When the phone rings on May 12, 2020, like everyone else, the navigator François Gabart was enjoying his second day of freedom after the lifting of confinement. The serenity was short-lived: at the other end of the line, one of the great bosses of the Macif mutual, his long-standing partner, told him that the contract on which they had been discussing for months around the construction of a new racing catamaran will never be signed.
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“When I hung up, I had the feeling that my world was falling apart”, he says on the eve of crossing, Sunday, November 7, the starting line of the Transat Jacques-Vabre, a duo race between Le Havre and Martinique. As always in hard times, he chooses to go… for a run, before announcing the bad news to his wife and to the director of his company, Mer Concept. Founded in 2006, this company then employed about fifty people, more than half occupied around the new boat whose construction had started.
“I hadn’t seen it coming. During these years of collaboration with Macif, there had been discussions, new people to convince, but we had made progress on the new contract, there were still some trifles to settle, he remembers. The next few days were the hardest of my life, more violent than any storm in my athletic career. “ It is less the multi-medal navigator than the entrepreneur who is down to earth. “We were a handful in secrecy, which we kept for nearly a month before speaking to staff and the media. We had to take the time to think about possible scenarios for the future ”, he recalls.
“The chance of losing is much greater than that of winning”
Should we abandon the ship and concentrate on something other than the multihull? Bet on the hiring of a new sponsor quickly? It was not easy to stay the course at a time when economic visibility was almost zero. “I had only experienced growth, a situation where an error of maneuver can slow you down, not stop you. But in times of crisis, any bad decision can lead to the downfall, I had no room for mistakes. “
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The public announcement on June 10, by Captain Gabart, of Macif’s withdrawal – “A terrible moment” – had the effect of a bomb in the small middle of the sail. Until then, the little prince of the sea, winner of the prestigious Vendée Globe (solo round the world) in 2013 had chained victories and praise. “I started competing at a very young age and losing a regatta that you count on at 12 or 13 is tough too, he tempers, it builds character. Sport has helped me a lot in this event because all sportsmen know that the chance of losing is much greater than that of winning. “
Was he going to win the economic race? The suspense lasted more than eleven months: 350 days of contacts, meetings and disappointed hopes. “This period will remain one of the hardest but also the richest of my life. A door had been closed to me but the situation forced me to open others, I had to make new plans, open up. The comfort of working with a sponsor on a long contract can be a trap, we know what we are going to do years in advance, what race we are going to run, it is a wonderful luxury, I do not deny it, but it blocks a bit. “
Now sponsored by a cosmetics group
After having had to lay off 10% of his staff, the boss of Mer Concept is staying the course, convinced deep down that things will work out one way or another. It happened on April 21, after a meeting with the boss of the Kresk company, Didier Tabary.
“I had had other touches but each time, it was necessary to reconcile the agendas of multiple partners, to convince the boards of directors. There, there was a boss able to decide where he wanted to run his business, who has nothing more to prove himself in the business world – his cosmetics company is doing well – and who now wants to put his know-how to the fore. service of the common good “, says François Gabart, who now races under the SVR-Lazartigue colors (two brands of the Kresk group).
And to specify: “The common good is precisely what I have always wanted to do through Mer Concept, a company whose vocation is to use competition to serve the cause of maritime and ocean development. “
Skipper and company manager
Engineer graduated from Insa (National Institute of Applied Sciences) in Lyon, François Gabart, 38, chose to set up his own company, Mer Concept, in 2006, to host his offshore racing project. Which was financed by the insurer Macif and, today, by SVR-Lazartigue. Mer Concept works around racing multihulls and advises other skippers, including Charlie Dalin, second in the last Vendée Globe and who is starting this Transat, as well as for two other boats also involved in this race. It is also developing a prototype of a small catamaran with an electric motor.
→ PODCAST. “During the Vendée Globe, I took the time to contemplate the oceans”