Season 1 / The genesis

Episode 4 - Setting up a transport business in the middle of lockdown

Adrien Aumont — Last week, we started explaining how we went about setting up the strategic board Midnight Trains, stopping at the point where we phoned up Odile Fagot. And as I said before, this was pivotal.

To start with, the call was much longer than the one with Guillaume Pepy, the former SNCF boss. But above all it was the first time we’d spoken with a real heavyweight in the railway industry: someone with an incredible amount of experience in the French sector. It’s no mean feat.You have to pitch your idea and convince a stranger that sleeper trains are going to make a big comeback – thanks to your very own product. On top of that, you’ve got to tell them that you have some shortcomings in your approach to the industry, and that’s why you’re calling her, someone who knows everything at the SNCF group and the wider market. And as it happened, it all worked out, because she accepted. So in addition to Cyril Aouizerate, whose expertise is hospitality, we had Odile Fagot, super-focused on the railways.

The next stage would be to find a travel operator and we immediately thought of Jean-François Rial. The CEO of Voyageurs du Monde has made that business what it is today, so could clearly offer us a lot. But his response to my email wasn’t what I expected at all. To put it crudely, he had lots else on. However, he took the time to send over the name of an architect, the head of a German tour operator who could help us, and several other ideas that could help us develop our business. What’s more, although we had never met or even called each other before, he continued to help us by exchanging a few emails. Throughout the Midnight Trains venture, he’s kept giving us things to chew over, and suggested key people we should meet. I don’t know why he’s done it and he’s making a conscious effort to support us, but he’s definitely one of the key figures cheering us along at the sidelines.

Our next board member came to us in a pretty unlikely fashion, as often happens in life. One evening, I was speaking about the project to a friend of a friend and ended up talking about issues of safety around running night trains. He ended up telling me that his sister, a former police commissioner, had set up a private business with her former boss. We set up a lunch and realised that they couldn’t do much for us. But they did, in turn, give us a name. That of the former secretary-general of SNCF and its former safety boss. Another lunch, another interesting encounter and a new name. Franck Gervais. The former Europe CEO for the Accor group, director-general at Voyages SNCF and director-general at Thalys… he was a real bigwig in both hospitality and the railway sector. When he accepted his spot on the Midnight Trains, he became a precious asset for us.

For the fourth spot on the board, we approached another railway bigwig who had been at SNCF. The only problem was that he was still running a subsidiary business. The service’s legal division wouldn’t allow him to collaborate with us. So we had to look elsewhere and our thoughts turned to Thierry Roussel. He’s someone I met during another project named 50 Partners Impact, which helped launch purpose-focused start-ups. I liked his serious approach and sincere sense of commitment. What’s more, he had experience within businesses launching in an area formerly dominated by state monopolies: internet providers, telecoms and energy (he was one of the founders of Direct Energie). Like the other board members before him, he was taken by the idea and so our collaboration got under way.

Romain Payet — And we’d finally done it. Our strategic committee was complete. We had a hotelier in Cyril Aouizerate, railway expertise in Odile Fagot, a double whammy with Franck Gervais and Thierry Roussel, an expert in breaking into monopolistic markets. At this point, the board had no governance structure. And that’s because the Midnight Trains business didn’t exist legally yet. It was rather a group of ‘super’ advisers who would receive shares when the business launched.

The completion of the board was a big step forwards for us. Except it was that moment that the world entered a period which no one will forget anytime soon. The Covid-19 pandemic was unleashed on every single inhabitant of planet Earth and the global economy came to a standstill. We were set to launch a transport business at a time when very few trains were even running.

For us, it actually worked out okay, because we were both able to spend time on what we liked the most. As far as I’m concerned, the lockdowns allowed me to spend more time in my bedroom digging deeper, reading economic and regulatory literature. As for Adrien, he was able to make as many calls as he liked and take on board the expertise of others, as he does so well. Each in our own way, we got used to our new industry, its rules and practices.

Adrien Aumont — It may seem counterintuitive, but setting up a sleeper-train business in the middle of lockdown was an incredible opportunity. To start with, we were lucky because we weren’t already a functioning business, with fixed overheads, furloughed staff and everything else that led other businesses to bankruptcy.

Then we realised that the pandemic would accelerate growing concerns around the climate catastrophe, notably with regard to aviation. Finally, because basically no trains were running, we had the opportunity to speak with all experts imaginable about the subject. They may as well reply to us, listen to us and advise us. Even if most of them – it’s almost part of the culture in the railway sector – said the same thing: “That’s impossible, guys”.

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