factory and review its business in Russia.

Adeo has not issued any statement about his activities in Russia since the conflict began. The company did not respond to email, text message and phone requests for comment for this article. by adeo LinkedIn page promotes solidarity with Ukraine, but after a barrage of criticism online for his unwillingness to leave Russia, the comments were removed and disabled.

The company’s position continues to be a source of anguish for several of its employees in Ukraine. They view the humanitarian actions carried out by Adeo since the conflict began, including giving donations and helping Ukrainian refugees flee Russian rockets, as at odds with the decision to continue doing business in Russia.

Following Mr. Zelensky’s speech, Adeo CEO Philippe Zimmermann laid out the company’s thinking in a video addressed to employees, which was obtained by The New York Times.

“The war in Ukraine is dramatic, unbearable both for the Ukrainians and for Leroy Merlin in the Ukraine. It affects us all,” Zimmermann said, acknowledging the Ukrainian employees’ concerns and citing the mall bombing and the death of the hired security guard.

But he added: “There is no reason to condemn our Russian teams for a war they did not choose. There is no reason to turn away 45,000 employees who represent more than 100,000 people with their families. There is no reason to stop being useful to Russians who need to repair, insulate, secure, protect and light their homes. We sell you the essentials. It is our responsibility as entrepreneurs and companies”.

Leaving Russia would risk having the company’s assets nationalized, to the detriment of Russian employees, added Zimmerman, who echoed the message to employees in a interview published Wednesday in a local French newspaper, La Voix du Nord.

Workers in Ukraine say that the two situations cannot be compared.

“They talk about the welfare of Russian employees,” said Yevgeniy Kuzmin, chief digital officer for Leroy Merlin in Ukraine. “But we are facing life or death in Ukraine, this is a war,” he said by phone from Lviv, an air raid siren wailing in the background.

In interviews, Ukraine employees acknowledged that Leroy Merlin had taken numerous steps to help deal with a humanitarian disaster that was unfolding when the Russian military invaded on February 24. He authorized donations of stores from him, including sand, wood and insulation, which allowed Ukrainian soldiers to build bomb shelters and use sandbags to block Russian military vehicles. Some Leroy Merlin workers took up arms or joined Ukraine’s cyber army to fight the invasion.

Meanwhile, Kuzmin said, online opposition was growing.

“We started getting a lot of hateful messages from our customers on social media, saying, guys, you are an international company and you are also present in Russia. This means that a large part of the funding goes to the Russian state budget, which helps support the war,” Kuzmin said.

Hundreds of Ukrainian employees signed the internal petition calling on Leroy Merlin to leave Russia and posted similar messages on the retailer’s Facebook and Instagram pages in Ukraine. Managers pressured them to remove the messages, Zelinskyy and Kuzmin said.

Shortly after, Leroy Merlin’s corporate communication channels in Ukraine went offline.

“Adeo explained that they were doing this due to the high risk of hacker attacks on our system and that it would be temporarily blocked,” said Mr. Zelinskyy, communications manager. “But a month later, they still haven’t come back online.”

Some employees were also angered by a leaked internal message, dated March 11, showing that managers in Russia were trying to expand their selection of items as major competitors pulled out of the country and Western sanctions disrupted imports. .

“Following the departure of some companies, we are open to your suggestions to increase supplies and expand the range of products,” said the message, which was sent to Russian suppliers and seen by The Times. “In the next three to four months, we plan to completely replace the imported assortment with products produced in Russia.”

When the Russian rocket destroyed Leroy Merlin’s kyiv store and killed the security guard, who had a wife and son and had worked at the store as a sales associate for several years before changing jobs, Ukrainian employees increased the visibility of your statement.

They accessed Leroy Merlin’s Ukrainian Instagram page and posted a link to a online public petition for the company to halt sales in Russia, which had gathered more than 15,000 signatures by Wednesday night. By Thursday, the page had been removed.

“Every day, our directors told us that Adeo is human-centric, that humanity is at the heart of the company,” Kuzmin said. “But when it comes to war, where is humanity? Only money matters.”

adela shoemaker contributed report.

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