Leadership from Generation to Generation

Over four decades, few left a bolder mark on boat brands and boatbuilders than Jean-François de Prémorel
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In July, Jean-François de Prémorel died of a brain tumor at age 64 after an extraordinary career in boatbuilding. He left behind a cohort of colleagues who, together, shaped key segments of Groupe Beneteau brands Jeanneau, Prestige and Lagoon.

I spoke recently with one of his colleagues, Erik Stromberg, who moved from the United States to France 15 years ago to work for de Prémorel, who was head of Jeanneau at the time. Stromberg, age 29, had been managing customer service for Paul Fenn at Jeanneau’s Annapolis office for six years, and with de Prémorel’s encouragement was already a frequent visitor to represent what he and Fenn felt the American market needed.

“I still remember when I first met him,” Stromberg says. “He strolled into our office with Nathalie, his wife. He exuded an optimistic, positive energy that was contagious.”

Stromberg says de Prémorel wasn’t the kind of mentor who told workers what to do. Instead, de Prémorel surrounded himself with intelligent people, not all of whom always agreed with him, and made clear that the way to learn was by watching.

“Being in that room taught me a lot about how to interact with people,” Stromberg says. “I didn’t learn anything particularly technical, but I learned how to be a team player, how to interact, when to push and when to encourage.”

In Jeanneau product development, Stromberg worked closely with Patrice Crepeau, design manager for sailboat projects. The pair got on well, despite a big age difference, but it wasn’t always easy given their different perspectives. Yet de Prémorel had confidence in both and did not micromanage, although he could sometimes pick on a small detail, Stromberg says, and spend all afternoon discussing the correct diameter for a rudder shaft.

Indeed, de Prémorel was an industry leader who had an outsized impact on the French multihull scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s, building racing catamarans for the rich and famous, and for cinema. He launched Jeanneau Techniques Avancées (JTA), a high-tech division that built several record-setting ocean multihulls. While there, he started Jeanneau’s Lagoon catamarans, which later became the largest catamaran line in the world. In time, he also left his imprint on a slew of Jeanneau sailboats and Prestige Yachts models.

Stromberg says being a creative thinker in a large corporation was sometimes difficult for de Prémorel: “Left to his own devices, he would probably rather mold boats than work on strategic planning.” He remembered de Prémorel as sometimes smiling and saying ironically that he had become a “company man.”

But then de Prémorel would arrange to disappear for a month to race across the Atlantic, usually sailing with only one other person in his crew (and often winning).

For sure, de Prémorel was first and foremost a sailboat racer, Stromberg says. His racing mentality was a driving force, always about resource management and small adjustments to make you go faster; he brought that filter to every decision.

Also like many sailboat racers, it was never “us vs. them,” Stromberg says. Yes, you would compete, but the minute you stepped off the boat, you’d go have a drink. Strong relationships through the industry were how de Prémorel gained his vision for the market, synthesizing information and identifying trends.

According to Fenn, one example of this technique was designing “deck saloon” models with more light and volume. They completely changed Jeanneau’s direction in 2003. Even today, Fenn says, everything has a hint of that boat’s signature “cat-eye” window drawn by Vittorio Garroni, a de Prémorel friend and colleague whose firm has designed all the Prestige models.

Stromberg says the Sun Odyssey 54DS was a huge financial risk — the largest sailboat the company had built. “We went to Miami in 2004 and sold nine of them,” he says. “We rode the success of DS models for a decade, and built 330 of the 54s.”

In the same year, de Prémorel launched the Prestige 46, a flybridge model that was bigger than most boats in Jeanneau’s market. It helped pave the way for Prestige to become its own brand and expand internationally.

I asked Fenn why de Prémorel wanted a young American guy like Stromberg in France, and he said, “Erik is a walking, talking encyclopedia — a self-proclaimed boat geek who knows every screw in every model. What’s unusual is that he can also articulate it. At one dealer meeting, Erik did such a magnificent job talking about the details of the new boats, Jean-François came to me and said, ‘Paul, I have a bad subject to talk to you about. ... I need Erik Stromberg in France. We have nobody there who can present the product like him.’”

Stromberg says he tries to bring the same high level of passion for the client and the product as de Prémorel did, and has tried to surround himself with the same kind of high-caliber people. “I try to bring respect for everybody,” Stromberg says of his leadership philosophy. “One of the advantages of being an American is that we’re wired a little more optimistically than the French. I try to bring a positive, goal-oriented viewpoint, the kind of energy that I know Jean-Francois had from his culture and also his years in the U.S.”

In moving from Jeanneau to Prestige, Stromberg realized the sail and power markets were radically different, so he immersed himself with Prestige dealers, at shows and at owner events to learn what the customers valued. The new X-Line is the result of Stromberg’s market research and collaboration with Garroni Design. The project, starting with a 70-foot crossover-type model, was begun after de Prémorel’s retirement and follows trends in much larger yachts.

Stromberg still directs product development for the Jeanneau sailboat division even as he works for Prestige and, recently, a large number of Groupe Beneteau brands. Stromberg admits that after 12 years at Jeanneau, he’s had to learn how to let go, but he also feels he has found the kind of relationship he’s always wanted with someone he has confidence in.

Stromberg will tell you that he doesn’t have the same vision as his mentor, but with de Prémorel’s passing, he recognizes the generational shift taking place.

“When I was the young guy starting in,” he says, “Jean-François was the visionary, and he was the same age that I am now, 45. When I look around at my team, they have the perspective that I had then.”

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.

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