Feadship’s outspoken and charismatic CEO Henk de Vries chats to The Superyacht Owner about his rise to the top and his secrets to success.
Being a family business makes sense in shipbuilding
"Feadship is made up of two family-owned companies – De Vries and Royal Van Lent. I am the fourth generation of the former and was pursuing a different career in management strategy and marketing in the 1980s until my father eventually said, ‘Are you joining or not?’ Dutch people are quite modest so I honestly had no idea how tremendously respected Feadship already was; I quickly found out that in the 1980s they had something like 30 per cent market share and were quite profitable. It was an exciting and challenging environment to be in as a young 30-year-old punk, but I’ve changed my hairstyle since then! The good thing about family enterprise in shipbuilding is that the time horizon is long and that matches very well with a product that takes between two and five years to build. It’s a good combination. When you invest in infrastructure, people or machinery you do it with a view to earning your money back over decades. Look at Amels, Benetti or Lürssen – the majority of shipbuilders are family-owned. It makes sense."
Owners are smart people
"Honesty is the most important lesson I’ve learnt in business. Our clients are the smartest people in the world – that’s why they are so rich – and the worst thing you can do is to think you can outsmart them, even if it’s on your own turf."
Custom is the right fit for us
"When we were experimenting with semi-customs in the early 2000s, we found that after two or three, people got bored and started improving the product as we were building it. In series production that’s not smart. The problem was, if we had ignored the improvements they were suggesting, it would have gone against the grain of what Feadship is all about. As a result, we decided to concentrate on custom building and optimise each individual product. We realised we could standardise the process rather than the product and used a consulting group to refine the process of custom yacht building. It was a lengthy and tedious process but it resulted in us being a lot more effective and competitive. Lürssen and Benetti are our main competitors, but we know each other and will have a beer together. However, when it comes to winning clients we will not hesitate to fight each other! If you don’t have competition, you become complacent, you sit still and you die. The fiercer the competition, the more fun it is."
Classic yachts have potential
"I have a classic car collection that has spun a bit out of control – I have 17! It started out as an intelligent way to approach my pension fund in the early 2000s after the Internet crisis in 2001. I bought an old Maserati that has since quadrupled in value – it’s a lot more fun than looking at your stock prices. A few years ago, some of our owners requested that we start a heritage fleet, and when it began it had four owners and it now has 45. However, the potential membership is more than 100. There is no other company that can muster together so many old and different boats. We have invested some money in it – one of my competitors told me they were jealous about it so we pumped it up a bit. One day it could become a profitable part of the business. If they were rebuilt and sold today they wouldn’t immediately make their money back but, as with classic cars, give it time and they just might."
Feadship has plenty to be proud of
"We are as flexible as the Italians but as regimented as the Germans when it comes to process. Our boats are the best quality possible and they also have soul. Our secret is that we have the best workers in the world: our employees have worked with us for an average of 15 years – that translates to about 30 yachts per person, giving us a fantastic advantage. Since I joined there have been a couple of important milestones at Feadship. Firstly, under my tenure, we integrated outside contractors into the company, so we now own the naval architecture firm, the company that does our superstructure work and our interiors firm. Secondly, we effectively doubled the size of the company with the purchase of a facility, previously owned by Amels, back in 2005. I am most proud of the projects that have moved the goalposts: one of them is Venus, largely because of its radical styling but also because it was fascinating to work with Philippe Starck."