Photography by Frances Howorth
Sunseeker has announced the death of its founder, Robert Braithwaite, who passed away in the early hours of Thursday, 7 March. He was 75.
Sunseeker CEO Christian Marti announced the news on the UK boatbuilder’s website, writing: “Sadly, in the early hours of this morning, Sunseeker’s founder Robert Braithwaite passed away. Robert was an inspiration to everyone at Sunseeker and to the wider marine industry, recognised as a boating pioneer, a true visionary and someone who changed the face of boating forever. Robert was not only the company’s founder but the father of the ‘Sunseeker family’ here in Dorset, and worldwide through our dealers and clients. He will always live on as the driving force behind our success. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with his immediate family.”
One of the most influential marine industry figures of his generation, Robert Braithwaite grew Sunseeker from its humble beginnings as a small Poole-based boat dealer into the biggest motor yacht brand in the world.
Known for his modesty and tireless work ethic, he was just as comfortable sweeping the carpet of Sunseeker’s boat show stand or polishing one of his boats as he was shaking hands with celebrities, many of whom bought boats from him over the years.
In 1969, Braithwaite struck a deal in which he acquired the moulds of the liquidated Owens Cruisers to be used as the foundation blocks of what would eventually become Sunseeker at the Poole Powerboats shipyard.
He towed the first two completed Sovereign 17s, a 17 foot sports boat, to the 1971 London Boat Show and promptly sold them for £1,500 each. His brother John Braithwaite joined the company the following year, helping to develop a growing range of boats including the Sports 23 and Daycab 23, and going on to become Sunseeker’s design director – a role he only retired from last year.
Robert then invited racing legend Don Shead to design a sporty new range of boats targeting the Mediterranean market. “We were still a small company and he was the world’s leading offshore powerboat designer. At the time we didn’t have any money, so we offered him royalties instead,” the Sunseeker founder recalled in a later interview.
Shead agreed and the relationship evolved into most successful and enduring partnerships in British boatbuilding. The first product of this collaboration was a 28ft offshore sportscruiser which Robert felt deserved a more exotic name.
“I wanted to create a brand name that would become synonymous with powerboating. I wanted us to become the Hoover of the boat world so we drew up a list of potential names and picked Sunseeker,” Robert explained.
Sunseeker rose to prominence with the production of the Renegade 60 in the nineties, the yard’s first production boat with twin jet drives, and the Predator 80, which set a new benchmark in luxury yachting.
Sunseekers have stolen in the scene in at least four James Bond films, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, Die Another Day and The World is Not Enough.
Today, Sunseeker International employs a team of over 2,500 designers, engineers and master craftsmen supported by a worldwide network of over 120 retail and service locations, exporting an estimated 150 yachts a year to more than 74 countries.
He’s not the sort to brag about it, but Robert Braithwaite CBE is known in the yachting community as The Man with the Golden Touch. It’s an appropriately Bond-esque moniker for an industry veteran whose boats have starred in the last four 007 movies (Braithwaite himself even managed a cameo in Quantum of Solace), but it’s not for this alone that the silver-haired Brit has earned his reputation as a maritime Midas.
For the last half-century Braithwaite has steered Sunseeker from strength to strength, apparently immune to the perils and pitfalls that have beset his industry rivals. He has transformed his company from a small family firm into a multi-million-dollar global brand with a reputation that’s off the scale and sales figures to match. And like the company he runs, Braithwaite appears to be getting better with age. While the recent economic crisis swamped rival manufacturers – and sunk some completely – Sunseeker surfed the wave to enter the new decade with order books full and an export market that has its sights firmly set on the Pacific Rim.
The story of Braithwaite’s rise to greatness begins in 1959, when at the age of 16 he began working at a motorcar dealership co-owned by his father Idris and family friend John Maklin. The workshop had a sideline in marine engines, and soon the young Robert had become an expert at building and servicing outboard motors.
During the 1960s the dealership relocated and began focusing more on marine craft, changing it’s name to Poole Power Boats after the town on England’s south coast where it was based (Sunseeker continues to operate out of Poole Harbour today, albeit with a somewhat larger turnover).
Up until then the firm had only ever sold boats built by others. All that changed in 1969, when American boatbuilder Owens, who the Braithwaites represented, announced they were shutting up shop in the UK.
Spotting an opportunity, Braithwaite, then 26, took it upon himself to raise £5,000 (AU$8,800). It doesn’t sound like much now but back then it was enough to buy out Owens’ UK operation. With the close of the deal, Poole Power Boats was in the boatbuilding business.
It was a steep learning curve, but business went well and Poole Harbour Boats expanded over the years to become the brand now known the world over as Sunseeker.
Today it is an industry giant in every sense of the word, employing some 2,300 workers from its massive headquarters in Poole, and boasting an annual turn over in the region of AU$550 million. If building high-performance luxury motoryachts is meant to be a niche business, someone forgot to tell Robert Braithwaite.
In an exclusive interview with OCEAN at the 2010 London Boat Show (where, in keeping with his Midas touch, he unveiled a special edition gold-painted Sunseeker Predator 108), Braithwaite underlined the importance of the fast growing Pacific Rim market.
“The Pacific Rim region has taken 32 Sunseeker boats per year for the last two years despite what is going on with the economy,” he says.
“Australia in particular has been a good and very steady market in the 12 years we’ve been exporting there. Many customers are moving up from one boat size to another, and of course new buyers are always coming to the brand.”
Such is the demand for Sunseeker yachts Down Under that Sunseeker Australia, headed by Alf Barbagallo, was recently awarded the coveted industry accolade “Worldwide Distributor of the Year” – for the fifth year in a row. But the brand is expanding elsewhere too.
“China is also showing a lot of market growth. The Chinese are very brand aware, associating the Sunseeker name with success. The exposure generated by having our boats in films, particularly the James Bond movies, has really helped expand the market.”
Braithwaite knows better than anyone though that it takes more than Hollywood razzle dazzle to sell a yacht. Every market varies, and demands a different approach.
“Different cultures have different views about boating as with everything else, and we always try to take that into account,” explains Braithwaite. “Japan, for instance, is just not a country where boating is going to become really important. We sell about two boats a year there. Equally India is behind the rest of the world when it comes to boating. To Indians water is sacred so the construction of marinas, an essential ingredient of a healthy yachting community, is going to be difficult there. It will happen, but it will take time.”
Braithwaite is now 67, suntanned and in fine health. While no longer on Sunseeker’s main board (he recently stepped down in order to focus more on customer relationships and brand strategy) he is not ready to rest on his laurels just yet.
“There will come a time when I no longer wake up with a passion for my job, a desire to get down to the workplace and get stuck in,” he says. “But until that day comes I will continue to do what I enjoy.”
In the meantime Braithwaite continues to make changes to his company, conditioning it to ride out whatever challenges the economy may throw at it and ensuring the Sunseeker brand stays where he likes it – ahead of the pack. Included in those changes is the introduction of fresh talent, such as Sunseeker’s new chief operating officer, Stewart McIntyre.
“Stuart has a brilliant track record in improving operations in entrepreneurial companies such as ours,” says Braithwaite. “In a short period he has already made a big impact on the way we manage our business.”
While the industry’s finest talents will always find a berth at Sunseeker, the company remains a family affair to its core and Braithwaite intends to keep it that way. Asked if he has ever considered selling out to the corporate brand raiders who frequently come knocking on Sunseeker’s door, his response leaves nothing in doubt.
“We’ve been approached many times, and I’ve got so fed up with it I never bother to even consider the concept anymore. Sunseeker is a family-run company, and while in years to come that family ownership will inevitably be diluted it will stay very much the same corporate vehicle it has always been.”
Like any family man, Braithwaite looks after his own, and even through the most difficult financial times his staff have benefitted from the growth of the Sunseeker dynasty. While rival yacht builders were forced to lay off staff during the economic downturn, Sunseeker actually took more on. According to Braithwaite, if one includes sub-contractors it’s not unusual to have 4,400 people working on sites controlled by the company at any one time.
On the subject of staff, Braithwaite strongly denies rumours that his firm has lost personnel to rival builder Palmer Johnson, who recently opened production facilities close to Sunseeker in Poole. “I wish Palmer Johnson every success,” he says. “But it is not true that we have lost staff to them.”
This is not surprising to hear, as the skills needed to build Sunseeker’s composite yachts differ from those required to build yachts from aluminium. However it might have been a different story had Braithwaite not decided to shelve plans to design Sunseeker’s latest large yacht line, the Zeus, with an aluminium hull.
“It looked like a good idea on paper,” says Braithwaite of his about-face on the project. “But as we began to explore what it really meant in terms of manufacturing, it just didn’t make sense.”
Sunseeker got as far as lengthy talks with a Dutch hull builder (which Braithwaite refuses to name) about construction of the aluminium craft, but found that the figures didn’t add up in terms of presenting end value to the customer. Having a buyer lined up for each boat prior to building has always been a priority for Sunseeker, but if the aluminium project was dropped due to lack of client interest Braithwaite is not letting on.
“With the great strides forward in composite technology I am confident that we can build up to 50 metres using the same manufacturing processes,” he says. “We have men who know how it works, we have designers who understand the stresses and strains involved, so we can safely say that the Zeus line of yachts will no longer be built of aluminium but will be in composite instead.”
Aluminium or not, the Zeus range will see Sunseeker crossing the 150 foot (46 metre) barrier. Like all yacht’s in the company’s line up the Zeus will be series-built yet have only one fixed aspect – the base hull construction – allowing owners plenty of opportunity for personal customisation.
The first Zeus has been ordered by Formula One magnate Eddy Jordan, whose current yacht The Snapper, a Sunseeker 37, is currently the largest in the range. Braithwaite says of Zeus, “This is an exciting development in the history of our company because these yachts simply know no boundaries. They will follow the same proven platform of hull design and engine configuration but after that it’s all down to the owner. We can alter everything from plumbing, air conditioning and even cabin boundary walls to build the owner’s dream.”
Sunseeker already has a full order book, with contracts through to the end of 2012 for its 34 and 40-metre yachts, as well as the new Predator 130. With Zeus in the pipeline things are set to get even busier for the employees at Poole Harbour. Just like the gleaming hull of that special edition Predator 108, the future’s looking golden for the man with the Midas Touch.