The announcement came as a bombshell last week, a bolt from the blue because it was so unexpected. French insurance giants Macif ended their Ultim programme when the new trimaran which they own is due to sail in a year’s time. So, why this decision? Why this timing? And what are the consequences for François Gabart and for his company MerConcept? Tip & Shaft investigate.
It was by means of a press release issued on Wednesday at 11:30am French time that the Macif group announced that they are withdrawing from the Ultim circuit in the midst of building a new trimaran. A press videoconference was organized during which Fred Vianas, the group’s corporate strategy and performance director, and Jean-Bernard Le Boucher, director of the marine activity, spoke of a “reorientation”, and of the need to “refocus”, with a “new strategic plan to write“. That plan clearly does not fit with an Ultim programme. On his part François Gabart spoke of “a terrible moment, a hard blow without any possible comparison to those I’ve experienced as a sailor.”
No one saw this decision coming, especially after their February 2018 announcement, Macif then saying they would “continue their commitment to ocean sailing over the period 2020-2024 alongside François Gabart“, and the key was to build a new trimaran. When was the decision taken? “During the month of May, at the time of deconfinement, I felt that there were questions which were the prelude to bigger questions about the project,” explains Gabart to Tip & Shaft. “I received a phone call three weeks ago from the Director General [Adrien Couret, who was appointed to this post a year ago, editor’s note], who made it clear there was no ambiguity over their decision not to continue the Ultim. Then I received a letter a week later. We agreed on a protocol earlier this week before the announcement on Wednesday. This feels very brutal, but I think the decision was like that internally because because it was very fast.” As for the employees of MerConcept, Gabart’s company, they were warned the day before the announcement, “It is a shock,” confirms one of them.
Indeed wind back to February 25 this year, when François Gabart talked to us about his need to take a step back in 2020 and pass the helm of the current trimaran to Pascal Bidégorry, then the official Macif press release talked about the “M101” – code name of the new, future Ultim – “a new project to which François is fully committed to and investing in “….and of a “common ambition between 2021 and 2023.”
“MACIF GAVE THE IMPRESSION OF NEVER REALLY
HAVING COME TO TERMS WITH THIS NEW TRIMARAN”
How does one explain this reversal? Speaking on Thursday, Jean-Bernard Le Boucher responded: “We have been thinking about this from the start of the year as part of a more global review of the strategic reorientation of the company. There’s a lot of (business) changes this year. We are a multi-brand group that will develop further, with an ongoing merger with the Aésio group. François reiterated on Wednesday that is takes more than two years to build and campaign a boat on this circuit and our pace of business is a bit different. This strategic matter is the reason for closing down the Ultim. ”
How is the Ultim program no longer consistent with this new group strategy?” The strategy is not completely settled, we are building it now and it will be known at the end of the year. We will make announcements at that time“, continues the director of the insurance group’s marine activities.
On Wednesday when he was asked about the possible influence of the Covid crisis on the decision, Fred Vianas replied, “The reason for this decision is not related to Covid from the financial point of view. It’s not about saving money because we will invest it elsewhere. But we can’t say that it didn’t have no impact at all. If we don’t take it into account we would not be taken seriously, it would mean we are not connected to what’s happening.”
By putting a trimaran that they funded entirely up for sale the insurance company will be losing money on paper. The current Ultim has seen its price fall from 6.7 million to 5 million euros. Jean-Bernard Le Boucher added: “Covid is not the real reason why the Ultim programme is coming to an end, but that has accelerated the decision-making process. Inevitably, the health crisis we are going through and the economic crisis which will follow for a certain number of businesses and people in France, means we have to adopt a different way of looking at things.”
Someone who is closely involved summed up the situation: “Macif has given us the impression they never really came to terms with this new trimaran, launched in the euphoric days after the completion of the round the world voyage and which cost 50% more than the previous one. They can’t get to grips with the idea that they have a 15 million euros boat in their colours, as that is not the image that goes with being a mutual insurance company, especially in these tough times.”
AN OPENING TO BRING THE PARTNERSHIP TO AN END
Was the enthusiasm for the Ultim programme shared as much by everyone in the company, in particular by the new directors who moved in a year ago? Questioned about this matter, François Gabart told us: “Over the past ten years, I have seen three changes of chairman, managing director and head of communications. These are always tricky moments for us, whether we have a contract or not at that point. A year ago, I remember when there were drastic changes to those in charge of the board at the AGM in Metz, which I attended. I didn’t take it lightly. I asked myself a lot of questions, but I was lucky at that point to be in talks with the new team of directors, who reassured me.”
Jean-Bernard Le Boucher added: “The new team of directors had already been present in the company, as the chairman was a member of the board, while the managing director was head of strategy and had a positive opinion of what was going on with François. However, it is true that they are now in charge of the destiny of the group’s strategy, and the decision was taken at the highest level.”
This decision was taken very quickly, as there was an opening to allow them to do just that. Macif and MerConcept are in fact linked into the Ultim programme under two agreements: one as project manager for the construction of M101, which will come to an end with her launch and the first set of trials in late August 2021; the other involves the use of the boats. The programme for the current trimaran finishes on 30th June and the one for the new boat for the period 2020-2024 was due to start on 1st July. “It was now that they had to come to a decision,” admitted Jean-Bernard Le Boucher, while François Gabart added: “I think that the situation with the contracts meant that this was all sped up. We have been in talks for several months about the new four-year contract and had letters of undertaking and the contracts were interlinked.”
“MACIF REMAINS SUPPORTIVE OF THE INVESTMENT
IN THE MERCONCEPT BUILDINGS IN CONCARNEAU”
Does that mean that MerConcept would have the right to ask Macif to honour these commitments? “I’m not a lawyer and don’t want to speculate,” replied the man from Charentes. What is certain is that we all want things to work out well, especially as we are continuing to work with Macif on other projects, such as the Figaro programme and the Apivia Imoca. That does not mean that MerConcept is not facing a challenge, and the situation is certainly not much fun.”
They are facing this challenge at the moment when the firm just moved into the new premises in Concarneau that were built to bring together all of their projects in one place, in particular, the new Ultim, Macif, which was due to be housed there for four years. “Macif did not want to become the owner of the new premises, but to able to start work quickly on the construction, I asked them to commit themselves to the corresponding rental agreement for the building,” explained François Gabart. When questioned about this, Jean-Bernard Le Boucher replied: “We wrote to François telling him we would help him financially, so in that area we are not abandoning him and fully back the investment in Concarneau“.
Nevertheless this conclusion is bound to have a huge economic impact on the MerConcept firm, when we see that the annual budget for running one Ultim varies between 2.5 and 5 million Euros a year. The boss admits that: “A new contract was supposed to come into force on 1st July and will now not be signed, so we need to reorganise everything. We have to act quickly to ensure the potentially huge consequences are reduced to a minimum.” The skipper does however conclude on a positive note: “The situation is indeed complicated, but we are lucky to have a lot going for us. Today, I am a free sailor. I want to sail, build new projects, sail around the world with a crew in 18 months from now and continue to work hard in the ocean racing sector. We are starting out from a blank sheet. It’s up to us to find a new way of looking at ocean racing.”
Photo: Alexis Courcoux / Brest Atlantiques