With the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest set to set sail on Sunday, the celebration of 25 years of partnership with Thomas Coville, and the Vendée Globe, in which the company is a major partner, 2024 promises to be a busy year for Sodebo. This week, Tip & Shaft spoke to its co-president, Patricia Brochard, who is also president of the Ultim class.
▶︎ What does the Arkea Ultim Challenge mean to you, a long-standing project which has now become a reality?
When we created the Ultim class ten years ago, we wanted to be able to race these boats around the world single-handed one day, so we’ve been working on this project for ten years. Initially, it was supposed to be quicker, there have been a lot of ups and downs, but no matter how much time we’ve put into it, the most important thing is that the vision we had, and particularly Thomas (Coville) who has been such a driving force in the construction of this race, has become reality today. The objective has been achieved, so it’s obviously a real satisfaction to see all the boats lined up here in Brest, it gives this project even more power.
▶︎ Have you always believed in the project, or did you think at one point that the race would never see the light of day?
It was quite complicated at times, on several occasions in fact, but in the end you realise that projects like this never turn out the way you planned. It’s the same thing that the sailors probably say to themselves before they set off: they know that, overall, the race isn’t going to go as they imagined, but despite everything, it will, I hope, take them to Brest after 45 or 50 days. What counts is having the determination to go all the way, whatever the route. In a project, there are several parameters: the objective you set yourself, the deadlines, the costs, but the most important thing is that, despite the ups and downs, it is achieved. I’m thinking in particular of Banque Populaire who, at one point, could have thrown in the towel but had the energy to carry on. I’m not in their shoes, but I imagine that this round the world objective has been a driving force in relaunching their project.
▶︎ Is the class gambling its future on this race or do you think it’s solid enough to withstand any unforeseen events?
I’d say that this race has given the class a powerful and important brand. I have the impression that I’m reliving the early days of the Vendée Globe: at the time we were wondering whether it was possible and what would happen afterwards, and now we’re at that stage with this Arkea Ultim Challenge. I’m unable to say what will happen afterwards, as it will inevitably depend on the desires of each and every one of us, but I think that this race will arouse even more interest in the class and perhaps help some sponsors to take the plunge. We know that skippers are interested, as are organisers and local authorities, but now we obviously need the media to take an interest in our races and help us to attract more sponsors in the coming years. In that sense, we’re not going to hide the fact that it’s important to have as many boats as possible at the finish of the Arkea Ultim Challenge.
“With Thomas, it’s almost a permanent contract”
▶︎ You appointed Stéphane Guilbaud as general secretary of the Ultim class in January 2023. How would you assess his work after a year?
The two main tasks he was given were to reintegrate the SVR Lazartigue team into the class and to work on the measurement rules. He successfully completed these tasks, which is why he’s stopping today, even though there were also personal reasons that led him to do so. We’d like to thank him for the work he’s done, and the class is now looking for a new general secretary to move on to the next stage, which is to flesh out the programme, with more of a facilitator and coordinator profile.
▶︎ What about these rules and the 2024 programme? Will it be in line with what you announced last April?
The measurement rules and the programme will be unveiled after the Arkea Ultim Challenge. We all wanted to get through this stage before presenting the rest of the programme, so there will be a few small changes compared to what was presented.
▶︎ This year you are celebrating 25 years of partnership with Thomas Coville. Would you have imagined in 1999 that the story would last as long as it has?
No, of course we wouldn’t have written it as it is, but the story is even more beautiful than we could have imagined because we really found each other with Thomas, around the values, the sharing and the way of running the project. It’s been a long road, not necessarily always easy for everyone, but what characterises us is the notion of loyalty and commitment.
▶︎ How has Sodebo grown since 1999 and to what extent have sailing partnerships (with Thomas Coville and the Vendée Globe) contributed to this?
Of course, we were much smaller then! Today, we have 2,900 employees and a turnover of just over 570 million euros, compared with 1,350 and 175 million in 1999. At the time, our success was due to our products, in this case our pizzas, but the company was virtually unknown. When we started out in sailing, we had an awareness rate of 1%, which has now risen to around 50%. These partnerships have obviously contributed to this. We could have relied on advertising campaigns, and we’ve done a few, but they wouldn’t have allowed us to tell our story and our values, which is what sailing allows us to do.
▶︎ In 25 years, has the partnership with Thomas Coville been called into question? How is it being renewed?
Initially, we had a four-year contract which we renewed. Today, to be perfectly honest, it’s almost a permanent contract. Even if, whether it’s Thomas or Sodebo, we regularly ask ourselves what we want to do, we don’t need a contract for that. The trust we have in each other allows us to operate differently from what is done elsewhere.
“Sailing is worth €4 million a year”
▶︎ You launched Sodebo Ultim 3 in 2019 with the aim of having a boat that would perform better, but we have to admit, looking at the raw results, that for the moment it is performing less well than its main rivals?
When you set out to achieve your goals and you don’t, you’re bound to be disappointed, and the same goes for a company when it launches a product that isn’t as successful as you’d hoped. However, when we look at the various projects here in Brest, we see that they have all gone through periods of varying length during which the results were not there. This can be explained by the fact that the machines take a long time to develop – the idea is not to say that we’re going to throw the boat away, but on the contrary to try to improve its performance – but also because we don’t have many events. It’s not like football, where you have one or two matches a week and you can pick yourself up the next match if things don’t go well. That’s another reason why we want to expand the programme.
▶︎ A word about the Vendée Globe, what is the major partner’s view of the evolution of this race?
It’s still a magical race. If you look at the last edition, a lot happened, the stories of the men and women who took part were fascinating, with both sporting performance and human adventures, and ever more people following them. I think you can still find the soul of the Vendée Globe today, there’s never anything written down
▶︎ Between this partnership and the one with Thomas Coville, how much does sailing cost Sodebo?
Without counting the boat part, because it’s something that pays for itself, so it’s an investment, it comes to 4 million euros a year.
Photo: Jean-Marie Liot / Alea