If Guillaume Pepy, 64, has never had a passion for the train, this has not prevented him from running one of the most beloved and criticized companies in France with a firm hand.
Entry into the era of competition and digital, deployment of the TGV and a low-cost offer, strengthening of freight, not to mention storms such as the reform of the status of railway workers or the drama of the accident in Brétigny-sur- Barley, Guillaume Pepy fired all wood during his tenure, coming close to landing on several occasions.
Recently appointed chairman of the board of directors of Orpea, a private French group of nursing homes in turmoil, the manager has set himself a tough new challenge. In seven points, we sketch here the highlights and… less highlights of his career.
1. A childhood in a bourgeois family, versed in psychoanalysis
Son of a lawyer father and a mother executive secretary, Guillaume Pepy was raised in a bourgeois intellectual environment “very seventies”, according to a book by the journalist of “Le Monde” Raphaëlle Bacqué. Psychoanalysis is one of the educational values transmitted within the family circle.
This discipline also helped the future leader to overcome a trauma: he discovered, at the age of 18, a brother with Down syndrome, who died a year before his own birth.
2. Trained in elite classes
Like many great French bosses, Guillaume Pepy was trained in elite establishments: Ecole alsacienne in Paris for his primary and secondary cycle, Science Po Paris, then the ENA, from which he graduated in 1984 in the body state councillors.
3. Beginnings at the Council of State and in ministerial cabinets
Upon leaving the ENA, he began his professional career as an auditor at the Council of State. Between 1987 and 1993, he worked in several left-wing ministerial offices. In particular, he will be director of the cabinet of Michel Durafour, Minister of the Civil Service, then of Martine Aubry, Minister of Labour.
4. Several management positions within the SNCF
His first contact with the French rail giant was in 1988 as chief of staff of Jacques Fournier, its president at the time. Then between 1993 and 2008, he held various positions within the SNCF: director of investments and strategy, TGV management, managing director delegated to SNCF customers, up to the general management of SNCF under the presidency by Louis Gallois then Anne-Marie Idrac.
5. The turning point in his career: appointed president of the SNCF
On February 27, 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy appointed him president of SNCF for a five-year term. In his letter of mission, he is set as a priority the development and modernization of the group, by bringing it into the era of competition. He is also asked to initiate a “social modernization pact”, supposed to reduce conflict in the group.
6. His main successes within the railway giant
The first SNCF website
A few years before taking the helm of the company, he launched the website www.voyages-sncf.com on April 18, 2000. Google arrived in France the same year and this initiative is considered disruptive, even risky, at a time when the majority of tickets are sold through the counters of the 3,000 French stations.
In the same vein, Guillaume Pepy is developing a flexible pricing policy, making it possible to increase train occupancy rates. For this measure, he was inspired by the airline sector.
I immediately said that the SNCF was responsible, morally and humanely, for the accident at Brétigny-sur-Orge
Guillaume Pepy Former President of the SNCF
The takeover of Geodis
From the start of his mandate, Guillaume Pepy intends to strengthen the merchandise branch of the company so that it is his “second leg”, alongside the passenger business. In 2008, a takeover bid was launched on the French logistics company Geodis, followed, a few months later, by the takeover of IBM Global Logisticien, a global platform for managing logistics activities.
The creation of Ouigo in 2013
On April 2, 2013, the SNCF low-cost offer was launched. According to the boss, the idea is to find “the social role of the train”. The objective is above all to face competition from carpooling in France, boosted by the arrival of BlaBlaCar, and to respond to critics who consider train tickets too expensive. In “Echos”, the former boss of the SNCF will confide on this subject: “In the long term, the low cost has undoubtedly saved the growth of the TGV. »
The deployment of SNCF internationally
The international is the other site on which the former tricolor rail boss is very active. A striking example of his career: in December 2017, a major contract was won against the German Deutsche Bahn by the Franco-Quebec carrier Keolis (70% subsidiary of the SNCF) and the RATP, to build the automatic Doha metro in Qatar. The opportunity to highlight French railway know-how internationally.
7. Turbulence and criticism
The trauma of the Brétigny-sur-Orge accident…
At 5:13 p.m. on July 12, 2013, Intercités train 3657, departing from Paris Austerlitz and bound for Limoges, derailed at Brétigny-sur-Orge station, in the southern suburbs of Paris. The toll is seven dead and 61 injured. A human tragedy and an earthquake for the ex-head of the rail, summoned to explain himself. At “Echos”, he will share: “It feels like the world is collapsing around you, it’s the unspeakable, the unthinkable. We think of the families (…) I immediately said that the SNCF was responsible, morally and humanely. »
The investigation by the examining magistrates will conclude that the breakage of a fish plate between two rails caused the accident. The final judgment of the trial will be rendered on October 26.
Very shortly after the accident, Guillaume Pepy launched the “Vigirail” program, intended to double the replacement of switches. Another measure: trains examining the tracks now run day and night to identify anomalies.
The disappearance of night trains
On February 19, 2016, the French executive confirmed the virtual disappearance of night trains, which according to its analysis, are financial pitfalls. Only two lines, out of the existing eight, will remain operated by SNCF. A decision that the railway unions and user associations also blame Guillaume Pepy.
This criticism fuels the resentment of its detractors: they accuse it of having favored marketing and TGV infrastructure, to the detriment of regional and suburban trains. A few years later, the government of Jean Castex will finally relaunch the night rail lines under the chairmanship of the new CEO, Jean-Pierre Farandou.
The end of railway worker status that does not pass…
On February 26, 2018, the government announced the main lines of the new “Railway Pact”. The scheduled end of new hires at the SNCF with the status of railway worker is the most decried point of the reform. Despite a historically long strike (36 days in total), the text was adopted by Parliament.
His penchant for aviation often criticized
This is a reproach that has stuck with him throughout his term: the fact that he is not passionate about trains but rather versed in aviation. On this subject, he replied to “Echos”: “In fact, I was accused of not having played with the electric train when I was little, which is a crime of lèse-majesté at the SNCF. I often say that I am a second language railway worker. As far as airplanes are concerned, Louis Gallois, my boss for ten years, who went to EADS, was an absolute fan of aviation (…). Let’s say he transmitted the virus to me. »