Azimut is 50 years old this year. To celebrate the occasion Paolo Vitelli has co-authored a book entitled Riding the Wave that traces the history of the brand he founded and Italian yachtbuilding in general since the 1950s. Interview with the veteran president of Azimut-Benetti in front of an audience of brokers during the recent Cannes Yachting Festival.
In your book, you say that building the three 100-metre-plus Benetti superyachts was challenging. In what way? And will Benetti continue to pursue the top end of the superyacht market?
It was challenging because we’re accustomed to building up to around 65 and a 100-metre yacht is equivalent in terms of volume to around four of 65 metres, or 20 of 37 metres. So all three of these gigayachts are several times larger than what we’re used to building.
On top of that, we signed the contracts at about the same time and built them in parallel. We had to prepare our technical and construction teams for the logistical challenges of building not one, but three huge and totally different yachts all at the same time, including one with diesel-electric propulsion. So certainly it was a challenge in many respects, but we succeeded also thanks to our CEO Franco Fusignani, who reorganised the company to overcome these difficulties.
The results are three works of art that can easily compare with north European production. Now we have to capitalise on these projects and the know-how we’ve acquired. For sure we want to sell more 100-metre plus yachts, but maybe one at a time!
Italian yacht builders often cite northern European yards as their benchmark in terms of quality and engineering. Should the Italian sector focus more on its own strengths – and weaknesses – and less on comparing itself with competitors in Germany or Holland?
I think we have to distinguish between the market below and above 60 metres, Below 60 metres, and especially below 500GT, Italy is by far the best in the world with around 50 per cent of global production happening here. Above 60 metres we have made inroads and we’ve started probing the market above 100 metres. An ongoing problem for Italy is that the upper end of the market is still dominated by northern European culture in terms of the designers, surveyors, suppliers, crew and even the media. That means that we’re sometimes looked on with a certain prejudice. This may have been justified in the past, but not anymore and it’s our job to convince the market that our products can compete with the best in the world in terms of reliability, quality and customer service.
The new generation of potential yacht owners has different ideas about ownership and how to spend their money or leisure time. How can we continue to attract future clients to yachting?
Generational habits change, but I don’t believe the pride associated with owning a yacht will go away. Having said that, we have to consider the different priorities of future owners now rather than later, as it will affect how they like to use their yachts. The charter business is booming, an indication that yachting is still popular, but also that potential owners perhaps don’t want the hassles associated with outright ownership. Azimut-Benetti has already launched fractional ownership schemes and charter initiatives such as the Azimut Charter Club to reduce costs for the owners. We have to keep an open mind and make ownership easier for future clients if they’re going to feel justified in investing in a yacht.
New materials, technology, sustainability, design… where do you see the principal developments happening in the next five years?
All those areas and more, but eco-friendliness is a vital consideration and will become more important. I cruise the Med each summer and I must say that some of our beautiful coastline is not as pristine as it should be and the industry has a role to play in conserving the marine environment for future generations. And by eco-friendly I don’t just mean fewer emissions, but also lighter and more efficient boats that consume less fuel. I can also reveal that we’re very close to finalising a hybrid propulsion system with Siemens for Benetti and Azimut yachts between 25 and 40 metres that will provide energy savings of 15 per cent combined with silent cruising.
The superyacht industry is sometimes criticised for being based on artisanal as opposed to industrial production processes. How do you create the ideal balance between craftsmanship and efficiency, quality and cost?
Yachts built purely by artisans are a thing of the past and I’m proud to say that Azimut-Benetti is a fully industrialised company. We’re both a custom builder and a high-volume production builder that relies on research and development, high-tech construction methods and worldwide service. On the other hand, in Italy much of the outfitting still relies on handcrafting skills from furniture makers to leather workers. So I think we offer the best of both worlds: the quality and cost advantage of industrial production along with the added value that only Italian craftsmanship can provide.
There have been rumours that Benetti is for sale, possibly to Chinese interests. Is there any basis to these rumours and, if not, under what circumstances would you be prepared to sell?
Let me be clear: I’m not prepared to sell Benetti under any circumstances. Full stop. I cannot deny that in 2007 I received an offer for the entire group for 1.7 billion euro, which I refused. The word got out two or three years ago when I received an interesting Chinese offer for Benetti just when construction of the gigayachts was starting and we were undergoing management changes. Again I said ‘No’ and that decision still stands.
Which entrepreneurs, thinkers or disruptors from outside the industry have influenced you the most?
My father was an early influence, for sure. I remember he was disappointed when I wasn’t performing so well at school and suggested I could become a manager for the national telephone company. His lack of confidence in me was a driver when I decided to set up my own company, and when I presented Azimut’s first balance sheet he was very proud.
More recently and on the recommendation of Marco Valle [Azimut Managing Director] I read Shoe Dog, a memoir by Nike’s Phil Knight. He started the company from scratch with $50 and I started Azimut with 50,000 old Italian lire, which was about the same amount. I found the book fascinating and that we have something in common. He basically says that success is based on overcoming adversity through determination and teamwork; I can vouch that these are the exact same factors behind the success of Azimut-Benetti.
Where would you like to see Azimut-Benetti in the next five years?
Of course, I want to be the leading large yacht brand in the world and so on, but I also want to continue being a successful family company with a strong management team. For that purpose and before stepping down I would like to create a system whereby the management can share in the success of the company.
In terms of product development, innovation and sustainability we’re working on our new 37-metre steel-hulled cruiser B.YOND project, which fits into the size bracket of the Benetti composite range but has a very high volume of around 450 gross tons. Designed to travel the world in an eco-sustainable way, it will be equipped with a hybrid Siemens propulsion package and have a huge range of up to 10,000 nautical miles depending on the drive mode. We also have a 44-metre version in development.
Over the past 50 years, what has been your proudest achievement, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, if I can pass on the reins to my daughter Giovanna without drama, without selling the company, without major restructuring and without asking the banks to intervene – as most of our competitors have had to do – then that will be quite an achievement. On a more personal level, two years ago I was awarded the first Carlo Riva Award as entrepreneur of the year. I’ve received many awards in my life, but this one was special because it was voted unanimously by my main Italian competitor, the Ferretti Group, and usually we loathe each other!
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