Guernsey Press

Vive la difference as new Condor CEO makes good first impression

Matt Fallaize meets Condor’s new chief executive Christophe Mathieu and finds out why and how a company formed as a ‘social enterprise’ among Breton farmers now has its eye on the Channel Islands market – and will not be taking it off any time soon.

New interim CEO of Condor Ferries, Christophe Mathieu. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 33103516)

If Condor’s new, albeit interim, chief executive wanted to project an appropriate combination of contrition, reassurance and optimism, he undoubtedly succeeded.

Journalists even more cynical than me were impressed by Frenchman Christophe Mathieu in his first round of interviews in the islands, five weeks after his appointment.

Off the record, politicians and States officials say they are encouraged by his initial approach, which essentially amounts to a mea culpa for the company’s missteps of the past two or three years and a pledge to start correcting them.

He speaks of a fresh start – ‘un nouveau depart’ – in the company’s relations with Guernsey and Jersey.

Among the travelling public, there is some scepticism.

Condor’s ownership is unchanged. Monsieur Mathieu has vast experience with its minority shareholder, Brittany Ferries, but so did his predecessor at Condor, John Napton.

‘We are listening, we get it, and we know that some things need to be change,’ he says, literally days before the islands launch a tender process for their next ferry operator. It’s not 1 April, is it? Actually, it is.

But M. Mathieu is serious. This time it’s different, he says.

Brittany Ferries, where he remains chief executive, is suddenly taking a much more active role in day-to-day operations.

‘As Brittany Ferries is here for ever, it’s about time that we show it and start acting as the guys who will be here for ever,’ he says. ‘This is really the time to change and have a different approach to the relationship with the islands.’

Brittany Ferries has led a review of Condor’s schedules and details of improvements are imminent. Passengers will get discounts on Brittany Ferries’ wider route network. Its larger fleet will provide freight services with greater resilience. It has provided millions of pounds of capital, not least to settle unpaid ports fees. It has said it is possible that its branding could be used on local services and that it is open to increasing its shareholding, potentially up to 100%.

Brittany Ferries operates 11 vessels, carrying nearly two million passengers a year. (33108133)

Essentially, if there is a guarantee about Condor’s future, it is Brittany Ferries’ past.

By any measure, Brittany Ferries is an extraordinary success story. Founded in 1973 by a group of Breton farmers who couldn’t find an existing operator to take their produce to the UK, and whose idea faced ridicule from banks, today it has more than 2,500 employees and operates 11 vessels, which carry nearly 2m passengers and more than 160,000 tonnes of freight a year between France, the UK, Ireland and Spain. It remains a private company – a social enterprise, it calls itself – primarily owned by the farming co-operatives of north-west France.

Its president, Jean-Marc Roue, cultivates cauliflowers, potatoes, artichokes and pink onions on 120 acres close to the port of Roscoff, where the ferry company has its headquarters.

‘We don’t have shareholders who are there for themselves or greedy,’ says M. Mathieu. ‘It’s a bigger thing. They have a long-term view about developing the regions where they operate. Of course, we need to be profitable as a company because we need to invest, but it’s not a classic business with classic shareholders. Ours is a different story. We have a completely different set of values.

‘No disrespect to the banks and finance guys, but in many respects Brittany Ferries is the opposite. Morally, we have the right model. When your shareholders are farmers, they have got their feet on the ground. My chairman does it for the good of the community on behalf of his colleagues who have elected him. For me, that drives a lot of respect. I love this company. I just love the whole thing.’

As customers in Guernsey, we must admit that we’re quite a demanding lot. Despite having a smaller population than Bognor Regis, we’d rather like shuttle services north and south with cheap fares and immediate back up if a ferry goes out of service.

M. Mathieu does not want to fuel unrealistic expectations.

‘We are not miracle workers,’ he says, and similar things, several times in our interview. But when he says he and Brittany Ferries ‘get it’, he means they understand that Condor has not recovered well from the pandemic and that the island needs to see a new approach. Starting with passenger and freight timetables, which will be ‘far more regular and far better,’ he says.

‘We tried some schedules. I was part of the board and I take my share of responsibility. One of the problems is that there is almost not one day that is identical to the others in a week. In trying to stretch the schedules, we have some early departures and late arrivals, not necessarily in Guernsey but in Poole and St Malo, that are not very civilised. You don’t discharge people at two in the morning in Poole – or you do it and you do it only once, because the word spreads that it’s not very civilised.

‘We have spoken to a lot of people. We have listened. We need to revert to the schedules as they were before, pre-Covid. The fast craft are going back to very regular schedules, with one based in Poole, doing Poole-Guernsey-Jersey-Guernsey-Poole each day, which will also allow more inter-island connections as well, and on the other side of the water one based in St Malo, as before, doing St Malo-Jersey-St Malo-Guernsey-St Malo each day. The schedule will be dead simple, by as early as May. One of the basic lessons in ferry schedules is about regularity. It takes a long time to build.

‘For a lot of people, the ferry is like a continuation of the road, and if you keep moving the target people perceive it as messy and give up, bearing in mind that also you sometimes have weather disruption that you cannot do anything about.’

He believes it could take two more summers for passenger numbers to return to pre-Covid levels. A sluggish economy does not help, of course. Consumer confidence is generally low. For many people, wage growth has not kept pace with inflation. France recently downgraded its GDP growth forecast for this year to 1%. Nevertheless, M. Mathieu is ‘confident, but not complacent’ about investing in local ferry links and helping to develop the islands further ‘as a destination for the French’, especially at a time when economic and geopolitical concerns may be more likely to encourage holidays closer to home.

Commodore Goodwill. (33108215)

Brittany Ferries started life as a freight-only carrier. Today, freight accounts for about 20% of its turnover. For a long time, freight has been critical to making Condor’s business model viable. But here, too, schedule changes have proved problematic and, so far at least, the purchase of the Islander, controversially through a public-private deal which the States made subject to strict confidentiality laws, has not been a commercial success for Condor.

‘It was not quite realised that the ship no longer arriving at night had disorganised the logistics chain in both islands. At that time, I didn’t dig into the schedule in detail, but now it’s obvious.

‘With ro-pax [freight], the plan is to go back to the Goodwill being in full operation, six days a week, leaving Portsmouth in the evening, getting to Guernsey at three in the morning, shooting up to Jersey at six, leaving Jersey and getting back to Portsmouth.

‘The Islander will replace the Clipper and the Clipper will be operated only three days a week and it remains to be seen what Condor or Brittany Ferries will do with it for four days, or maybe the ship will lay over.’

This month, Guernsey and Jersey will jointly issue an invitation to tender for ferry services from next year, which is when Condor’s formal agreement with Jersey ends. The Economic Development Committee claims there have already been many expressions of interest. Companies bidding will be asked to explain their plans for resilience, reliability, passenger experience and financial sustainability, among other factors.

M. Mathieu, who has said Condor does not want to contemplate failing in its bid to show it remains ‘the logical choice’, expects the tender process to have been completed and the two islands’ States to have selected an operator by the autumn. He intends to continue as chief executive of both Condor and Brittany Ferries until then, before reverting only to the latter role, but he says the French company is now in for a penny, in for a pound, as it were, and will not revert to a more passive role in Condor.

‘One has to be humble. You cannot be the full-time chief executive of two companies permanently.

‘But, at the same, I took this role at Condor partly to show that Brittany Ferries is for ever going to be more involved. For ever we will now consider Condor as part of the Brittany Ferries network – for the benefit of the island, Condor and Brittany Ferries.

‘We are going to keep listening a lot to our colleagues in Condor and to the islands. We want to help the islands to develop and grow their economies and to live better. We know the ferry services are a lifeline in every way.

‘Not only to get food and tourists coming in but to get people living on the islands and for people who live on the islands to be able to get off them and go on holiday. Everything depends on it – your economy, your way of life. This means there is a lot to build between the ferry company and the islands.’

It is too soon to know whether this co-operative of Breton farmers can rescue the transport links of islands dominated by the finance industry, but it would not be the first time they had confounded their critics.