Interview with Fabrice Disdier on the FTE initiative
thinkRUSSIA meets Fabrice Disdier, director of CREF-R Moscow (center for Language learning) and president of the entrepreneurship committee at the French-Russian Chamber of Commerce; member of the Steering Committee of the “Forum Travailler Ensemble”- FTE (Forum Working Together) a new initiative aimed at strengthening French-Russian business relations.
Can you tell us more about the FTE initiative? What are its main goals and how is it organized?
The FTE is a private and associative initiative which was launched in Russia for the first time last October 2013, on behalf of some key business players operating in Russia. It aims at gathering major, medium and small sized French companies established in Russia, which normally do not have the opportunity to meet each other.
The event aims at connecting companies, whatever their size, to develop potential partnerships and business opportunities. It is also an opportunity for well-established companies to share their knowledge of the Russian market. The initiative is cross-sectoral, with companies operating in service, industries, advertising, creation, business relocation, etc. This year’s FTE also included French companies such as Total, GDF, Leroy Merlin or Castorama.
The idea behind FTE is simple: major companies have specific needs in Russia that can be fulfilled by more specialized, small or mid-sized firms; in return, these smaller firms need to receive demands from key players to remain on the market. It is a matter of leverage. They just need a framework to meet and the FTE brings exactly that.
The FTE lasts a whole day, with an interesting and optimal “speed dating” format. Each company has about 15 meetings, which all last 20 minutes each. In this respect, we have designed special software which enables us to organize this speed dating, considering profiles and fields of expertise of the companies. We usually invite the most appropriate contacts such as legal, finance, HR or communications directors, which all have a broad vision of their business and market.
Why did the FTE take place in Russia and what kind of partners do you work with on this project?
Looking back at the origins of the initiative, the FTE first started in China, in 2009, under the leadership of Euryale Chatelard, a business entrepreneur. She moved to Moscow last year to run Altima, an agency specialized in e-commerce counseling, and spotted the need for a structure in Russia which could foster relations between French professionals. Euryale realized that there was no such initiative as the FTE for the Russia-based French business community, although there are major business opportunities.
We decided to structure the FTE in Russia with the most relevant institutional partners, granting us both visibility and means. For instance, the FTE was hosted at the French Embassy. Our partners include UbiFrance, the French Embassy, the French-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and French trade representatives in Russia.
How did you get involved with the FTE?
I run CREF, a private enterprise which provides language learning to Russian and international companies and their staff. I took part in the FTE this year as the CREF president but my involvement as member of its steering committee is in a personal capacity and does not involve the CREF. I decided to join this initiative because I think French companies can bring real added value and genuine expertise to the Russian market. France and Russia share similar cultural traits and mentalities and even if lifestyle somewhat differs, it feels nevertheless like home. There is agreement on the positive aspects of Russia among the French business community operating in the country.
What were the outcomes of this year’s forum?
I think the FTE was a success. It fulfilled its mission as a place where professionals from various backgrounds meet, discuss, exchange and share common interests, and keep in touch to build partnerships.
From my perspective, of the 15 meetings we had with other companies, about 10 were relevant for us. As a result, we are currently negotiating with three of them in view of potential future business opportunities.
Results can therefore be quick and exact. However, you do need to come prepared, with projects and ideas to offer.
So there is going to be another FTE. Is the initiative going to be an annual affair?
The steering committee is really satisfied with this first April edition. It was a positive and fruitful event. We also benefited from a broad resonance in business and media circles. In this respect, the FTE will take place again in Russia next year, in April, and most probably the following years. We will however learn from this year’s mistakes and improve some aspects of the forum. Notably we will choose more meticulously the type of companies, with more industry professionals and representatives from big groups. For instance, we had over 50 requests from companies which wanted to take part in the FTE this year, and we had to refuse some applications simply for logistical reasons. For next year, we aim at keeping at least the same number of companies but with a better understanding of their needs to make more efficient choices and matches.
If the initiative continues to develop, FTE could potentially be launched in new countries –it is up to each country to adopt the concept and set it up- we could even have a European FTE in 10 years!
What do you think of the investment climate in Russia for French companies today?
This is quite a hot topic. The crisis has already hit, that is a fact. There is strong stagnation and a decrease in consumption; this time, the situation is quite different from 2008-2009. There are for instance strong signs on the labor market. However, this is quite a slow process and it seems that we will not get out of the situation as quickly as in 2009. The crisis is more structural this time.
Would you say that initiatives like the FTE instill confidence in foreign investors?
The Russian market is complicated and has trouble inspiring confidence. Nevertheless, as Russia is a country full of opportunities and similarities with countries like France, there are European companies settled there and the market is far from being stalled. It is true that there is a slowdown and that the market is weaker, but I would say we are witnessing an adjustment phase to which companies have already started adapting.
What do you think of Fabrice Disdier’s outlook on French companies operating in Russia?
Fabrice Disdier was born in 1976 in Bondy (Paris region), France. After studying History at the University Paris VII, Fabrice Disdier spent six years in Ukraine working for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the cities of Kiev, Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk. He then became Director of the French Alliance of Irkutsk in Russia in 2005, before being appointed Director of the CREF-R in Moscow. The CREF is a French teaching center of foreign languages, offering Russian lessons to expatriates and lessons in French, Spanish and Italian for its Russian clientele. The CREF-R, present in Russia since 1995, is an active member of the CCIFR – the French-Russian Chamber of commerce and industry. Fabrice Disdier notably engaged in the CCIFR’s small business committee “Working in Russia."