France-Amérique: Why does Texas not attract as many French businesses as Silicon Valley or the East Coast?
Franck Avice: This state is not a big communicator. In fact, France still sees Texas as staunchly conservative and obsessed with fossil fuels. Yet this is no longer an accurate reflection of reality. Houston is the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in America, home to nearly 120 different communities. It is now working to move away from its image as the oil capital to become the capital of technology and low-carbon energy. According to current estimates, the population of Houston will grow from 7 million to 11 million by 2040 – making it bigger than Chicago to become to third largest city in the United States. Meanwhile, the population of Texas is set to rise from 27 million to 40 million. This represents a lot of opportunities for industry, services, the restaurant business, and companies importing wine and liquor.
In this context of growth, what is the role played by the French-American Chamber of Commerce?
Our mission is to create a business network, to bolster the economic ties between France and Texas, and to promote the expertise of French businesses on the ground. The current leaders of the energy transition include Air Liquide in the hydrogen industry, ENGIE [formerly GDF-Suez] in renewable energies, and Total in the carbon dioxide sequestration sector. In healthcare, many French companies are helping to develop and improve new technologies for the Texas Medical Center in Houston, the biggest campus of its kind in the world. Our expertise is also recognized in the field of smart cities and artificial intelligence with Schneider Electric, and in aeronautics with Airbus Helicopters and Safran, based in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. France can offer a considerable contribution to all of these sectors in a state like Texas.
Does this go both ways, as the Chamber also helps to promote Texas in France?
That’s right. In fact, I have presented Texas at several events with the Banque Publique d’Investissement in Paris and business accelerators such as Station F. I approach French entrepreneurs looking to develop their activity in the United States, and try to show them that there is more than Silicon Valley and the East Coast. There is also the third American coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and Texas is an excellent landing pad. The state is business-friendly and boasts a solid industrial fabric that enables companies to have relatively easy access to buyers, contracts, and financing. There is an enormous amount of money tied to the oil and gas industry, with a lot of capital-risk investors looking to diversify their portfolios.
Who are the members of the Chamber?
We have all the major French companies in the energy industry – EDF, ENGIE, Total, Schlumberger – and the energy services sector – Air Liquide, Vallourec – as well as U.S. businesses including Westlake Chemical. We also have service providers such as JLL, and legal and consulting firms such as KPMG and Sia Partners, who opened an office in Houston in 2014. Most of our members are big companies, but we also have SMEs and individual entrepreneurs working in the food and restaurant business, the liquor market, and even people who make sensors and operate pipeline surveillance drones. Half of our 200 members are American companies. A fondness for France certainly works in our favor. Many American CEOs love French culture and have apartments in Paris or houses in Provence. We take advantage of this to show them that France is not just the land of cheese and good wine, but also technology!
The French-American Chamber of Commerce in Houston recently expanded its activities to all of Texas. What inspired this decision?
Houston is a major city, but it only represents a fraction of Texas. A state-wide network means having more influence with local authorities and the means to support companies in times of crisis. The pandemic had a considerable impact on our members and our activity. We came through it thanks to the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, but we need to grow bigger to be more resilient. We are hoping to double the number of members and our revenue in the next five years. With this in mind, we have created a service platform to help French businesses establish themselves in Texas, recruit staff, find offices, etc. We are providing office space for start-ups looking to launch projects, and we can assist them in their development. We also help bigger companies identify French start-ups that can meet their needs. Last but not least, we offer French language lessons focused on business, which is a highly sought-after service in America. In the future, we would logically like a branch in every major city in the state, including El Paso, which is closer to San Diego than it is to Houston.
What was your experience of the United States when you arrived in 2019? And what is your background?
It was my first expatriation! My wife and I had dreamed of spending a few years in the United States. When she became CEO of ENGIE North America in Houston, I resigned from the RATP – I was deputy general director in charge of the Paris subway and customer service – and we packed our bags. When we arrived in Houston, I worked as a consultant for the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s chamber of commerce, helping them to develop their attractiveness policy. This was a subject I knew well. I was an advisor to Jean-Pierre Raffarin when he was prime minister of France, working in the team tasked with building France’s attractiveness program. I was also an inspector general of finances and an advisor to Jean-Louis Borloo in the ministry for the environment. We actually passed the first international agreement on reducing greenhouse gases. That is why I am really pushing for the energy transition in Texas. With their expertise, French companies have a key role to play on the ground.