Big boat shows are heady places filled with people who are professionally good-looking. As part of their marketing pitches, some boatbuilders pepper their displays with models who quite literally make the brand that much more attractive. Many of the major builders use this technique, with the marked exception of one.
If you go to a Riviera Yachts display and board the new 78 Motor Yacht or 645 SUV, you’ll likely be met by a young man with thick wrists, scruffy stubble and the unassuming air of a mechanic. Often because he is a mechanic. These young men (and, increasingly, young women) are part of Riviera’s apprenticeship program, a cornerstone of the brand, which is one of the most successful in the marine industry.
“We like to use apprentices instead of models,” says Riviera chairman and owner Rodney Longhurst. “Cabinetmakers, electricians and shipwrights [are better] because they are there to share their stories. And of course they have a wealth of information for the customers. Who better to answer a technical question than the people who actually build the boats?”
The approach pays off in dividends for Riviera and its customers, who are privy to a deep understanding of the boats in which they are interested. However, the benefits are two-fold, Longhurst says, and go beyond just helping the company. “It is really good for these young people’s life skills to interact with the owners,” he says. “We want them to meet the customers and understand that this is what happens to these beautiful boats after you build them. This is who buys them, and these are the people whose lives and families you will affect. It helps them get a more complete understanding of the depth of the thing they have helped to create.”
Longhurst is passionate about Riviera’s apprenticeship program. One of Australia’s most successful businessmen, Longhurst himself was an apprentice in the marine industry. “I started in the boat business as a teenager as a carpenter and a joiner,” he says. “And I consider myself very fortunate to have had the mentors and the trainers that I did because they taught me so much. In particular, there was one older English gentleman — he was 65 and I was 16 — and he was great with all the older tools, so I got to learn that skill from him. I worked alongside some other excellent craftsmen as well, in engineering and the technical side of joinery, so I had very diverse training when I was younger and really got to understand the true meaning of boatbuilding.”
For Longhurst, the human element in boatbuilding is important, even as the industry becomes more and more mechanized. “Understanding how to build boats will always be important,” he says. “Machines are doing more and more, but they certainly can’t do it all.”
Longhurst’s apprenticeship was not part of the Riviera’s program, which CEO Wes Moxey founded in 1993 and was expanded to include school-based apprenticeships in 1996. At that point, Riviera was coming face-to-face with the fact that there was a dearth of Australians with the skills to cut it in the global boatbuilding industry. Moxey ascertained that the best and most efficient way the company could grow along the proper trajectory was to offer world-class training from the bottom up.
Riviera searched local schools for students who had distinguished themselves through academic achievement, athletics or extracurricular activities, and offered them the chance to train under some of the most skilled craftsmen in the marine trades. The plan worked. Not only did an overflow of young talent soon fill Riviera’s facilities, but the exposure to successful adults and a healthy company also helped the youngsters to focus more acutely on their own futures. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is a hallmark of the apprenticeship program.
Riviera has graduated 400 apprentices, 80 percent of whom have stayed within the company, reaching management positions and keeping their hard-earned know-how in the company. Longhurst has a top-down directive to seek more women for the field. “I am two years into the program,” says Claudia Le Fevre, a second-year upholstery apprentice. “My confidence has grown so much, and I feel that I have more opportunities to progress with my career at Riviera. We are supported every day by people with many years of experience and knowledge in the field. And we also learn so much more about setting goals and leadership, which provides me with the extra knowledge and skills I need to reach my full potential in both my career and in my personal life.”
The results speak for themselves. Riviera has sold more than 5,800 boats in its 42-year history. And more than 900 employees work for the builder, most of them at a 42-acre site in Coomera on the Gold Coast — the heart of Australia’s boating industry.
The company’s success is a point of pride for the apprentices, and that’s by design. “There are so many jobs that any of these young people could have chosen,” Longhurst says. “But when you get a chance to work on Australia’s preeminent motoryacht brand, a brand that builds boats that go all over the world and carry our name with them, that is something our people can really be proud of. You are part of a close-knit team that is truly creating something special, and something that is special around the entire globe.”
Riviera pushes the team concept hard and goes to great lengths to make sure apprentices are doing a job that they enjoy and that is aligned with their interests. Apprenticeships are offered in 11 disciplines, including engineering, upholstery, woodworking and joinery.
“Nearly every aspect of the boatbuilding process is covered by the program,” Longhurst says. “You know what happens if you put someone in a trade or job they don’t want to do. They don’t want to get up in the morning and go to work. And if they do, they are certainly not excited about it. We do not want people that are simply going through the motions of their jobs; we want people who are passionate about what they do. So matching them to their skills has a two-fold benefit in that Riviera gets the best work out of its people, and our apprentices are also happy to be here.”
That holistic approach to running a company — concentrating on the people first — and trusting that the extra care will be reflected in the product is not limited to job assignments. Riviera is also has a program called Propel, which runs alongside the apprenticeships. Propel is headed by Riviera’s senior leadership, including Longhurst and Moxey, and focuses on 12 soft skills that help create leaders in the industry. Apprentices from first- to fourth-year levels participate in the program once a month. Riviera wants people who are as adept outside the boatyard as they are at welding or carpentry.
“We are very focused on encouraging our apprentices to mature not just as workers but as well-rounded individuals,” says Longhurst, who meets monthly with program participants. “Besides the boatbuilding trade, we teach them other important things, like money skills and how to effectively communicate. It’s all about the soft skills here. You can teach someone to be technically great, but if they can’t problem-solve, lead other people effectively or work as a team, we haven’t been doing our job in the manner that we need to be doing it.”
Propel has resonated with apprentices who recognize and value the investment the company is making in them. “We have a great team in engineering, working with each other to make sure the job is done to the highest quality,” says Simon Magnay, a mechanic’s apprentice in his second year with the program. “In the past two years, I have gained a lot more confidence in myself and in my abilities. The Propel program has also taught me a lot about focusing on my life and career goals, and about dealing with people at all levels, whether at work or socially. Open communication also makes for a really positive work environment at Riviera.”
Riviera’s apprenticeship program in its entirety is designed to maximize potential, both for the people who take on the challenge and the builder. As one improves, so does the other. And the results, much like the Riviera apprentices at boat shows, speak for themselves.
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.