Written by Charlotte Thomas
10 September 2021
Competing with the big boys of the motor yacht world, particularly in the highly contested 50- to 100-foot range, can be a considerable challenge. For accidental boatbuilder Iain Smallridge – ex-captain and founder and Managing Director of Pearl Yachts – that was a challenge worth taking.
The result is a boutique line of highly acclaimed flybridge yachts that have become as famous for their interior designs as for their irresistible quality-to-price ratio and, more recently, their industry-leading, five-year warranty.
Launched during the 2021 Cannes Yachting Festival, the Pearl 72 fills the gap between the 62 and the 80, and comes with a handful of innovative features for her class, including two master suites – one forward and one amidships, running the full beam of the yacht.
There are also two guest ensuite doubles, a cabin for the crew, and a full garage that can take a tender and a jetski. The flybridge extends nearly the whole way over the aft deck to maximise space, while the sunroof offers three modes – full shade, adjustable louvres or full sun.
The Pearl 72 also sees the introduction of a new Kelly Hoppen interior style – a feature for which Pearl has become well-known. The new style, called Indulgence, is based on New York City urban living and draws on onyx marble, metal details and timber veneers.
Ocean went in-depth with Smallridge to find out what’s next for this fast-evolving British brand and when we might see Pearl in Australasia.
Ocean magazine: You started your nautical career as a captain, what led you to become a boatbuilder?
Iain Smallridge: While skippering, I decided I wanted to build a boat. So I convinced a boat enthusiast ex-employer to invest in a 50-foot Colvic Craft Sunquest 50 motor yacht, complete with engines and wiring but with no internal fit-out. He owned a high-quality joinery company, so the idea was I would manage the fit-out and then we would charter the boat with me as skipper.
We did a proper job on the interior, to the extent that Colvic asked to use our boat for a feature in (UK magazine) Motorboats Monthly. As a result, Colvic sold several more Sunquest 50s, but people wanted them complete so Colvic asked us to do the fit-outs.
We stumbled into it, really – we sold our first boat and bought another, becoming boatbuilders quite naturally. The next step was buying the assets of a brand called Humber for the development of the original Pearl 41, Pearl 43 and Pearl 45.
How has the company evolved over the past two decades?
In 2003 we attracted investment from Margaret and Tony Whittaker, keen boaters with a passion for business who are still our owners today. Since their investment, I’m pleased to say we’ve enjoyed steady progress.
We commissioned naval architect Bill Dixon in 2005, which was the start of what was to become a long-term relationship with the Dixon Yacht Design studio.
First came the Pearl 55, which evolved into the Pearl 60. Next, we developed the Pearl 75 and a range of other models followed.
Manufacturing in the early days took place in the UK and we had solid volume and turnover, thanks primarily to the Pearl 60, of which we eventually built some 26 units.
The 2008 financial crisis changed our business model for the better when we decided to subcontract the manufacturing and use our experience to project manage. We’ve been successfully working with our partner-yard in Asia for seven years.
How have you developed the models to appeal to a broader market, and where are those key markets now for Pearl?
In the early days, our core market was Northern Europe. Since then, the Balearics and the western Mediterranean have become a strong market for us.
We’ve been working over the last four years to develop the US market. We know it’s huge and has a different economy from us generally – it’s all part of balancing the global regions – but we’re now reaping the rewards. We’ve just sold four units in the US in the last four months and they’re placing orders for new models for next year.
There are other markets we want to develop, too, such as Australasia and the Middle East and we’re looking for suitable sales partners in order to achieve that.
What about the brand name – why Pearl?
The name was born in 1998 when we first started out – we wanted to create the jewel of the sea. We never wanted to be a run-of-the-mill or budget builder; we’ve always aspired to build quality yachts. The Pearl name reflects that.
What degree of customisation can you offer clients?
We offer various layout and cabin configurations, and we can adapt the saloon layout. In addition, we offer a wide range of interior design schemes, which are all created by renowned British designer Kelly Hoppen CBE.
How did that partnership with Hoppen come about, and how does that work in terms of interior options?
When we designed the Pearl 75 back in 2014, it was to be our new flagship. We wanted something that was really different. All the boatbuilders at the time copied each other’s interior design with variations of the same theme – and still do to a degree.
Around that time I was introduced to Kelly’s designs. I love that they are contemporary without being too modern. I could see it was classy and would lend itself well to yacht design.
She had already designed a couple of bigger, one-off yachts that were fabulous, so we decided to commission her. It’s something we’re always complimented on.
We offer three or four different Kelly Hoppen styles and it’s one of the things we’ve become renowned for over the years – our interiors are spectacular.
Presumably, that means new models are also offered with variations on the core interior design schemes?
With each new model that we develop, we tend to develop a new Kelly Hoppen interior style because fashions do change. The new Pearl 72 comes complete with a new interior design style.
Having three or four styles, customers literally just have to say A, B or C and we do the rest – the styling covers everything from the wall linings and joinery down to the bed covers, the scatter cushions and accessories. It’s perfect: customers get a designer boat without having to put a lot of time and effort into it.
How do you see the Pearl range evolving, and what impact has the pandemic had on the business?
To win market share, we have to do something exceptional – offer more space, more unique features and a competitive price. That will be very apparent with the 72, which comes hot on the heels of the success of the Pearl 62 – the only boat in its class to offer four guest cabins plus a garage or crew cabin. After that, we have more models in the 20- to the 40-metre range, which will be introduced over the next couple of years.
We have doubled turnover in the past 12 months, partly because we introduced the 62 and partly due to our success in the US. We’ve got a great order book through to 2022, which has allowed us to develop new models and the dealer network.
We’re a family business – we’re not owned by a big corporation, we’re privately and positively funded and have no debt, so we’re in a strong financial position. But that also means we have to manage the business within those parameters.
You hinted at the potential of the Australasian market – do you have plans to get Pearl into Australia?
We’ve had lots of interest from Australian buyers over the years. That’s why we’re looking for a suitable partner to offer first-class sales and after-sales in Australasia, further internationalising and broadening the Pearl brand.
It takes time to gain customers’ confidence, but it does come as long as the product meets expectations – and Pearl offers volume, space, features, after-sales service and a competitive price.
Among those features, what do you consider are the key Pearl USPs?
We’ve become renowned for Hoppen’s interior designs and the naval architecture by Bill Dixon – the boat has to be able to perform with solid seakeeping.
We look at the market and try to make sure we incorporate the best of what others are doing as well while adding a few elements of our own. I’m an ex-captain, which means I make sure we’re offering a boat that is beneficial to owners – not gimmicks that have no tangible benefit.
Beneficial features could be an extra cabin or the way the beach club is designed, or a fold-out platform that increases space. The 95, for instance, has a foredeck lounge, a full-beam master cabin and a beach club. The 62 has four guest cabins and a garage, and a huge flybridge.
We are a low-volume, high-quality builder. Our price-to-quality ratio is unbeatable, with even better after-sales service and an industry-leading warranty.
Yes, you offer a five-year warranty – when and why did you start doing that?
We started it three years ago to emphasise our confidence, both in the quality of the product and in our after-sales – the fact that we only build around 10 to 15 yachts per year means we can spend more time on after-sales and service.
It’s become an attractive feature to buyers, and helps maintain residual value, which in turn adds to desirability.
You have just launched the new model, the Pearl 72 – what will the next addition to the Pearl Yachts line-up be?
Yes, the new Pearl 72, will fill the gap between the 62 and the 80 with a handful of innovations for its size. Following that, we have other models in development, which will be announced in due course – watch this space!