Special feature

Santa Fe sale: Yann Blandy interview

The sale of Santa Fe and Sanelo to MOBILITAS means outspoken investor Yann Blandy exits the moving industry after four and a half years leading a revival of the businesses. This is an extract from his interview with FIDI Focus Editor Dominic Weaver, who spoke to him about why the deal will ensure the longevity of the Santa Fe brand and what he has learned from his experience in the sector.

The sale of Santa Fe and Sanelo to French family-owned business MOBILITAS, announced on 6 February, marks the end of a four-and-a-half year journey for Yann Blandy, one of the founding partners of Lazarus Equity Partners, who, with the backing of Proventus Capital Partners – and in partnership with Runar Nilsen – bought the struggling firms in September 2019. 

In the relatively short time he has been in the moving industry, Blandy has gained a reputation for his straight-talking, sometimes challenging approach, and use of swearing during conference appearances and in interviews (FIDI Focus has edited this out – which, Blandy jokes, will have people wondering if this interview is authentic).

For Blandy and his investment team, the moving sector wasn’t a hard target. They had entered Santa Fe a few months earlier as consultants for a bank – ‘one assignment among others’ – with a brief to help work out why the business was failing. The project gave them an understanding of the fundamental changes required to its model and, when the opportunity arose, the confidence to take on the challenge of implementing them. 

At the time, Blandy said that while Santa Fe had been operating in a difficult and slow-growing market, most of its issues were of its own making. ‘I’d say 80 per cent of the problems in Santa Fe were created by Santa Fe. We carry the weight of our own mistakes to a large extent,’ he said, citing sizeable missteps, including the manner in which it had entered the US market, tried to sell its immigration business to CIBT at the start of 2019, and, in particular, the way it was managing its people and clients.

‘We saw in Santa Fe two hidden assets that were completely mismanaged: its people and its client base,’ says Blandy, ‘We figured out that we needed to unlock the potential of these two things in the business. It was all about the brand.’

The onset of the COVID pandemic just a few months after the purchase disrupted the timing and format of Blandy’s original turnaround plans. Together with his management team, however, he set about repairing relationships with Santa Fe’s previously dissatisfied customers, and building new ones. 

‘We worked on reaching out, talking to people, not shying away when we were chased by anyone for poor quality or not paying, for example,’ says Blandy. ‘We made sure we went out there and the brand was visible, and we said what we thought, and did what we said. Being extremely consistent in time was key to rebuilding trust in the brand.’ 

One of Blandy’s proudest milestone moments in this process – which those who attended the FIDI Conference in Cannes may remember – was the succession of Santa Fe staff declaring their presence at roll call. ‘I thought to myself, “Yeah, we’re back”,’ he says.

Key achievements during Lazarus’s time at the helm of Santa Fe include fixing the US strategy, which, says Blandy, ‘was completely out of whack’, and he defines the distance the company has come in two numbers. ‘In 2019, when we joined, the retention rate for clients at Santa Fe was 87 per cent – which is a disaster. It means you have lost 13 per cent of your clients every year before you’ve even started. Last year, this was 99 per cent. 

‘This, fundamentally, is the result of the way we operate, the way we serve our customers, the quality focus, the retention focus, the way we put out our teams together – all this work to actually do it right.’

The second metric, Blandy says, is that Santa Fe’s revenues from agents and partners across the industry have leapt to two and a half times what they were in 2019 – to around ¤18m last year. ‘This means we were able to rebuild trust and relationships with players in the industry who would have completely discounted us because of the strategy we had before.’

These two figures also show that the company is back on track with its staff, he adds: ‘We did something right for our customers, which means we have done something right for our people – because we wouldn’t have been able to do this for our customers without doing something for our people.’ 

Given these positives, the sale of the Santa Fe and Sanelo to MOBILITAS came as a surprise to many. However, Blandy says the deal has arisen at the right time for the company. 

‘When we joined the industry, everyone was speculating that we’re not the profile of investors that are going to be here for the long term, and that’s absolutely true,’ says Blandy. ‘Because we are who we are, there would always have been some form of an exit – and, if not now, it would have happened later.’   Most importantly, he adds, ‘as owners, we have taken Santa Fe as far as we could’. The sale to MOBILITAS – the product of conversations with Group Chairman Alain Taïeb and CEO Cédric Castro, who, Blandy says, are ‘great professionals’ – brings Santa Fe the essentials it has been missing to reach its full potential.

For the full interview with Yann Blandy, see FIDI Focus, March-May 2024.

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