— All my life I have needed open spaces. I was born on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, in the west of France, in Brittany. I had my basic education in Paris, where I trained for the restaurant business, and received my baccalaureate at university in Switzerland. My hobbyhorse became catering - onsite catering, as well as the sale of pre-prepared food.
— How much did you invest in your first Russian business project?
— Around twenty thousand dollars. We signed our first contract when we didn’t even have a kitchen stove. Then we found a chef, and rented a car. Soon we had our own kitchen, accounting department, and storeroom manager. All our earnings went back into developing the business. We had no other life except for work. But it was all worth it! After three years, we were firmly standing on our own two feet. Five years later, I sold ACS Catering, where, by then, there were 250 people working, and the production area covered one and a half thousand square metres.
— Why did you decide to part with a successful business?
— We had working at the premises five restaurants, a chain of 20 patisseries called “Le Khleb”, and 60 bakeries. But there was no longer any drive, and I have been in a state of searching my whole life. I had already reached the level in this business where I no longer had anything to prove. Sitting in an armchair with no interest in my work: that is not for me. I wanted to try something new, to start a business from the ground up. I put some of the proceeds from the sale of ACS Catering into a pension fund, and started a new enterprise, Bikelectro, and then Re-volt. I began supplying electric skateboards, scooters, and bikes in Moscow. I packed in the croissants and switched over to electric power.
— Did you have any competition?
— Of course. When I started the business, everyone who was supplying scooters laughed at me: “You’ll go bust. You won’t have the demand here”. It went like so. A well-known scooter dealer was selling 30 mopeds, whereas I was selling one electric bicycle. After a year, we were matching him for sales, and after three years, I was in favour, whereas it turned out that few people needed his scooters. Now, we supply electric bikes and scooters across Russia, and we have around 50 distributors.
— Where do you buy the electric technology from?
— From China, and partly from Germany. But now there are bikes which we assemble in Russia. We have our own production works near Yaroslavl. It’s a joint project with a classified defence company. 50% of the parts still come from abroad. We are still waiting for a supply of Russian motors, so, in the meantime, we are using Chinese ones. I think that we will switch over to locally produced parts in the near future.
According to expert forecasts, the global market in electric bicycles is set to grow at a moderate pace: 3.1% (CAGR for the period 2013 - 2020). According to other calculations, such prospects can be considered extremely pessimistic. In Europe and, in particular, in Latvia, in the words of the Director for Development at Blue Shock Bike, Neils Kalnins, volumes of sales of electric bikes are growing on average by 20% annually. As far as Russia is directly concerned, rates of growth substantially exceeded even these figures. By our calculations, demand has virtually doubled every year (2011–2014).
The market for personal electric transport in Russia is one of the youngest and most dynamic. The electric bike successfully represents a substantial increase in the capabilities of the ordinary bicycle both as a means of transport and as a way of metering out strenuous activity. Both of these properties are increasing interest in it, and this subject is becoming fashionable and relevant both on social networks and in the media. Virtually all the large companies working in this market are concentrated in Moscow, with just a handful in St. Petersburg and Rostov.
— How many bicycles do you sell each year?
— It all depends on the weather in the summer season, but in Russia we have sold in the order of 30,000 electric bikes, all told. That’s not bad for a new market. It is growing year on year. There are two opinions on our technology. One considers them toys, and the other, an alternative mode of transport. More and more people, given the constant gridlock on the roads, are inclined towards thinking that the electro bike is an excellent means of transport. Once, there was no internet, no mobile phones, and now people cannot imagine their lives without them. It will be the same with e-bikes. Judge for yourself: it has two 350W motors, it can get up to 40 km/hr, and it can go these forty kilometres with one battery charge. The entire electro drive, with its high angle of uphill elevation, weighs 20 kg. What is more, it folds up neatly and can be kept in the flat. That’s just one of the available models, and there a lot of them. In the urban jungles, they will be simply indispensable.
— What is the price range? What is the cost of the very cheapest and the most expensive e-bike?
— From 30,000, up to 400,000 roubles for one of the most prestigious German makes.
— How many people work with you?
— Six people. You could say it’s a family office, bound, not by family ties, but by those of shared interests. My co-workers are cycle racing fanatics. I recruited people with “sincerity in their eyes”. They all came on recommendations. We don’t take on just anybody.
— Are you at liberty to say how much they are paid?
— The minimum salary, before bonuses, comes to about 30,000 roubles a month. For the CEO, it’s 120,000 roubles.
— How difficult was it renting premises?
— Finding premises doesn’t present any difficulties, especially given the crisis: the choice is simply enormous. We are based in the same building as a car showroom near Aeroport metro station. Here, I have in the same place, an office, warehouse, and showroom where we not only demonstrate our electric technology, but sell it, too. All promotion is done through websites.
— Many in Russia know you as a distinguished motorcycle racer.
— I am a sportsman of international standing. The pinnacle of my career was in 2009, when I took part in the Dakar Rally representing Russia and won silver in the World Championship Cross-Country Rally in Morocco.
— Does participating in events like that provide some kind of dividends?
— It puts a huge strain on the wallet. None of the prizes covers the costs. I didn’t have any sponsors. I spent my own money, so there was nothing left for me to do but succeed, which I did.
— Is your second wife a motorcycle racer?
— No, she is an artist. She is involved with book design. I am now the father of many children. I have two children from my first marriage, and a child has come along in my second. It is good that I managed to buy a flat in Moscow whilst I was still working at Sodexo Russia. Doing that now, at today’s prices, wouldn’t be realistic.
— Was it hard adapting to the Russian mentality?
— In Russia, I am completely in my element! Since the start, I have had total rapport with Russians. The way they view life appeals to me, as does their magnanimity, warm-heartedness, and sense of humour. I look at my friends who stayed in France now, and all is not well with them: they are dissatisfied with everything. But due to the constant political and economic ebb and flow, life for Russians is never boring. I like the fact that in Russia you have to find the motivation all the time to keep going and develop your business further.
— How dangerous a city is Moscow?
— I can go down to the metro at one in the morning without any worries: something I wouldn’t be about to do in Paris. I find it funny hearing people say that for the foreigner in Russia unpleasantness lurks at every corner. At the moment, Russia is being made out to be some kind of monster. Recently, back home in France, I discovered that I, it turns out, am a “terrorist”. And it’s all because I do business and live in Russia. It got to the point where, when I tried to open a branch of my company in the South of France, I encountered the distrust of my fellow countrymen. For future operations, I had to open a bank account, but they drew my attention to the embargo with Russia. I, though, am a Frenchman, and in theory, they are not supposed to refuse a French citizen.
There are double standards in effect in Europe. And there, they, in all seriousness, think that Russia is about to attack them. This is forever being driven into people’s subconscious. But I am proud of the Russians who laugh good-naturedly at the fears of Europeans. I sometimes hear from my Russian friends: “We are used to it. The situation has been worse than this”. They are not short on optimism.
Personal electric transport is well known in Moscow, albeit not that widespread as yet. The situation has started to change in recent years, and there are for reasons for that. First, income for over 40% of Muscovites has grown to the point where they can think about such an acquisition. Second, such modes of transport have started to be in fashion. Third, there has been the realisation that these types of battery-operated transport are in many ways capable of fulfilling the functions of petrol-driven ones, added to which, they are markedly “cleaner” in the way they operate.
The main consumers of electric transport are young people aged between 25–40, who are active, keen to try anything new, and who are earning enough to afford such pastimes. The Moscow City Government is committed to the use of environmentally friendly transport. Thus, for example, its carriage is permitted on public transport, and attempts are being made to create cycle lanes. Up to 80% of electric transport in Moscow is acquired for recreation; the remaining part is in use outside the city where there is greater scope for this.
— How did you get to grips with the Russian language?
— When still in the Komi Republic, I found myself in a Russian-speaking environment. I soaked it all up like a sponge, learned the language by “immersion” in it. The foreigner who is to grow a business in Russia needs to take a responsible approach to this issue. You can, of course, hire an interpreter. But to achieve mutual understanding, you need to know Russian. In Russia, like anywhere, direct, personal contact is important. I, for example, was constantly educating myself, and then, one fine day, I suddenly realised that I was able to read Russian.
— What do you not like about Moscow?
— I am very worried about the city’s environment. What surprises me is: why don’t Muscovites protest against the antiquated vehicles operating on the roads? I mean, one particular unregulated truck, and it makes up the majority here, “breathes out” as many exhaust fumes as 500 modern cars.
— Where do you like to relax in Moscow?
— Despite all that, Moscow is still the greenest capital in the world. I adore the local parks, especially Sokolniki. Thanks to my electric bike, I have toured many green spots in the megalopolis, and seen a different side to the city!
— What would you like to say to those foreigners who are still in doubt about whether or not they should go to Russia to do business?
— If they are in any doubt, then they would be better off staying where they are! The less competition from other foreigners, the better. (Laughs.) Those who say that setting up a business in Russia is complicated, chances are that they a scared of a lot of things in life. It is unlikely that their business will even be successful in their home country. A good businessman, if he has succeeded in starting his own business in, let’s say, Brazil, he will not find it difficult to do so in Russia. Man should be a fighter. And Russia represents an extensive field of action.