Operations & Asset Director of M11 Neva: “All French executives are changing in Russia, but this is for the best!”

At the beginning of new 2022 year we asked the new Operations & Asset Director of M11 Neva highway, Jean-Christophe Roux, why he came to Russia, how he copes with the Russian mentality, whether he was ready for crisis management during the pandemic and what the company plans to focus on next year.

You became the Operations & Asset Director of M11 highway in spring 2021. What were your tasks?

— One of the main objectives was to keep improving the quality of our work. Not only the external side which the users see, but also internal one – for example, interaction between different departments and teams. I am sure that our main objective is to work jointly smoothly, because such a case we are more effective. And we are doing it well (smiling).
Nevertheless, there is always something to strive for. In particular, we have extended the scope of works of the audit department, which allows analyzing all aspects of our activity and understanding where to go in order to improve quality. Thanks to this, we will be able to define the areas where to train our Employees to bring them to a higher level of professionalism.

You came to the company in the midst of the pandemic. The world is unstable, the situation with the virus and the rules are changing every day... This is a kind of crisis management. How did you manage? What has changed?

— To tell you the truth, I was ready. At my previous position in Two Capitals Highway I have already implemented similar measures necessary for the employees’ safety.
However, the main achievement for the past 6 months on this new position is large-scale work with personnel. Of course, we cannot oblige people to get inoculated but we are trying to create comfortable conditions for vaccination. In particular, we have already organized vaccination several times in our own premises and repeatedly met to discuss the reasons why someone does not want to do this as well.
And results say better than words: In May 2021, about 15% of the highway employees were vaccinated but by the beginning of December this indicator increased up to 70-75%, thanks to the commitment of each one. 

This is a perfect result.

— I guess so. I think employees themselves have the interest of this. In addition, UTS top management actively participated supported and contributed in every possible way. 
In general, the protection measures inside the company have not changed much since April 2019 when Covid-19 just started. Nevertheless, we monitor the medical developments and as soon as an express test that determines the level of antigens appeared, we immediately introduced it. We use it in case of doubt: if someone is sick and there are suspicions of contact. This allows us to make decisions faster, isolate employees and prevent the spread of the virus.

You have an impressive experience: you worked in France, Slovakia. What brought you to Russia?

— In fact, my career started in Russia. After graduation I worked at Russian nuclear power plants. Back then, I fell in love with the country and wanted to return.

You only fell in love with the country, didn’t you?

— Not only with the country, of course (laughing). It was in Russia 12 years ago when I met my wife and, of course, could not help but falling in love. Then, few years after, I became a part of VINCI Concessions team which received a contract for construction of the last 140 km section of M11 highway to Saint Petersburg. This was one of the reasons why I joined the company, I really wanted to go back to Russia. And here I am.

Did you want it because you were really interested in work in the country or because you married a Russian woman?

— The point is that from my childhood I was interested in the history of the Soviet Union, and then Russia. I think I inherited it from my great-great-grandfather. He was a Trotskyite and always spoke very nice about the Soviet Union. That is why I always wanted to see how people live in Russia, to learn their culture and traditions. It was strange for my friends because when I was a teenager everyone was fascinated by the United States, and I was the only one who was interested in Russia.

Is that why you started learning Russian?

— I always wanted to learn Russian but in France it was almost impossible: there are very few places where they teach Russian. Therefore, I seriously thought about the need to learn the language for the first time in 2009 when I was already working in Russia.
I have a funny story to tell. I just arrived and thought that I would speak only English but the management had problems to find employees with the language knowledge. For this reason, a translator worked for some time with us.
Once a project manager came to me, it was a Russian guy who did not speak English. He was telling me something for 10 minutes, and the translator kept silent. I asked if he would translate something but he only shrugged his shoulders and replied: "Well, he just told information, nothing special" (laughing). Then I realized that if I want to understand anything, I need to learn the language myself. And I started – daily, for 6 months I studied Russian on my own twice a day – in the morning from 5.30 to 7.00 a.m. and in the evening from 10.30 p.m. to 00.00. 

Speaking about Russians... Was it difficult to get used to the Russian mentality? Did you face any problems because of this?

— During my work I realized that Russians are surprisingly both cold and cordial. They can say something that will upset you a lot, and in a minute add something important that will quickly encourage you.
For a long time, I got used to what you call "Avos". I probably will never get used to this trait: to postpone everything and do it at the last moment, although there was enough time to get ready. For me, this is stressful because it is better to plan everything and do it gradually than to have deadlines every time. 
But in French companies there is no such solidarity and really strong relations between colleagues as in Russia. I clearly feel that M11 team, and more generally UTS team, is one big family. I am glad that this is the case because it makes us strong, and allows us to work better. 

Do you feel that you have become a little Russian?

— Yes, for sure. I even fear that if I return to France, it will be difficult for people to work with me (laughing). All French executives are changing in Russia, of course. But this is for the best! Such collaboration benefits to both Russians and French people! Mixing cultures always leads to more amazing results than working only among your own people according to a well-known scheme.

Speaking about the market of express highways, what trends prevail now and which of them may be applied in the future in Russia?

— France is very similar to Russia in terms of development. If in Europe (especially in Germany) and the USA there are quite a lot of free-flow roads, in France it would be technologically difficult to establish them everywhere, due to our history. Toll highways in France appeared in the 1950s-60s, and when they were built, such modern technologies did not exist. Free flow is already being installed on the newly constructed roads in France, of course, as in Russia, for instance, at the Central Ring Road.
Among other trends, I can highlight the change on the labor market. Previously, people worked at one enterprise for a same job all their lives long, now the emergence of new technologies, new needs require that a person is constantly changing and does not stand still. Therefore, in order to remain attractive and competitive, companies need to adapt and move constantly and for this reason they need to train their employees and stimulate their development. We are doing everything possible to ensure that UTS is able to successfully cope with this trend.

Do drivers in Russia differ from the drivers in France, in your opinion? 

— Definitely. But this difference in behavior is often caused by different traffic rules. For example, in Russia there is such a concept as "hindrance on the right," in France it is impossible to overtake on the right. All lanes are also used at once there, so the drivers get into traffic jams much faster than with the flexible system that exists in Russia. Each country has its own pros and cons.
In France, the drivers are a little less aggressive, but I may say as well that there are much more friendly drivers than French ones in European Union, but Russian drivers are changing for the better. I associate this with general changes in the society and with the development of cameras that have been installed in Russia for the last decade. From a safety point of view, this is a huge progress.
12 years ago I was told that I was crazy if I wanted to drive in Russia, but everything is developing so quickly that I believe that Russia will be among the best regarding traffic safety in a decade. I believe this illustrates once more that back top the wall Russia is able to go fast as not any other country can.

It is winter now, driving conditions become especially difficult. Does the operator's work differ in winter? 

— Our main task as the toll highways operator is to ensure traffic safety, especially in winter. The winter season is always especially hard for road workers because of its unpredictability. If during other seasons you can prepare for weather conditions and take preventive measures, in winter, especially during snowfall, the situation on the road changes quickly. You have to be ready to quickly respond to these situations – if necessary, mobilize additional resources, equipment, reagents. You always have to stay alert.

What do you do if you have spare time? What are your hobbies?

— I used to travel a lot, and now I really miss that time. My hobby changed because I had a daughter, and now I have much less free time.
But I am still fond of history – I am interested in reading about different countries, especially about Russia, the period of World War II and the Cold War.
In addition, we often discuss literature in our family because my wife is a writer and a translator for several languages. She has published her second art book recently and is already working on the third one. Because of my wife, I discovered a completely new world of book publishing. I realized that despite the fact that people read a lot in Russia, the market is still very saturated, and, therefore, there is great competition among writers. Now piracy has also been added which hinders the development of this sector. As the authors cannot earn money with their books, they have to work somewhere else and not to focus on literature. I really care because Russian has a great history and a promising future. But we kill it when we download something for free. So, the number of Russian authors is declining, their fame abroad is decreasing, and there are fewer good books. This is unfair.

Our interview takes place in the first days of New 2022 Year. What do you want to wish to colleagues and what plans do you have for this year?

— Congratulations to everyone on the 2022! I would like to wish all the best both in personal life and in work.
This year we will focus even more on the quality of our work and ensuring safety on M11 so that people can really enjoy the road and the service. I believe that we will be able to offer a new level of service which will make it possible to feel the difference with other operators. We will work together to achieve this goal.
UTS is proud of what the company has achieved in the past and I hope it will be even more proud of what will be possible in the future. We are doing really great and important work that would have been impossible without each of you. Thank all of you!