In two generations, the descendants of Gérard Schmitter have established a European leader in river cruising: 55 boats, 1,700 employees, 196 million euros in turnover. In one year, just after the arrival of the third generation, the whole company almost collapsed. “We felt the consequences of the crisis as a profound injustice, because we had not made any management errors. Cruises were a bit of a scapegoat for this health crisis”, analyzes Christian Schmitter, president of CroisiEurope. In April 2020, the Covid docked the entire fleet. Annual turnover collapsed to 19 million euros. The company used three state-guaranteed loans (PGE) to meet its obligations.
Recapitalization this summer
During the confinement, it was necessary to keep 120 employees in operation to guard the boats and reassure customers. In order to get out of its financial impasse, CroisiEurope had to be recapitalized this summer by the members of the founding family. The threats of a forced opening of the capital or the sale of part of the assets weighed like the swords of Damocles. They could be discarded “after terrible negotiations with the banks”, recalls Monique Jung, director of Adira, the Alsatian economic development agency which supported and advised the company when it found itself weakened. Family shareholders had until then become accustomed to double-digit annual growth and profitability of around 3%.
“We have been saved since July 2021”, confirms Lucas Schmitter, commercial director of CroisiEurope. Funny baptism of fire for the heirs of the third generation. Lucas, Kim, Deborah and Jordan Schmitter, all under 30, have just taken on responsibilities in the family business. Like their parents, they are four operational family members and share complementary functions: commercial, hotel, navigation, finance.
Twenty years of experience in a year of Covid
“We grew up on the boats with our nannies. The parents quickly gave us responsibilities. They count on us, they trust us, we are training but we don’t yet have all the keys”testifies Lucas Schmitter, holder of a Master’s degree from the Strasbourg School of Management. “The Covid crisis has given us twenty years of experience. Last year, we spent our time doing and undoing, canceling cruises, rescheduling them, reassuring customers. The bankruptcy of Thomas Cook has nevertheless left a slate of several hundred thousand euros”explains Lucas Schmitter.
This summer, the boats finally left the ports. The program offered to cruise passengers is further reduced, concentrated on the French rivers and the Mediterranean where a new maritime cruise ship, the Belle des Océans (130 passengers), sails between Nice and Corsica. The forecast turnover is between 85 million euros and 100 million euros for 2021. The resumption of more distant cruises, scheduled for a few years in Asia or Russia, will wait until 2022.
“CroisiEurope has become one of the flagships of the region, a global company with unparalleled know-how”, notes, admiring, Monique Jung. Growth has been steady since the purchase of a first boat by Gérard Schmitter, a former potter, public works contractor who became an organizer of dancing lunches on the Rhine in 1976. From 1993, the first boats of Alsace Cruises, soon to be renamed CroisiEurope , sailed to the Danube and Eastern Europe. In 2000, cruises were organized on the Elbe and the Po. The turnover then reached 45 million euros. In 2007, the first maritime cruises in the Adriatic coincided with the internationalization of the clientele (40% foreign attendance on the boats). In 2014, two years after the death of Gérard Schmitter, CroisiEurope ordered its first paddle steamer, the Loire Princesse, from the STX shipyard in Saint-Nazaire. Diversification continued with luxury barges, intended for canal navigation, and with a second maritime boat in 2020.
“We have always preferred organic growth to external growth, for a question of homogeneity of our boats”, argues Christian Schmitter. Out of 55 vessels in operation, 48 are directly owned. Seven boats were chartered before the crisis in Russia and on the Mekong.
There is no question of competing with the gigantic floating holiday clubs of the competition: the largest of the boats, the Belle de l’Adriatique, only accommodates 200 passengers. “The trend is slow tourism”, remarks Lucas Schmitter, who intends to imagine new “exotic” itineraries on the rivers in the United States, where CroisiEurope is not yet present. La Belle des Océans has already been called upon to sail on an unprecedented route, between Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon and Canada.
Check out the other articles in the series:
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2/ How Billecart-Salmon champagne turned its back on London finance
3/ Rector Lesage, from Mulhouse, wants to produce prefabricated carbon-free concrete