THE BLOG
01/06/2015 11:30 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Ariane Daguin, CEO of D'Artagnan

Ariane Daguin was born into a world of great food. Her father, André Daguin, chef-owner of the Hotel de France in Auch, Gascony, is famous throughout France for his artistry with foie gras and other Gascon specialties.

A career in food might have seemed natural, but Ariane decided to pursue an academic degree at Columbia University. While working part-time for a New York pâté producer, Ariane was in the right place when the opportunity to market the first domestically-produced foie gras presented itself. In 1985 she gathered her financial resources and launched D'Artagnan, the only purveyor of game and foie gras in the U.S. at the time. The creation of D'Artagnan coincided with a growing sophistication in American cuisine and an increased interest in organic, free-range chicken and humanely raised veal. At the vanguard of the farm-to-table movement, today D'Artagnan is the leading purveyor of organic poultry, game, foie gras, pâtés, sausages, smoked delicacies, and wild mushrooms to the nation.

In addition to running D'Artagnan, developing new products and researching innovative and ecologically responsible methods of production, Ariane is founding president of Les Nouvelles Mères Cuisinières, an international association of prestigious women chefs. She is on the board of City Harvest, and active in The American Institute of Wine & Food and Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. Recognized in 1994 by The James Beard Foundation "Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America," Ariane is now a member of the Awards Committee. In 2005, Ariane received the "Lifetime Achievement Award" from Bon Appetit Magazine, and in September 2006, she was awarded the French Legion d'Honneur.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My childhood has taught me about the importance of passion and pride in influencing success in business. I was the eldest member of my family, the 7th generation in a family of hotelier restaurateurs in Gascony, France. My father, Andre Daguin, was the chef-owner of Hotel de France, in Auch, Gascony which was recognized with 2 Michelin stars. It was never said but always understood that my brother, a year younger than me, would be the one to take over the family business. Much of my drive to succeed, to build and keep motivating my team at D'Artagnan is still based on my pride in overcoming the odds and being successful as the leader of D'Artagnan. Today, I am proud of the team of "Musketeers" who follow our "all for one and one for all" mission and majorly contribute to our collective success.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at D'Artagnan?
My only experience besides my childhood in the family hotel restaurant was right out of college. For five years, I had the opportunity to work in the first charcuterie in the United States and to develop its wholesale department. The two partners who owned the company gave me a lot of leeway so I really learned on the job.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at D'Artagnan?
1993 D'Artagnan commercializes the 1st organic chicken in the U.S.
October 2000: Launched our website
June 2003: Introduced Duck Bacon
August 2005: Bought out my partner
2008: Hit $50 million in sales
2011: Created and introduce Rohan duck
2012: Opened warehouse in Chicago
2013: Our Green Circle Chicken makes first page of NY Times

There have been many times of crisis as well, but the biggest one I faced was buying out my partner after his shot gun clause offer, and to subsequently rebuild the team. I learned to manage my fear and not to panic as well as to surround myself with people who are smarter than me. I also discovered that I perform better in time of crisis, and that there is no greater high than overcoming a challenge together, as a team of Musketeers, with panache.

Growth has also been both a highlight and a challenge. We started small and now have 181 employees, anticipating a team of 200 by the end of the year and $95 million sales revenues. Growth has offered us opportunities to expand our business; our passion and drive to be the best allows us to realize the opportunity. At the same time, growth is a challenge. It is complicated to manage, and tempting to outpace. It is important to stay focused on the mission and your area of excellence in order to maintain stable, profitable growth.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Don't think of yourself as a woman, think of yourself as a business person. When you enter a negotiation or are managing other people, thinking more about "being a woman" overcomplicates the situation and will interfere with the end goal. It is important to concentrate on what you need to accomplish - and being preoccupied by gender or by what you think is expected from your gender, is unproductive. To succeed in business, it is most important to focus on reading the other person and understanding their agenda so you can anticipate their next move.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
You are as good as the weakest person on your team. This directly relates to my theory about managing in the way of the Musketeers. The philosophy of "all for one and one for all" is powerful and encourages the whole group to operate like a sports team playing a sport. During the game, the team is together and shares one goal. Each individual understands their actions are for the good of the whole. The weakest player could bring the whole team down with one bad move, an unmotivated action or not sticking to the agreed move. Eventually, after the game, the weak player is revealed and that person either steps up or steps out.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't! My work is my life. I raised my daughter as a single mother and since she was a toddler, she would follow me and help at D'Artagnan. She learned to cook with me, preparing dishes for special charity dinners, conducting demos in cooking schools where we debone and cook foie gras, duck, game meats and game birds. Having her alongside was an extremely rewarding bonding relationship. Now she has grown up to be successful as an architect. At one point, I thought she might work with me because she graduated with a degree in food science and hotel management from Cornell, but instead she geared into architecture.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It is difficult to generalize, but one thing I have observed among women is an inherent drive to do well for the entity (company, group, task at hand) without seeking personal recognition for their work. Women are not treated equally in terms of employment and compensation, maybe because we sometimes can be too focused on the task at hand and not focused enough on touting our work to earn the deserved recognition.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
There were four people who really helped us when we started D'Artagnan - both through mentoring and assistance. My father was a very important inspiration for me. Even though I was not destined to take over the family hotel restaurant, I was very involved in the family business and learned much from him. Julia Child was a great support, especially during early years. She introduced D'Artagnan to journalists and other important leaders in the food industry. Gonzalo Armendariz was also a miraculous help in the beginning - he had a USDA kitchen and he generously loaned it to us for a whole year for free. He said that someone helped him when he came to the U.S. and he felt it was his turn; without his help we probably would not have been able to get started. Another extremely generous person was Robert Meyzen from La Cremaillere Westchester, NY. In the first weeks of D'Artagnan when I went in his kitchen to present our products, he gave me a big check as an advance on his account, without having bought anything yet.

We would not be here today without their help at the beginning and I will never forget that. I now consider it my duty to repay that debt by helping those who are just starting out.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child and Barbara Lynch. They all had or have more balls than most men. Barbara Lynch is a self-made business person and at the top of her game, as was Julia Child. I've read a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt and appreciate her influence in this country. She responded to an inner compass, always did what she thought was right but without recognition. And she did all the while taking caring for and protecting her husband.

What do you want D'Artagnan to accomplish in the next year?
We will move to our New Jersey facility, a 87,000 square-foot warehouse we just bought. We are expanding our operations in key markets: Chicago by purchasing a 25,000 square-foot warehouse close to O'Hare airport, and in Texas, where we are opening a distribution center too.. That should bring us upwards of $90 million in revenue this year. All this is the backdrop to supporting the greater mission that fuels us at D'Artagnan every day - to continue to innovate and produce the highest quality meats possible for the center of the American plate.