In 2003, Italy’s Azimut Yachts committed to the U.S. market by relocating Federico Ferrante from his home country to South Florida. The 30-year-old Italian quickly learned the nuances of bringing foreign-built luxury items to this country.
“In 2003, I was going to car dealerships,” he says. “They told me, ‘If we bring a stock Mercedes here the way it comes in Europe, it will never sell.’ ”
Ferrante says the biggest challenge wasn’t figuring out the differences in electrical systems. It wasn’t making sure the Italian boats complied with American Boat and Yacht Council standards. And it wasn’t making sure they had big enough air conditioning to please American buyers.
“The biggest challenge was to teach the Italians about Americans,” he says. “Anything that can be upgraded needs to be on the boat. Once you understand the consumer, building the product for him or her is much easier.”
Today, Ferrante is the president of Azimut-Benetti USA, and the U.S. market represents 30 percent of revenue for the manufacturer, which exports about 100 boats a year to the United States. Azimut-Benetti USA has three locations in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., including a 4,100-square-foot warehouse with more than $1 million in spare parts.
“It’s almost impossible to quantify, but having that warehouse full of parts was extremely significant,” Ferrante says, adding that having the right personnel in the United States has also been key. “We end up knowing every single customer that our product goes to. For them to have a face with the manufacturer and then see us having a strong relationship with the dealer is critical.”
For dealers that bring boats to this country, the challenges are real, from currency conversion to time differences to language barriers. And the way dealers approach importation can evolve over time.
Azimut brought its first boat into the United States in 1989. A decade later, it entered into a marketing agreement with Sea Ray to become an importing partner. A change in leadership at Sea Ray broke off the agreement, but Azimut’s presence was already established. “Several Sea Ray dealers understood the potential of the product, so we started to establish a dealer network,” Ferrante says, adding that by 2003, Azimut was sending 50 to 60 units per year to the United States. “That’s when we understood we could no longer handle and support the brand from Italy.”
At the factory, boats bound for the U.S. market are built to comply with Coast Guard rules and ABYC standards. Ferrante says there is a U.S. package that includes Glendinning shore power cord retractors, teak decking, upgraded electronics, Miele appliances and 21 kW of air conditioning, compared with the 6 kW offered on boats in Europe. “In Italy 20 years ago, air conditioning on a 50-footer was an option,” Ferrante says. “In those days, each apartment had 3 kW electrical capacity.”
Time and Culture
The primary retailer for Azimut Yachts in the United States is MarineMax, which has 63 U.S. locations. The retailer also imports Galeon and Aquila boats. Chuck Cashman, executive vice president and chief revenue officer at MarineMax, says the challenges of importing boats are far-ranging. Whether he’s dealing with an issue with an Azimut from Italy, or with a Galeon in Poland, or an Aquila or Ocean Alexander from China, patience becomes a virtue.
“If I have a problem develop at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I want an answer, I can’t get it until the next morning,” Cashman says, adding that cultural differences also need to be considered. “The expectations of the American client seem to be beyond the rest of the world. We’re a demanding dealer for a demanding client. We hear that from all the brands.”
For MarineMax, imports represent about 30 percent of sales, and the company doesn’t bring in boats smaller than 40 feet. Cashman says its dealers are “heavily involved” in the specs for boats it imports, and the company has entertained thoughts of buying its own freighter for transporting them.
Like Azimut, Galeon builds an American package into boats bound for MarineMax. The company tells the Polish builder the equipment it wants, and when it comes to maintenance and warranty, if a repair costs less than $500, MarineMax service personnel do not contact Galeon for prior approval.
Before taking on the Galeon line, MarineMax took surveyors and ABYC personnel to the Galeon factory in Gdansk to make sure the facility was building quality boats. “That was our biggest challenge in bringing in a new brand,” Cashman says. “We want to represent a safe boat.”
For its work representing Ocean Alexander, MarineMax set up a service facility in Florida, at one of Sea Ray’s former locations on Merritt Island. Owners go straight to the location instead of working through MarineMax.
Aquilas are contract-built exclusively for MarineMax, which has the rights to sell the 32- to 58-foot catamarans around the globe.
Money up Front
Nautical Ventures imports Axopar boats, which are built in Poland; De Antonio Yachts, with headquarters in Spain; and Highfield tenders from Australia. Nautical Ventures CEO Roger Moore says his business is the top dealer for all three brands. The company also carries the Antares and Flyer series from Groupe Beneteau.
Since taking on Axopar three years ago, Nautical Ventures, which has four locations in Florida, now controls sales for the company throughout the Southeast, according to Moore. Nautical Ventures is also the warranty and parts headquarters for Axopar in the United States.
The boats sell out almost a year in advance, which means dealers need to place orders as soon as slots become available. Nautical Ventures pays up front for each boat it orders, but it orders the outboards directly from Mercury and installs them at the dealership. “It’s a huge financial hoop to jump through,” Moore says. “But we need to have stock boats. If you’re a consumer and you’re dealing with a foreign brand, how much of your money are you going to put at risk?”
Because De Antonio, which builds in Poland, is a smaller company, Nautical Ventures must put down a deposit and make progress payments on boats it orders from that manufacturer. The lead time is about four to six months. Approximately 10 weeks before a boat goes into production, all the specifications must be sent to the builder. If a customer takes a loan on a De Antonio, Moore says, the financing company won’t fund the boat until it’s on U.S. soil.
With the boats from Beneteau, the manufacturer is so large that Nautical Ventures can get credit on the Antares and Flyer brands. While Axopar and De Antonio pay the minimum for warranty work, Moore says, Beneteau is close to shop rates, and Mercury pays the company’s hourly rate.
Tom Caruso, president of Total Marine — with locations in Norwalk, Conn., Stevensville, Md., and Fort Lauderdale at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center — says his company basically handles sales of U.K.-based Fairline Yachts for the entire Eastern Seaboard. “We always liked the boats, and if you look at the way the market’s gone, when you get into the 50-foot-and-up range, there isn’t a domestic builder who does what Fairline, Sunseeker, Ferretti or Azimut do,” he says. “They provide a competitive edge.”
Total Marine has partnered with Fairline since 2002. It pays for the boats in pounds sterling, which means Caruso has to keep an eye on the exchange rate, as well as on the market effects of political changes, such as Brexit. “The biggest challenge is, at some point, whether it’s the manufacturer or the dealer, someone has to worry about the currency exchange,” he says. “So we’re having to insure the sale with forward hedge contracts.”
Caruso says there can be a 10- to 15-percent swing on currency costs. Total Marine also pays import duties and the shipping costs. When a customer purchases a boat, the process starts with a deposit followed by a stage payment when the engines go in. The final balance is due when the boat is completed.
Total Marine brings about six to 10 Fairlines a year to the United States, a number Caruso would like to see increase, but Fairline isn’t a volume builder. “We look at it as a niche market, which is lower volume and high quality,” he says, adding that Fairline has told him it wants the United States to account for about a third of its total global sales.
New Wave Yachts is one of the longest-tenured sailboat dealers in the United States, having started in 1979. It was Sabre’s No. 1 retailer until the Maine-based builder transitioned to powerboats in 2011.
At New Wave’s two Massachusetts locations — Manchester and South Dartmouth — the company also started importing Hanse and Dehler sailboats, two brands owned by the same parent and built in Germany. “We are their largest North American dealer,” company president Robert “Bump” Wilcox says.
The Hanse 45-foot sailboats have become New Wave’s most popular models. The dealer sells about 12 of these boats a year, says Wilcox. The Hanse line ranges from 31 to 67 feet. Dehler builds sailboats from 30 to 42 feet.
Among the challenges that come with importing sailboats from Europe is the time lag, Wilcox says. “There’s a longer build time because there’s about a month of travel from when the boat is finished and when it arrives,” he says.
Douglas Brophy, managing director for Hanse USA, says delivering an imported yacht isn’t any more challenging. “It’s really not a challenge to import boats if you have the right structure in place,” he says. “Each boat is the same, from a logistics point of view.”
Hanse’s parent company also builds Sealine cruisers, Moody sailboats, and Privilege multihulls, which are manufactured in France. Hanse USA has 22 dealers in North America and 19 in the United States. New England has been Hanse’s strongest regional market for sailboats. The company imported about 50 boats into North America last year.
Brophy says he builds delivery to a U.S. port into a boat’s price. Hanse USA purchases its boats in U.S. dollars, so the burden of the currency conversion is carried by the manufacturer. Hanse USA’s goal is to set pricing for a year unless the economy is extra volatile.
Brophy says wholesale financing can be more of a struggle because of the volume. The sailboat market is small, and the number of boats being imported is even smaller. “It’s more challenging to find good dealers, and it’s really challenging for a European builder to find a floorplan company to work with,” Brophy says.
Boats are brought across the Atlantic by either charter sailing or freighters. Transit times are estimated to be 16 days from Germany to Baltimore, and 26 days to San Diego.
Hanse has about 1,500 employees in Germany, Poland and France, with a small staff representing the company in the United States. The German government doesn’t subsidize Hanse, as many U.S. competitors seem to believe.
Despite the challenges dealers that import boats into the United States face, they all agree that it’s good to give American consumers a wider range of choices. “The builders that we deal with refine the product to meet the needs of the U.S. consumer,” Cashman says. “Their commitment to making sure the customer has a great ownership is there.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.