Season 1 / The genesis

Episode 3 - Stick with what you know

Romain Payet — I’ve said it before, I had to do my own research to get behind Adrien’s idea to found a sleeper-train company. Unlike him, a man who thrives on others’ company, I needed to dig deeper, consult, analyse the data. It’s in my nature, a nature that was very different to that of my future colleague. In fact, our trajectories were even more different. Which, in my opinion, makes us work very well together.

First off, I was born in Réunion. My maternal grandfather ended up there by chance, because he did his military service in Africa and a friend had told him about the island and its lack of modern infrastructure. He went there and quickly found himself in charge of one of the island’s biggest construction bodies, which he ended up selling to the local subsidiary of an industry titan. My grandfather hadn’t been the only entrepreneur in the family, as his son (my uncle) set up his own company in the same sector having worked for my grandfather.

On the other side of the family, my father’s side, I have an uncle who was a member of the Farman family, that of Henri and Maurice, two brothers who were early pioneers within the French aviation industry. The sort of people who built their own planes and piloted them to test them out. My uncle also dipped his toe in the sector before becoming an antique seller on the Rue du Bac, in Paris’s seventh arrondissement, and turning former bits of aviation equipment into works of art.

Despite this culture of entrepreneurship within the family, I first gravitated towards the background of my father rather than that of my uncles and ancestors. Unlike them, he worked in agricultural firms, then in the spirits business, in finance and general managerial positions. From a very young age, I hid behind a false sense of shyness. I in fact didn’t really want to force myself to be sociable. Which paradoxically helped me to develop my greatest strength: my ability to read people and situations, and to pick up on signals weak and strong as a result. I didn’t know it back then, but it’s what would allow me to believe in Midnight Trains years later.

When Adrien told me about his project, I was Secretary General at KissKissBankBank. Before that, I’d left Réunion for a sport-and-study programme in Dinard, Brittany, and a lightning visit to the Californian university in Berkeley, where I didn’t feel very at home, my shyness reinforced by the language barrier. Back in France, I went to Dauphine before doing a masters ESSEC and working in mergers and acquisitions. I felt fulfilled in the job. I worked hard and had a very decent life. But while I’d never really felt like I wanted to become an entrepreneur, I ended up launching a project with a friend, Nicolas de Feraudy, that was very close to what Adrien and his colleagues were doing at KissKissBankBank. But Nicolas and I were first-time entrepreneurs and made a few slip-ups as a result of this lack of experience, which meant we ended up packing it in.

That was when I joined KissKissBankBank, thanks to a friend who I played golf with. He’d heard that the business was looking for financial types to join. So after a few phone calls and several meetings, I started in a role that involved making hundreds of calls to convince people to invest. It wasn’t quite right for me and I didn’t feel I was great at it. Fortunately, in another lucky twist, the company’s CFO was about to leave and Vincent Ricordeau suggested I take the role. Now I was in my place and I spent several years very satisfied in that role. Until that beer with Adrien and the various bits of research I did into the sleeper-train sector.

Another thing I tend to do when I need business advice is speak to my father. He liked the idea but said it seemed unworkable. Moreover, the more I tried to persuade him, the more I convinced myself that the business could work out. It wasn’t very rational, but like Adrien before me, I felt it in my soul. Add to that the fact that, when I spoke to my wife, she believed in the idea straight away and supported me 100 percent. So Adrien and I arranged another meeting: I needed to tell him I would come along for the ride. In a café in the ninth arrondissement, he showed me his plans, project renders, but I didn’t dare tell him what I had on my mind. Finally, one of us, I don’t remember which, dropped the bomb. We high-fived and the deal was done. We were going to do this mad thing together.

Adrien Aumont — When everything was said and done, I was seriously relieved. I knew that Midnight trains could work, but now, with Romain’s skills, I knew that it would work.

Romain Payet — Having sorted out my departure from KissKissBankBank, I met the team that Adrien had brought together before I arrived. My first instinct was to charm everyone, to try and fit in, not to pick apart everyone’s skills. And in any case, before thinking about changing that set-up, we had another, highly important mission. We had to form a board.

Adrien Aumont — When I started thinking about the Midnight Trains board, I first thought of Cyril Aouizerate, the co-founder of the Mama Shelter, who I met years earlier. After all, he had reinvented the hotel industry, and surely could help us create our ‘hotels on rails’. All it took was a phone call and he was on board. It was a real coup.

Then I thought of Guillaume Pepy, the former boss of SNCF, who had just left that job and whose number I had got off a friend who had known him for ever. He was expecting my call, but that only lasted a few minutes: contractually, he couldn’t get involved with anything relating to the railways. But he directed me towards Odile Fagot, who apparently knew everyone at SCNF. The former finance director of SNCF Réseau, creator of Intercités, former director of the Haut-de-France region and member of the Eurostar board was no longer in her role and had all sorts of qualities and contacts that could help us out. I didn’t know it yet, but it would prove a game-changing phone call for Midnight Trains.

Midnight Trains Logo