A View from the Top: ViaVan London chief Jess Oppetit on driving the Uber rival's success

ViaVan launched in the UK when Uber’s fortunes had taken a downward turn in the capital – the group’s London manager tells Andy Martin about what happened next

Thursday 06 December 2018 14:53
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ViaVan operates in Amsterdam, Berlin, London and Milton Keynes
ViaVan operates in Amsterdam, Berlin, London and Milton Keynes

Jess Oppetit has two babies. One is called Eloise, the other is ViaVan.

You might think giving birth could get in the way of doing the top job. Not so for Oppetit. Almost the opposite in fact. The embryonic ViaVan was taking shape at around the same time as her second daughter. And they called her four days after the birth to ask if she would consider being “head of London”. Now Eloise is four months old and her Mum is running the newest car-sharing “corner to corner” setup in the capital. “I still get back to put her to bed at night though,” she says, in a café down the street from the ViaVan base near Liverpool Street.

Oppetit has a Lauren Bacall-style huskiness but with an Australian accent. She was born in Melbourne 32 years ago and studied law and commerce at the University of Melbourne. Her first job was on the law side, working on sex-offender cases. “I wasn’t sure I could have defended some of these guys with the appropriate level of neutrality,” she says. Not when there was a high risk of reoffending. “I realised I was more into the commerce side.”

Melbourne is a lovely city and most of her friends and peers were staying put, settling down, getting married and moving into houses a couple of blocks away from where their parents lived. Which is when Oppetit took off to do an MBA at Harvard Business School, where she spent two years, meeting “incredible and impressive women” and her future French husband who, she says, “was completely not my type – like no one I’d ever met before”.

At school in Australia she had had a choice between learning Japanese or French – and opted for Japanese. “I thought it was more likely I’d become a sushi chef than marry a Frenchman.” Despite which they went back to Australia together and ended up in Singapore in 2014, where the now Mrs Oppetit worked for Apple in operations, taking up with Tim Cook’s old team. After a few years in Asia, the Oppetits – all 3 of them – agreed on going back to Europe and settled in London, where her husband had been brought up and had family.

Oppetit, whose first daughter was three months old at the time, was adamant about going back to work. It was her sister in New York who recommended Via, which was setting up in Europe. “I wasn’t really a techie startup kind of person, but I thought what the hell, let’s find out more about it.” She went along, got interviewed all day long, and decided she wanted more. “You get a feeling,” she says. “It was a just a massive hit.”

She joined Via in June 2017. The original plan was to launch Via in Europe in Amsterdam, which was well disposed on environmental grounds. But then Uber lost its licence in London at the same time Via was granted a licence and it all kicked off right here in April 2018. Drivers were queueing around the block to sign up. Literally (for once). The line was six to seven hours long and many had to be sent away to come back the next day. Oppetit would lose her voice every day trying to get drivers registered. “You’ve got a big tummy!” said one of the guys. “You can’t say that!” said another, more sensitively. She was five months pregnant at the time and didn’t object particularly. And she was sympathetic to the drivers. “Uber hadn’t had a lot of competition and the drivers were undervalued and badly treated. They wanted something else.”

The projected figures for the end of year two were achieved in just one month. Business was exploding. “It felt like I was really using my MBA,” she said. “It felt real. It was madness, but in a good way.” So when she got the call, second-time motherhood or not, she knew she had to take the job. “I’m in if you really want it,” said her supportive husband. She specified she wouldn’t come back for two months and had to have a month off around Christmas to show off the new baby to family in Australia. Since she came back at the end of August, it’s been “the two best months we’ve had at Via”. They’re now over 3 million rides.

Maybe you really can have it all. Oppetit sees no contradiction between motherhood and managing a huge operation. “You just have to do what comes naturally.”

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The fact that she has two daughters makes a difference. “I want them to feel that they can do anything. And the advantage is they’re too young to be able to comment on my lifestyle choices.” The other upside is that now their father “has more opportunity to do what he thinks is right for a change”.

Four out of the six senior management at Via are women. And out of 20 staff, 15 are from Australia or New Zealand. “They’re all on the big adventure,” Oppetit says. “And it turns out Australians are good at handling drivers, they have the right bubbly attitude.”

ViaVan – born out of a merger between Via in the US and Mercedes-Benz Vans in Europe – promotes car-sharing (or “pooling”). “It turns out Londoners are pretty happy sharing,” Oppetit says, “especially if it keeps the price down.” And it’s corner-to-corner rather than door-to-door. “You might have to walk a couple of blocks and they drop you off a block or two away,” but it saves on car journeys and cuts congestion. And the ideal model is a hybrid car or all-electric. Oppetit is even in favour of more cycling in the capital too. She sees bikes and Via as part of the same general eco-friendly tendency.

ViaVan is now in four cities in Europe, including Milton Keynes. I used the app and took one of their rides to Euston. I had to wait less than two minutes. One share. The driver, like all drivers everywhere, complained about the traffic.

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