Erich François: “It all started because in my real life I’m a photographer”
Photo: Erich François
Luxembourg night marathon founder talks about why the race is one of the best ambassadors for the country
Founder and manager of the ING Luxembourg Night marathon and Echternach Color Run Erich François talks about photography, wind farms and how he attracts thousands of people from abroad to Luxembourg each May.
Throughout the year, Celebrating Luxembourg profiles the people who contribute positively to the grand duchy’s international reputation.
Jess Bauldry: Where are you from and what brought you to Luxembourg?
Erich François: I’m German and I live in Trier. It all started because in my real life I’m a photographer. I wanted more clients in Luxembourg. That was in 2001 when the crisis started in photography because of digital photography.
Lots of agencies thought they could take pictures themselves because suddenly they could see the pictures on the camera screen. Everybody knew there would be big changes. I said let’s use the time to do something fresh and new. I was working for the movie industry in Luxembourg taking photographs. I thought there are many other things I can do and realised the best connecting place is sports events.
I met a friend for drinks one night and she said she had to leave because she was running a marathon the next day. I asked what a marathon was. That was in 2003. I’m not a runner, I’m a mountain biker. I wrote a concept and showed it to ING, who sponsored the New York marathon. We met and after five minutes they said ‘yes’.The first marathon was in 2006. ING was the title sponsor from the beginning.
Can you sum up in a few sentences what you do for a living?
I like to say I’m a cappuccino. The milk is the marathon. The strong coffee is my wind turbines. I started constructing wind turbines in 1998, we’ve a farm 50km from here in the Eifel region. I did it as an investment and for environmental reasons. We ended up building 18 turbines, step by step. Then I do photography and the marathon. The marathon is a very big part of it because of its scale. (15,000 entrants are registered for the 2017 edition)
If you were not a race organiser, photographer or wind farm owner what would you be?
I’m working on other things. I don’t talk about things while I’m working on them. When I was younger I wanted to be a photographer and that’s what I do. There are things we love to do and then there are things we just do. But photography for me is still something that I feel very good about when I do it.
In what way has the country enabled you to pursue the career you have?
I think there is no other place where I could have done something like this. Other organisers look at me and ask how I managed to get these companies to be partners of the marathon, companies like Microsoft.
I say it’s easy—you just go there and ask people. I think it’s so easy to do business in Luxembourg. People complain it’s not good for startups. I say go to another country, it’s harder there. I hate it when people complain about that.
Photo from the 2012 Luxembourg ING Night Marathon Photo: Luc Deflorenne
How has the sports scene developed in Luxembourg over the past 20 years?
I can only talk about running. When we started with the marathon, we went to Kirchberg and saw people from 12 noon to 2pm going to restaurants. If you go now to Kirchberg, at 5pm, you see hundreds of runners. It’s so amazing how running has developed in Luxembourg over the last years and how many companies have started training employees.
I talked to PwC a long time ago who had about 200 runners they pay entry for. I asked why they do that. They said that these employees go running at lunch time and talk about work. They don’t have to pay them to talk about work.
Statistics also show that runners are sick one day less a year (than non-runners). If 200 people are sick one day less, that’s 200 extra working days. It’s very clever to think like this. If you have healthy employees, they work harder and take less sick leave.
What is the response from other people when you tell them you are from Luxembourg?
We go to 24 marathon expos every year. We go to New York, Kyoto, Paris, we have a booth to show we’re Luxembourg. The reaction is mostly, ‘Do I have to bring black money with me?’ It’s a joke. I always say, ‘Listen, Luxembourg is more than just banks, it’s an amazing country.' In New York, we always have a map to show where Amsterdam, Paris and Luxembourg are because lots of people in the US don’t know where Luxembourg is.
But it changes. After each race we’ve so many runners who write to us and say they didn’t realise how beautiful Luxembourg is and we will return. And they do. Our marathon has among the highest population of non-resident runners--70% of the entrants are non-Luxembourg residents. I would say 10% come from over 1,000 km away to run.
If someone said that you were a good ambassador for Luxembourg because of the events you have created, how would you react?
I would be happy and proud. Because I like to talk about this country because I like it. You asked why I don’t live in Luxembourg. There’s no real reason for that. I started in Trier and I like to live there. But I don’t see that border. It’s 30 km away. It’s like living in the north of Luxembourg.
There are Luxembourgers living in Trier. This is why I hate so much the German decision to introduce road tolls. It was the most stupid idea. If they had said it’s not for the border regions, I would have said, ‘OK’. But we live here because we have this mixture of living in Germany and working in Luxembourg, so you take the best of everything.
When was the last time you were proud of Luxembourg and why?
It’s funny, almost every day when I talk to foreigners about Luxembourg, I’m always proud that I’m able to work here. That’s very often.