CLOSE-UP: CLIENT OF THE WEEK; Ferries flying the French flag

SeaFrance is starting from scratch and Bill Laidlaw is at the helm.

SeaFrance is starting from scratch and Bill Laidlaw is at the helm.

Bill Laidlaw can’t remember what first drew him to the sea. But it’s

been his life for the past 30 years - a useful background for someone

putting together a ferry line.

However, the sales and operations director of the fledgling ferry line,

SeaFrance, is no mariner. His forte is the landlubber end of the cross-

Channel business, and with his feet firmly on the ground he has been

busy organising the buildings, systems and people that will make up the

new company.

Now, he declares, he is ready to ‘plug the character gap’ that exists in

the welter of choices for travellers across the Channel, and to that end

he appointed Delaney Fletcher Bozell as guardians of his pounds 4

million advertising budget last week (Campaign, 24 November).

‘One difference we have is we operate French ships and we can offer a

flavour of France as soon as you board in Dover,’ he says.

SeaFrance rose in July from the ashes of a joint venture between Stena

Lines and the French railway service, SNCF, which foundered this summer.

From January, SeaFrance will run the three ships that formerly made up

the French side of the partnership in direct competition with Stena,

which will run the English vessels.

Laidlaw was born in Calcutta, but moved to the rather less exotic

Chiswick at the age of five. His first job was as a ‘stamp licker’ for

P&O Ferries in 1966.

In the mid-80s Laidlaw was the passenger marketing director of Southern

and Normandy Ferries. He moved on in 1984 and joined the SNCF

subsidiary, SNAT - the French half of the old joint venture - where he

ran the Newhaven to Dieppe route.

When, in 1992, the route was withdrawn, Laidlaw started his own shipping

consultancy, which was how he found SNCF again, this time as an advisor

to SeaFrance before joining in his new capacity this summer.

Does the daunting battle for cross-Channel punters in a crowded market

faze the cheerful Laidlaw? Not at all, comes the reply, he’s an avid

Southampton football supporter, so he’s more than used to struggle.